Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Tale of Two White Truffle Dinners (food)

It was the best of times, it was... that's about it. Really hard to go wrong with two different white truffle tasting dinners that each cost less than the average white truffle shavings supplement at most good restaurants in Manhattan.

The first dinner was Trufflepalooza at Locanda Verde. A one night only event featuring a three course white truffle menu for $49.99. It was my first time at Andrew Carmellini's popular TriBeCa Italian eatery.

The service:
When I first called to make a reservation, I inquired about whether we would be able to order off the regular menu. I was skeptical whether a three course dinner light on meat protein would be sufficient, and was surprised when the answer I got back was "no". When we actually got to the restaurant, we found out we could actually order off the regular menu. Unfortunately, they were still not particularly flexible when it came to ordering. We had 3 people, and two of the regular menu items we wanted had two portions to an order. They refused to make a third portion of either even though we offered to pay for the extra. In the end we just ordered one of each and found our own way to share.

Also after getting to the restaurant, we had to wait about 20 minutes for our 10:30pm reservation. One other misstep was that by the time we had finished our late dinner, they had thrown out all the hard copies of the truffle menu. As for the rest of the service, it was fine. Water was replenished, but it was not always easy to get our server's attention. I thought the runners did a very good job though.

The ambiance:
It was dark and loud, with a busy, trendy vibe. Perfect for that neighborhood. Not perfect for me when I'm there for a special dinner after having not eaten anything for 10 hours. It was noisier than what I would normally consider a good buzz for a restaurant. I was beginning to worry about whether the food would really be excellent, or more like "pretty good for the scene", like at John Dory.

Truffled focaccia. Warm and full of truffle flavor. The aroma was delightful. We had seconds.

BLUE CRAB CROSTINI WITH JALAPENO AND TOMATO The first of our regular menu items, and one of their signatures. Notice how it was cut in two but they wouldn't cut it into thirds? This was bursting with fresh crab flavor and the jalapeno added a very nice kick. A lovely starter of harmonized concentrated flavors.

LAMB MEATBALL SLIDERS WITH CAPRINO AND CUCUMBER The second of our regular menu items, this had wonderful concentrated lamb flavor. It may be too much for some, as it borders on gaminess and funk. The goat cheese enhanced it with another powerful flavor while the cucumber provided a nice, relaxing contrast. Another lovely starter of harmonized deep flavors.

FEATHER RIDGE FARM EGG WITH POLENTA AND PORCINI RAGU I'm able to provide full descriptions of our truffle menu because my friend TF was smart enough to photograph the menu. Silly me, relying on the restaurant. Notice the generous amount of white truffle shavings for this first course.

Of course, the breaking of the egg. To me, any egg dish needs to both showcase the richness of the yolk and focus on a strong texture profile. That was definitely accomplished here with the slight crunch of the frisee, the creaminess of the polenta, the ragu, and the well-cooked egg providing a wonderful array of textures.

CARNE CRUDA PIEDMONTESE WITH HAZELNUTS, CELERY, AND FETT'UNTA The other choice for the first course was a tartare. I did not find it particularly appealing as I'm more a fan of the traditional French version. I also did not feel that the truffle enhanced it in any way. I did not try any of the fett'unta (garlic bread).

MY GRANDMOTHER'S RAVIOLI Another signature dish we ordered off the regular menu. Unfortunately, they brought this out to us at the same time as all of our second courses. Since nothing was served particularly hot, something was bound to get cold. The thin skin on the ravioli was nice, but the filling of a beef, pork, and veal mixture did not stand out to me. I also found the sauce slightly too acidic.

PAPPARDELLE VERDE WITH WHITE BOLOGNESE It was originally supposed to be duck agnolotti with artichokes sugo and parmigiano reggiano, but they ran out. This can be ordered off the regular menu (without truffles), and it definitely was enhanced by the truffles. The pasta was excellent and I enjoyed the hearty bolognese sauce. It might have affected my view of the grandmother ravioli.

FONDUTA RAVIOLI WITH CHESTNUTS AND LEEKS The other option for the second course was absolutely wonderful. A traditional preparation of pasta and truffle cheese sauce was enhanced in both flavor and texture by earthy chestnuts and leeks. Home run.

TRUFFLE-HONEY CAKE WITH WHIPPED RICOTTA AND CHAMOMILE GRANITA A sizeable dessert to finish off the meal. I liked the subtle flavor of the cake quite a lot. The combination of cake, ricotta, and chamomile granita went together very well, offering a delightful contrast of temperatures and textures.

WHITE TRUFFLE RISOTTO DOLCE WITH PEAR SORBETTO I did not really try the other dessert option as I'm not really a big fan of risotto or rice pudding.

The second dinner was at Sapori D'Ishcia in Woodside, Queens. They hold their 2011 Truffle Festival from late October until they run out, offering a different four-course white truffle tasting dinner for $60 every Tuesday night. I read somewhere that the owner's father is actually from Piedmont and gets their truffles himself. It was also my first time at this restaurant.

The service:
Pleasant, efficient, and unobtrusive. Although it wouldn't surprise me if this may depend specifically on your server. Note that they only have bottled water, and at the end of the meal, they offered a 10% discount if we paid in cash.

The ambiance:
A pleasant surprise considering it is kind of in the middle of nowhere in a quiet warehouse area in Woodside. It had the feel of a cozy old-school Italian eatery. It was dark, but the restaurant had a nice buzz. At the back wall of the restaurant, they have shelves and a freezer section with retail food items as they are still very much a food market storefront, although I assume that has taken a backseat to the restaurant in recent years.

Bread and olive oil. Plain and simple.

RICOTTINA DI BUFALA, SPEK ALTO ADIGE D.O.P., SMOKED PROSCIUTTO, PEASANT BREAD The first thing that hit me when the dish came was the smell of truffle oil. There were real white truffle shavings, which I felt had a slightly different aroma than the most powerful smell of the dish. Regardless, it was a wonderful dish. The smokiness of the prosciutto paired with the creamy cheese, enhanced by the aroma of truffles. The inclusion of greens and bread helped to round out the spectrum of textures in each bite.

HOMEMADE PORCINI SCENTED FETTUCINE, WHITE TRUFFLE CREAM SAUCE The pasta was absolutely delicious. Perfect texture. Wonderful cream sauce that brought out the truffle aroma and the accent of porcini.

PAN SEARED VEAL MEDALLIONS, RUSTIC POTATO TORTINA, BARBARESCO RED WINE REDUCTION Beautifully cooked, sizeable portions of veal were enhanced by the presence of white truffles. The potato and vegetables were a nice touch to a well composed main course.

VALROHNA COCAO DUSTED CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE, MASCARPONE WHITE CHOCOLATE CHIP GELATO, DRIZZLED WITH WHITE TRUFFLE HONEY I enjoyed the gelato a lot, with that subtle sweet hint of truffle honey. I just wished there was more of it.

The comparison:
Like I wrote at the beginning, you really can't go wrong with either one. The truffle shavings at Locanda Verde were more generous, but it was a more complete meal with bigger portions at Sapori D'Ischia. Also, their truffles have to last for a while longer. Which is another bonus for them in that theirs is still going on, while Trufflepalooza was a one night event.

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