SPAGO Lunch + A Pet Peeve

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Pet Peeve time.

When did every upscale Strip restaurant decide it was a good idea to shave raw black truffles on top of things?

Black truffles — the good melanosporum ones from the Perigord region of France — are best when cooked in dishes.

White truffles release their full bouquet when raw. Black when cooked (being less pungent, black needs heat to fully release its aroma).

A shaving of black truffles might impress Mr. and Mrs. Fannypacker from Bumfudge, Utah, but it does nothing for ELV or his staff.

And it doesn’t add much to a dish, except pretension.

And it really didn’t add anything to an otherwise excellent Alsatian tart flambee.

They don’t do this in France, and they shouldn’t do it here. But we swear to god we’ve had the big black truffle shower bestowed upon us at least ten times in the last few months…all to zero effect, except that the restaurant staff(s) (at Jean-George Steakhouse, Sirio, and Sage just to name a few) thought they were impressing us.

But they were only impressing two things upon us: 1) they’re getting inferior truffles cheap; and 2) they think ELV was born yesterday.

Memo to all pretentious restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip: Stop shaving raw black truffles entirely, or learn how to use them for taste, not affectation.

Of course, actually incorporating them into a recipe coming off a kitchen line would be time consuming and very expensive. It’s so much easier to show off by selectively bringing them to certain, anointed tables and making an elaborate presentation of something that, in the end, brings precious little to the party.

Btw: the staff at Spago (whom we otherwise hold in great respect) told us the truffles were from Burgundy(?), which further made us doubt the tuber’s authenticity and functionality. It did smell of truffle, but not enough to make a difference when tasted raw on anything.

Btw #2: The choucroute and the lamb gyro (made with a freshly butchered lamb from Pahrump (Nevada, not France), were both drop dead delicious.

14 thoughts on “SPAGO Lunch + A Pet Peeve

  1. Could not agree more on the choucroute, and who better to put it together the right way than an Alsatian, Eric Klein. He makes those fabulous sausages in house, taking an old comfort classic and layering some wonderful flavors and textures (there is not a dull bite on the plate). Perhaps it is about time the mindset becomes to think of Spago as his place, and not necessarily a ubiquitous link in the Wolfgang Puck chain. Now have to find the time to get over there and try that lamb.

  2. Hear, hear, Mr. ELV! If it doesn’t add something special to the dish, what’s the point? I LOVE me some good quality food, but I’m not into expensive food that is only expensive for the sake of being expensive. Either use the (good quality) black truffle properly or don’t bother.

  3. I love it when eatinglv talks truffle. You know very little about the seasonality of the product and the changes it males throughout that time and if you did know, you would appreciate what you have in december is far more different march appreciate accordingly. I guess your the only idiot in town who sticks his fork in the raw truffle and eats it just like the fanny packer which is why it generally gets presented raw. Ita an appearance of value shouldnt you fold it into pasta served or let it marry with a warm pizza, but no your there to stuff your face right?!

    you know rather than cirticize so much, explain or give a proper recipe for all these chefs since you know so much about truffle. And to say a restaurant uses inferior product because you didnt like the preperation is just ignorance.

    But you gloat at valentinos second rate salumi smelling croatian white truffle, we know where you favortism lies in this town… so take a couple food classes and learn the industry, or just go to NY and get chewed and spit out.

