During the truffle season, on Saturday mornings most tourists to the region of Piemonte will end up in the town center of Alba to walk the market and see all the Truffalos and their wares for sale. This trip comes with the warnings of locals that never, under any circumstance, should you buy – the prices are ridiculous, most of the truffles aren’t really the truly great ones from Alba, and so on.
By mid-afternoon your head is full of the aroma of truffles and you are hungry for a meal that must in some way involve that pungent scent eager merchants have been wafting at you for hours. What is needed is a kitchen, some simple supplies, and a trustworthy truffle hunter (every local knows one and will introduce/recommend one to you, necessitating that your local acquaintance be of a stature that he can prioritize you amongst the truffle hunter’s real clients -- usually local restaurants specializing in the real Tartufi Bianchi d’Alba which, believe it or not, are not as prevalent throughout Alba as you would think). Alternatively, you can seek out a restaurant that already has this infrastructure in place. If your referring friend is the same as mine (the greatest proprietor of the greatest hotel of all time, Giulio of La Saracca in Monforte d’Alba) you will end up in a basement off Piazza Savona, in a restaurant called Enoclub.
Besides running a simple hotel with more character than any other I know in the world, I list restaurant recommendations throughout the Langhe region as one of Giulio’s strong suits. Wife and I met him when we honeymooned in Monforte d’Alba. After guiding us through a couple of days in his town, Giulio’s parting advice was that for one of our nights in Alba Enoclub was a dependable place where we could find both a good wine list and real Alban truffles. The time we had on that visit was so good that we actually scheduled this day trip to the truffle market mostly to have an excuse to have their tajarin again.
It’s always around lunch on the third day of vacation that I regain a sense of how much food I actually need, and that’s when this meal fell. So in a lunch that can only be called light when vacationing I went with:
Peperone alla fiamma con Bagna Cauda: the classic dipping “hot bath” of garlic, olive oil, and anchovies in this case is puréed and served atop a composed dish of roasted red peppers, steamed cardoons, cauliflower and broccoli florets, and endive leaves. I had almost been convinced that the bad rap anchovies have was deserved in the case of the brown fleshed variety and completely unjust in the case of the white ones. This dish redeemed forever the product, now dooming the producer. If brown fleshed anchovies, which are the primary component here, can be this subtle and well behaved with little more than vegetables and olive oil as a counter someone is doing a bad job of preparing them elsewhere.
Tajarin al burro fusso con Tartufo Bianco d’Alba: the classic long thin strands of eggy noodles typical to the region dressed with fresh butter and showered in shavings of white truffle. I have been told that white truffles with red in their coloring such as the one we were served here grow on the roots of cedar trees. True or not, the markings of these are not dissimilar to a wine-colored birthmark on a beautiful woman and make for even more drama in the presentation. Apart from that, this dish is as simple as can be and something available throughout the region, which is what makes it so hard to explain why this one is notable as good. Maybe the chef has a better command of al dente, maybe he has a better butter source and combines the pasta cooking water more gently when dressing, maybe the locals are right and few guys actually use the superior local truffle, all I know is I have not had a better version of this dish.
Fruit in Moscato Aspice: perhaps because wine is the theme of the restaurant, but this version of this dessert seemed to play up the fact that Moscato is a wine rather than working with its aromas of fruit. The aspic was boozy as if it had been augmented with a spirit; not bad, but decidedly strong.
Enoclub is the type of place I frequent at home in New York. I have been twice in two years and both times the owner and his wife greeted me at the door. Attention is paid to detail and everything is made comfortable without going to far. The restaurant makes great food of the region. Like the places I love here in the city (think Hearth) it seems a place run by people who love what they do and are proficient enough to be successful at it. The lasting impression is that they do it because it is honestly what they want to do rather than because they think it will make them money. If I lived in Alba, much like Giulio I think this is the place I would suggest to people who care more for quality food than pomp or circumstance.