After a hot, dry summer in northern Italy, white truffle season kicked off in early October with a small haul. One importer quoted a wholesale price last week of $2,400 a pound (although this figure included delivery, via FedEx). If you’re still playing, half the fun is to marvel at the prettiness-uglyness of the thing: The white truffle is a homely lump the color of milky diner coffee, with a gorgeous, complicated scent that can turn heads.
After a few soft clicks against a mandolin blade, held at about the same level as your nose, that scent intensifies and wins you over. It’s the reason you’ll pay so much for a fungus that's been dug up from the earth by pigs and dogs.
On my first visit to Vaucluse, the new 170-seat French restaurant in Michael White’s group Altamarea, I ordered a comté crêpe with hazelnuts and truffles, anticipating that aromatically-charged moment. But it arrived already scattered, with three grams of white truffles. There was no show of shaving at the table, no detonation of perfume, nothing. Sure, the crepe was very good, supple and oozing with a cheese sauce and shiny as an evening gown. But the truffle was dry, its flavors weak and dim. It was not up to the task of justifying the $59 expense for a single, cheesy pancake.
On a different evening, I ordered the fresh tagliatelle dressed in butter with tiny threads of ham, which involved a truffle shaved at the table. This time, it felt more like a luxury. The truffle also seemed to be of higher quality. Either way, it was a better experience.
Vaucluse, a decidedly posh French restaurant on the Upper East Side, can be infuriatingly inconsistent. Too often, unreliable service undercuts the kitchen. (On one occasion, it took nearly 30 minutes of sitting with closed menus to get a waiter to take my order).
White is better known for his Italian places, including Marea, Osteria Morini, and Ai Fiori. Vaucluse is his first French-leaning restaurant, which seems in step with the recent wave of young New York-French restaurants having fun with such oldies as duck a l'orange and chocolate souffle. But at times, the serious brasserie can feel less like a reimagining and more like a kind of luxurious regression.
Jared Gadbaw, previously chef at Marea, staged briefly at Plaza Athénée in Paris to gear up for full-on Frenchiness. Some of his dishes are excellent, including the red Camargue rice: slightly chewy and very delicious, served with fat Burgundy snails out of their shells and a load of garlicky butter. The rib-eye, aged under a thick layer of rendered, aged beef fat, is a deluxe steak frites with your choice of sauce. Although no one even asked how I’d like it cooked, it arrived with a perfectly juicy, mid-rare center and a thick, nicely browned crust.
I’m not sure I understand why the duck for two is a dish “for two” when it involves twin plates of sliced breast meat ($46 per person) and a vegetable gratin. But that darkly tender meat, aged for just about three weeks, is exquisite.
Discrepancies appear in other sections of the expansive menu. While the leeks vinaigrette with toasted almonds were brilliant, tender, and bright, the poached egg with red wine jus and lardons involved a thick slice of undercooked delicata squash. One night the skin on the roast chicken was soft and flabby, while the trout with lemon and capers was essentially perfect. The skin on the latter was evenly browned, speckled with tiny pieces of bread crisped in butter.
Vaucluse has been open for only a couple of months, but it can have the feel of an old New York dining room with rotating regulars. In the evening, its soft, cream-colored banquettes are packed with cream-colored people in tweed and tailored wool blazers with knotted silk scarves. Women in designer power suits and massive, glittering cocktail rings eat scallops glazed in brown butter. A small family celebrates a patriarch’s 90th birthday.
When you're finally asked, do order dessert. Alina Martell’s creations lean to the classical, and they’re beautifully constructed and flavored. Martell isn’t the only New York pastry chef to have put a good old Paris-Brest (that ring of choux pastry filled with praline and butter-enriched pastry cream) on the dessert menu lately, but her version is one of the best. The pastry is wonderfully airy and light, crisp at the edges, and the mousseline filling is cold and rich, not too sweet.
While chocolate soufflé is a cliché, here it’s just how it should be served: hot and cooked-through properly, yet steamy and delicately textured.
It’s just the thing in this dining room, all plush and beige and softly lit. Though it doesn’t matter how comfortable the chairs are, no one wants to wait 30 minutes to order dinner.
Vaucluse is at 100 East 63rd Street (Upper East Side); +1 (646) 869-2300 or vauclusenyc.com
Rating: One Star (Good)
Who’s Next to You: Truffle fiends; Old, elegant, wealthy Upper East Siders who like to call scallops, coquilles saint-jacques; Grownup families celebrating a milestone birthday
What to Order: Entrecote with fries ($37); Escargots ($21); Trout grenobloise ($34); Chocolate souffle ($14); Paris-Brest ($12)
Related: The Best Steaks in New York City.
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