  4. I read your blog from time to time. You have mentioned the bad truffle truffle you have had.
    John Curtas, you’re absolutely wrong, but I can give you the oppurtunity to grow.
    I can’t be responsible for the preperation or a wait staff discription of truffle in this town but I can tell you with all confidence that Las Vegas Chefs are choosing the BEST truffle that money can buy. I stand by my product and you can see me at http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/oct/16/truffle-not-trifle/
    In fact, you’re more than welcome to stop by our warehouse in Las Vegas to see what it is we do, as well you are more than welcome to come to our facilty in New York to see the actual process of truffle, from hunter to customs, distribution across America and manufacturing. And after that venture has been taken, please consider the oppurtunity to go truffle hunting during the season.
    Truffle is very amazing, very true to nature, and if you would like to see its changes and changes of varieties through the year, please stop by our Vegas office more than once, to actually learn about truffle; from month 1 to 12
    To bash these Chefs is just bitter, they’re busting their ass, running a joint appealing to a wide audience, perhaps 40 million visitors a year. A standard visitor wants to see truffle, for many Las Vegas is still an “experience” and its our job to accomodate that experience. Your not going to understand truffle from one dining experience, let alone raw or sliced warm in butter; but either way its an experience; but if you have a preference; why dont you just ask, and just save the harrassment to these establishments.

    Truffle Dealer

  5. Since when did we lose the contraction “you’re” in the English language?
    It looks like you gored the sacred ox on this one.
    I heartily agree with you. The truffles this time of year are not particularly pungent, and slicing them raw on food does nothing to help. I’ve always found that the simple lightly scrambled egg, risotto or custard dish with winter truffles cooked in shows friends what truffles are all about a lot more than having them visible sliced on top. That only convinces the neophyte that truffles aren’t worth the money.

  6. I think Spago should have served him a grilled cheese if they wanted a favorable review. John wrote in his review of Brasserie Puck at City Center – the place that’s neither a city or in the center of anything (see how gay it sounds JC?) – that Kenny Magana’s (2009’s Pastry Chef of the Year) chocolate cake and lemon tarte were delish. Then in his review of Off the Strip, he mentioned how good the calamari – the same dish prepared/served the same way at 1,000’s of places. JC’s reviews are inconsistent and confusing;now on the verge of meritless. I love how he praises consistency and bashes uniqueness. The kind of person who says their favorite restaurant is a steak house because they have the “best steak in town”, like it’s difficult to find. Those who cook, cook and those who can’t cook, write reviews about it.

  7. First off what you have done here in your review is a bit unfair to Spago. Your pet peeve of shaving raw black truffles on top of dishes extends to many Las Vegas restaurants as you have mentioned. The fact that Spago is serving “drop dead delicious food” is merely an after thought in your article. Personally I think separating the two would have been a more appropriate approach. Second, I had dinner at Bartollota’s this week and was served a course of cheese raviolis with freshly shaved black truffles on the top. Maybe you have forgotton that Bartolotta is a James Beard Award winning chef and he did get that way by the misuse of his products. Furthurmore shame on you for being upset that the afermentioned restaurants in your article are trying to impress you by shaving truffles on top of your meal. Guess what? You are a food critic, of course they are trying to impress you! I can assure you they are not solely saving those truffles for you, they are ordering them to serve to their paying guests to impress THEM so they can keep their doors open.

  8. There have certainly been some interesting points of view and arguments presented here regarding ELV’s musings on the shaving of black truffles. However, the discussion seems to have degenerated beyond the original points that ELV was, at least in my feeble mind, trying to make. Namely, the seasonality and appropriate use of black truffles in dishes that enhance the rare qualities of this unique ingredient.

    Using one of Mother Nature’s most wondrous and rare ingredients begs for a kitchen to use restraint, even if that calls for only using black truffles at the ultimate peak of their season. Of course, Mother Nature is always unpredictable, so what we become accustomed to assuming is the normal season of the black truffle can vary from one year to the next—especially if you believe in what are the changing patterns of the planet’s alignments to the sun.

    Secondly, the use of the truffle calls for the serving staff to be informed as to the origin of the truffle and for the kitchen and the dining room to coordinate the service of the dish so that the taste and texture of the truffle isn’t overshadowed by some trendy presentation. In some cases all these elements come together, in other cases they do not. It simply seems to me that ELV called it out when it didn’t come together.

    The same is true for the white truffle from Alba—the sensual allure of dreaming that just once a year I can have a dish of pasta with just a few shavings of fresh white truffle (imported overnight from Alba at its peak flavor), over a simple pasta is far more exotic than having the same dish every other week with a tired, shriveled white truffle preserved in who knows what.

