Thomas Keller’s extravagant Per Se is probably the best place in New York to try white truffles.
That’s my best advice after a series of mostly mediocre encounters with this earthy, expensive delicacy.
Keller’s Time Warner Center temple, one of the city’s most expensive venues at $275 per person for a nine-course menu, offers a fantastic “spiked” risotto as a $175 supplement (service included).
That’s less than the Four Seasons, which charges up to $250, or Mario Batali’s Babbo, which charges $300 for its over-the-top truffle tasting menu. (Good luck getting a second date if you go Dutch.)
Unlike caviar, cherished for its delicately briny flavor, or foie gras, with its silken texture and rich mouth-feel, white truffles aren’t typically consumed by themselves. Rather, they’re a supremely expensive garnish. Captains shave them tableside, releasing a pungent, room-filling bouquet as the flakes wilt over warm pasta.
Sometimes they’re sliced in the kitchen, depriving diners of that woody, wild scent in all its intensity.
Perhaps that’s why at Bar Masa my $120 seared wagyu with truffles (about six small bites) had little truffle flavor. The out-of-sight slicing also might explain my disappointment in a $65 pizza at Colicchio & Sons, with its muted flavors and desiccated, oily cheese.
Good truffles should be creamy and tan with brilliant white streaks. At Colicchio, the slivers curled at the edges and turned black as if they’d been broiled on a Pizza Hut sausage-lover’s pie. Truffles and high heat should not mix.
Tableside shaving is also a matter of transparency, similar to presenting your bottle of wine to show that it’s the one you ordered.
There’s no way to tell how much the truffle supplements will cost you at Masa (Bar Masa’s more expensive brother), which charges $450 for a set menu of raw fish.
“The price depends on what dish,” said a receptionist. She couldn’t discuss specific numbers, which is unfortunate since truffles are hardly an impulse buy, especially at a venue where dinner for two will cost $1,200.
Masa is not alone. Great restaurants that print their menus or update their websites every day don’t always list their truffle prices or grams-per-serving. Would you order Champagne from a wine list with no written prices or bottle sizes?
“We don’t eat truffles in restaurants because we can serve them over buttered noodles at home for cheaper,” an Italian friend told me.
Fair point, and maybe why I was startled to learn that was more or less the suggested preparation at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon ($100) and Lincoln ($100).
Ask for a risotto or something else that requires some skill. Restaurants can accommodate. Eleven Madison Park has served white truffles with frogs legs and black trumpet mushrooms, general manager Will Guidara tells me, while a spokesperson for chef Daniel Boulud says the chef could use them to jazz up guinea hen or Dover sole at his flagship.
How about a hamburger? At DB Bistro Moderne, Boulud tops a short-rib and foie gras-stuffed sirloin patty with two layers of truffles. Cost: $97 including the $65 truffle supplement (upon request).
The kitchen-side slicing subdues some of the flavor at DB, but not at Burger & Barrel, a new spot on West Houston. Josh Capon caps a $48 six-napkin blend of chuck, short rib and brisket with enough stinky robiola cheese, truffle aioli and real truffle discs to leave your shirt cuffs stained with meat juices and your fingers reeking.
Truffles can’t always transform ho-hum fare like an underbraised, undersalted, undersauced flatiron steak at Batali’s Manzo. A $129 dish demands perfection. Though I will admit the 21 seconds of perfect shavings made me smile.
Batali knows overindulgence is the point here. Chef George Mendes takes a more frugal approach at Aldea, his excellent Iberian spot. We counted about five seconds of slicing, covering just three-quarters of our risotto, which meant we enjoyed just 75 percent of our $75 dish.
Instead, I’ll get my yearly fix at Per Se’s salon, where the $175 risotto is served a la carte. I’ll watch as the waiter takes a softball-sized truffle out of a jewel box. I’ll count 45-60 seconds as the edible gold falls over the snowy white grains of rice, almost covering them entirely.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)