BLACK GOLD A rainy summer in Europe has made this a good winter for black truffles.
Chances are if you've had truffles, it was in truffle oil, which really means you haven't had truffles at all because truffle oil is a cloying, synthetic version of the real thing.
Truffle oil is olive oil mixed with 2,4-dithiapentane, a compound that makes up part of the smell of truffles. It's fake and gross. It's typically used to foul French fries and popcorn in some kind of phony show of luxury. In an excellent article about the truffle-oil scam, writer Alex Mayyasi offers a great quote: "Comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex." Why settle for soiled undies when you can get the real thing?
Napa's La Toque is offering a seven-course black truffle menu featuring the luxurious, earthly flavor of truffles on each dish, including dessert. La Toque chef and owner Ken Frank knows his truffles. This is the 33rd year he's offered the menu. He says a wet summer created a great crop of truffles this winter.
At $200 a person, the meal is a splurge, but it's a great opportunity to experience the truffles in the hands of a talented chef. And it's really quite a value given the quantity of truffles served on the tasting menu.
Truffles like to hang out with other rich and ingredients, so the terrine of foie gras with flecks of truffles on top alongside a truffled herb salad made for a great opening dish, especially with the yeasty foil of the Philipponnat "Royale Reserve Brut" Champagne served with it as part of the $90 wine pairing option. My suggestion: do the pairing.
The simplest dish on the tasting menu was the tajarin, an insanely rich and creamy pasta dish made with a surfeit of egg yolks. Truffles love eggs, and the aromatic flavors of the fungi really came alive in this dish.
Truffles are an aphrodisiac. Adding some soft lighting and wine tips the scales even further. La Toque sommelier Richard Matuszczak selected wines that complement truffle's earthy qualities. Matuszczak brought each new wine to the table with a quick discussion of why he chose the wine for its respective dish, an interaction that not only made drinking the wine more pleasurable, but helped me see the dishes through the eyes of a sommelier and better understand the interplay of flavors.
Of particular note was the 2006 Miner wild yeast Chardonnay served with the tajarin. The wine's age and interaction with wild yeast softened its buttery propensities to create a wonderfully complex and nuanced wine was a perfect match for the luxuriously rich truffled pasta.
Barolo is a classic pairing with truffles and the 2007 Cascina Dardi Bussia from A&G Fantino did not disappoint—big, juicy and deeply aromatic. Served along side the albufera sauce-napped boneless chicken leg, it was an outstanding match.
My second favorite dish was the last one—truffled pot de crème. Like the tajarin, truffles are at their best when their flavor and aroma are suffused into a creamy medium, be it sweet or savory. Each spoonful of this satiny, pudding-like dessert was testament to the sensual appeal of truffles, cream and eggs.
La Toque's truffle menu is available for another few weeks, so if you can't do Valentine's Day, don't worry about it. The menu will run as long as truffle season does, generally until early March.