    Now I know that restraint is not always associated with dining in Las Vegas and the line item “supplement” is a regular feature as it were on menus around town. (The term certainly applies in reference to this truffle discussion). I would have to agree, somewhat, with ELV when he said that a shaving of black truffles might impress Mr. and Mrs. Fannypacker from Bumfudge, Utah. They might not know what a truffle is, but they might be impressed that something that costs an additional $35.00 bucks must be good. The unsuspecting part comes in because they don’t have a clue when a black truffle is in season or not, if it’s at the peak of its season, if it should be shaved on top of the scrambled eggs or scrambled in them. It’s the responsibility of the kitchen and the staff to take care of those details, (especially at that “supplemental” price).

    Truffle Dealer was critical of ELV, but in that criticism I caught a statement that I read as actually supportive of one of ELV’s points–“Las Vegas is still an “experience” and it’s our job to accomodate that experience.” It seems to me the best way to support and accommodate the experience of the guests, (whether the diner is a rube or not), is to take care of the exacting details I’ve mentioned that support ELV’s points.

    Today I turned to my hard-cover copy of “Larousse Gastronomique,” for the French perspective on black truffles.

    I’ll leave my learned friends with a quote from the noted French gastronome, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reyniere, (1758-1837). Grimod de Las Reyniere was trained as a Lawyer, (a profession other Food Writers are known to have experienced).

    When speaking about the peak ripeness of the black truffle, Monsieur Grimod de La Reyniere was quoted as saying, “Truffles are only really good after Christmas……….So let us allow ignorant fops, beardless gourmands, and inexperienced palates the petty triumphs of eating the first truffles.”

    It would seem to me that de La Reyniere and ELV have more than the law in common. Apparently the best black truffles are not served the second week of March.

  9. Very nice Dave, well versed.
    This season 2009-2010, was bit different, alot of the better black winter truffle from France didnt start showing its greatness until towards end of Jan and actually ran nicely until this week, which was the last week.
    All the Italian product this year was garbage. The spanish product was nice until about four weeks ago because the season is short, and the French product just amazing.
    A little “ugly” this week but amazing aromatic and flavor. I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow, sunday dinner – seared duck breast, risotto and braised fennel and black winter truffle.
    The seasons of truffle have actually changed dramatically over the past two years, due to what ever climatic reasons, they start earlier, they end later. I mean, there was actaully decent white truffle in August in 2009, crazy; which means in August last year (2009), product was equivalent to your typical earlier October truffle, but of course white truffle didnt become perfect until the Novembers and was brief.
    Black winter truffle, I would have to say, some of the best product I saw yet, minus the fact Italian tuber melanosporum was for the most part terrible.

    If any of you home foodies want nice truffle later in the coming seasons for the family, I got you covered.

  10. ELV I’m wondering if you happened to catch the actual date of harvest of the truffle in question at Spago? It sounds as though the server may have been confused or misinformed as to the region of France where the truffle was harvested?

  11. John Curtas,

    While one can have a certain opinion of a good truffle from a bad Truffle, you might want to know that the most basic way to taste a good truffle from a bad one can be tasted in a recipe that’s called TASTOU. A basic slice of grilled bread, slices of RAW black truffle, salt, pepper and a drop of walnut or olive oil, it doesn’t get any more authentic than this traditional Perigord recipe.

    You might also think that serving truffle in March is off season; you should know that ALL 3 star Michelin in France still serve truffles this time around, not just the Las Vegas tourist attraction as you make them seems like. As for Las Vegas, having personally visited most of those restaurants and Chefs I can guarantee you that they don’t have much to envy to their European counterpart.

    And if you ever decide to take the trip to france and visit some of the people we source our Truffles from I will be happy to help you with that.

    Best regards,
    Vincent Jeanseaume
    Vice president
    Sabatino Truffles

    330 Coster Street
    Bronx NY 10474

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