Fine dining in Ladue
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Average Main Course: $25
Reservations: To be sure
Dress: Two-button wool jacket. Weston calf-length tank dress. Need we say more?
Chef: John Griffiths
It’s for those well of heel and blue of hair—or so goes the reputation. And on one visit, early in the evening we were probably the only diners there who hadn’t done the Lindy. It wasn’t long, though, before there were plenty in the place for whom “text” is a verb. The truth is, lots of diners have discovered what’s really going on at Truffles: This is a top-tier eatery. The kitchen is reinvigorated and inventive. The atmosphere is stylish and inviting. Then again, maybe we’re just predisposed to like a restaurant with a cavorting pig for a logo.
The interior glows. A hallway and impressive wine room/cellar separate the bar and dining area. Tables are close: We enjoyably eavesdropped, but it’s comfortable. Toulouse-Lautrec meets Utamaro in a pair of fin de siècle murals that dominate two walls, where Parisian bistro habitués enjoy a night out.
Things get off to a superb start; Truffles will have you at its house-made burrata. It’s basically mozzarella, with a glug of fresh cream dribbled in while the cheese is still forming. It arrives as a plump bundle that spills open when cut, revealing all of that creamy lusciousness. Served with crostini slices and a splash of balsamic vinegar aged in cherry-wood barrels, it’s a dish you might as well order two of if you’re at a table of four. Mussels, bathed in a light aqua pazza (“crazy water”) broth and scented with fennel, are plump and juicy. Salsiccia meatballs enliven a soup of chickpeas and cabbage that’s spiked with Sicilian oregano.
A “warm calf’s tongue salad”? Sounds as appealing as a Regis Philbin Raps CD. This, though, is a seriously delicious salad. The tongue is shaved carpaccio-thin, plated with a scatter of roasted sunchokes, dried tomatoes, and pickled peppers, splashed with—think of it as a sweet vinegar—vincotto.
Among main courses, different each day, animal protein gets a lot of attention. Lamb shoulder is tragically underutilized in local eateries. Given a long braise and served with a simple ragout of charred vegetables, the meat develops a flavor and succulent texture that get all the attention. Much the same can be said for costolette—cutlets—of pork, from the particularly flavorful Duroc breed. A piquant mosto cotto grape syrup plays on the tongue, drawing attention to the porcine goodness of the cutlets. Rosemary-perfumed and served with fragrant fennel stalks, a chicken breast gets a competent bistro-type roasting, though the price ($23) seems a bit dear.
Beef lovers won’t feel shorted at Truffles. The cow that donated its rib-eye dined on grass, giving the steak a mineral sharpness that many carnivore connoisseurs adore. Two weeks’ dry-aging adds to the flavor’s complexity; it is not compromised by any fancy additions besides a wonderfully inventive butter rich with marrow and Sangiovese wine. A classic Florentine-style steak puts nothing between steak and sizzling grill other than olive oil, rosemary, and garlic. Ill-informed jabbering continues about the putative delights of Wagyu beef; the enthusiasms of the ambitiously trendy would be far better directed toward Italy’s Chianina beef. Nero and his Roman pals were eating Chianina; its flavor is still a joy, almost never available here and among the tastiest breeds ever to chew a cud. At Truffles, Chianina short ribs are braised, rendering them exquisitely tender, served with puréed parsnips and a heady grape mosto syrup.
Seafood selections vary with what’s available. A filet of striped bass is cooked white and firm, the skin baked nicely. A buttery, garlicky bagna cauda contrasts the mild fish; it’s presented attractively on a spray of arugula. “Dayboat” scallops are enlivened with a peperonata, fennel-flecked salsiccia, and the herby pungence of sorrel.
Immediately obvious from the menu: This kitchen’s having fun juggling the offbeat and unusual. On a handsome charcuterie board—along with slices of air- and salt-dried beef bresaola, salami, and chicken-liver terrine—is a dollop of quince conserve, a tart sauce that brightens the meat. Sectioned stalks of cardoon, or artichoke thistle, look like celery and taste like a lemony artichoke, and are matched with a fillet of salmon. Black kale, or cavalo nero, has a peppery bite; it’s prepared with garlic and anchovies for a fine side dish. (So, uh, why so few truffles at Truffles?)
From buttermilk panna cotta to a chocolate-hazelnut crostata to a buttery, achingly sweet semolina cake topped with huckleberries and white chocolate, the dessert vita is definitely on the dolce side. If you’re more restrained, go for some of the outstanding dessert cheeses.
Truffles’ cellar must be among the best-stocked in the region. We found an ’06 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône, called by Bobby Parker “the best white Côtes du Rhône the Guigals ever made.” A spectacular bargain is the ’08 Chanson Viré-Clessé chardonnay, perky and crisp. And sure, there are better vintages than the ’04 Bernard Dugat-Py Les Evocelles Gevrey-Chambertin. Pair this beautiful burgundy with those Chianina short ribs, though, and taste the magic.
As for the reputation? If you think of Truffles as an AARP clubhouse, you’re missing some excellent dining.
The Bottom Line: A creative and rewarding Franco-Italian-American menu in a nicely upscale bistro.
“Dayboat scallops” has become one of the hip, new food phrases of the season. Here’s what it means: unlike clams, oysters, and Cubs fans, when pulled up from the murky depths where they live, scallops don’t last long. That’s why they are immediately shucked, the big adductor muscle—the part we eat—is sliced out and kept chilled until they’re delivered to market. Since scallops tend to live a long way from the coast, boats can stay at sea a week or more. When they return to port, obviously, the last scallops caught, called “top catch” or “last catch” will be freshest. And you or the seafood buyer will pay more for them. Dayboat scallops refers to those bivalves hauled up on one-day fishing excursions. Delivered the same day they were caught, they should theoretically be as fresh as it’s possible to get unless you’re diving for them yourself.
Mosto cotto, vincotto, and saba are all riffs on grape juice. Reduce the juice of freshly pressed grapes, along with their skins, stems, and seed, through a long slow cooking and you get saba, a sweet, yet just slightly acidic elixir often drizzled on fruit or even ice cream. Mosto cotto is sometimes an alternative name for saba, especially in northern Italy. It can also be used to describe a version of saba with a more pronounced flavor. Add a little vinegar to saba and you get something like a sweeter version of balsamic vinegar, or vincotto.
Aqua pazza or “crazy water,” is a light broth used for fish dishes, made with fish, olive oil, salt, and cherry tomatoes.