John Curtas is …

You Don’t Know the Truffles I’ve Seen

Many thanks to all for the splendid comments on my Pet Peeve (truffle) post — all of them full of information, passion and insight. It warms the cockles of ELV’s heart to get such a conversation going (which is what this site is really about, after all).

The vitriol of some always amazes and disappoints us, but we’re big boys at Eating Las Vegas, and short of outright profanity or slander, we can take whatever gets dished our way. (We don’t even mind profane libel if it’s done with irony or wit, but, sadly, there never seems to be a sense of humor among those who wish to insult us.)

Now for the point of this post.

What’s really going on in our restaurant world is this: inferior truffles from Italy, Spain, Burgundy(?), Australia, Oregon, Eastern Tennessee, Upper Michigan and other places around the globe are being cultivated by ambitious folks who see a marketing opportunity akin to Pablo Escobar exploiting America’s nasal passages in 1977.

Some of these black truffles are tuber melanosporum and some are not. NONE of them have the pungency of the true Perigord truffles, harvested in the dead of winter, and cooked to such sublime effect in classical French cuisine.

But there are not enough of those little buggers to go around, and the demand is so great (and high end restaurants can charge those infamous supplements for their usage), that an entire supply system has been established by ambitious types seeking to exploit an opportunity.

Truffle Farmer (thinking to himself): “By crackey there’s something I can grow under all these oak trees that’ll fetch me hundreds of dollars a pound. Plow up the corn field, Ma, and let’s start injecting mold into them thar roots.”

Truffle Dealer (thinking to himself): “I can sell these babies to credulous young chefs (and an even more naive public), especially in Vegas, and make beaucoup bucks.”

Las Vegas Restaurateur (thinking to himself): “Geez Louise! I can shave these tubers to a fare thee well all over the joint and get anywhere from $25-$50 a customer for doing so…way after the actual season (for the good ones) is over. Those hayseeds will never know the difference.”

Chef (thinking to himself): “Well, they look like truffles, and they sorta smell like truffles, and there aren’t enough of them to actually cook with, so lets shave them raw on stuff and make money that way — even if they bring precious little to the party.” (Another example: last night at Sage, where Shawn McClain — someone whose food we otherwise adore — puts a shaving of tasteless, raw ones atop his poached organic farm egg.)

The difference between ELV and others who have such strong opinions on this subject (save a few – thank you Rod Schiffman, David Ross et al…) is that we’re not selling anything.

Shaved, raw, black truffles in March are akin to sliced tomatoes in January, and no matter what a truffle dealer or chef tries to convince us of, the ones they’re foisting upon unsuspecting customers and recipes aren’t worth the taste or your money.

If you’d like an education in this ectomycorrhizal ingredient, we recommend you peruse the Art of Eating issues no. 73 and 74, Winter 2006 — for the true lowdown on this lowdown fungus. It a ‘zine that anyone who reads (and comments) on Eating Las Vegas should subscribe to.

Finally, a note to you more sensitive types out there. Just because we don’t like something that a chef or restaurant does (like this little truffle imbroglio) doesn’t mean we don’t continue to hold them in the highest regard. But they are selling a product, and we are first and foremost a consumer advocate, offering advice as to where best (and what best) to spend your money on for that product. When a restaurant, even one we love, is charging real money for something that doesn’t taste that good, we consider it our duty (and in some oblique way a favor to them) to call them on it.

We must now depart to meet Steve Dolinsky (Channel 7 in Chicago’s Hungry Hound) for another marathon day of restaurant hopping…

Have a nice day.

;-}

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12 Responses to You Don’t Know the Truffles I’ve Seen

  • WELL DONE JOHN……

  • ELV, sounds like you hit a nerve in your review of Spago. I’ve been following your site off and on the past 4 years and I can’t recall another review where readers have responded like they have to this one. It’s obvious they really trust and value your opinion, as do I. I may not always agree with your reviews, but I definately try to respect them. I enjoy reading a local’s perspective of the food scene here in LV. Especially, when that person hits more than just the highlights; heading to places like Lotus of Siam, Raku, and Los Antejos. I read ELV because I don’t have many opportunities to eat out and feel they have similar interests/perspectives as I do. I may not have the chance to eat at a lot of these places, but ELV’s reviews help fill that void. Keep up the eating ELV; so I can keep lowering my cholesterol.

  • I lost use of the words morsel and soupcon early in my food writing career. Having not grown up near Ernest, Jed or Lester, I haven’t felt the need to sneak the expressions “by crackey”, “Geez Louise” or “little buggers”, into my writing style as yet. But give me time, do give me time.

  • Had the Yellowtail appetizer at Sage the other night and the dish was totally RUINED by the damned truffles they shaved on the fish.

    Truffles on Yellowtail? – Holy Moly!

    The sage infused olives werent too hot either, and overwhelmed my gin martini.

    American Fish on the other hand was sensational from start to finish.

    BTW ELV, nice touch brining John Candy back to life. Sui Generis.

  • vegasdave, my experience was the same with those two restaurants as well ; great experience at American Fish, Horrible experience at Sage.

    ELV, thank you for bringing up a serious topic in such a lightened manner. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment.

  • Thank you again, Mr. ELV, for telling it like it is. As I said in your first diary triggering this “War of the Truffles”, I may be a foodie but I’m just not into expensive food that is expensive solely for the sake of being expensive. And when a dish doesn’t properly utilize good truffles (whether it’s shaving uncooked black truffles and/or hawking the cheap stuff to unsuspecting diners), that’s all it is. I can understand that our top restaurants need to make money to stay open, but I really do think they’ll survive and ultimately thrive by laying off the cheap truffle gimmicks and offering great food that always leaves us wanting more.

    And btw, I also hope the restaurant pros reading the blog caught David Ross’ suggestions in the last diary on how to properly use truffles. That pasta dish sounds quite delicious!

  • Art of Eating zine? I’m on it!!

  • This is why I love you.

  • Just wanted to pass on a link that “Burgundy” Truffles do in fact exist. http://www.earthy.com/Fresh_Burgundy_Truffles_Tuber_uncinatum__3_ozCALL_FOR_AVAILABILITY_P1457.cfm
    I’m not aware of the quality or the seasonality of the ingredient.

  • That particular truffle (tuber uncinatum) is called the Burgundy Truffle, but isn’t FROM Burgundy. I believe it is from Italy. It is less pungent (as ELV deftly noted in the blog that started this discussion) and often called an autumn truffle. I would bet March is not the best time to eat them. Just thought you would like to know.

  • My mistake, I misremembered. It is from Burgundy.

  • Actually Burgundy Truffle does not exist this time of year. It is impossible to have at this time of year. It is a product that is found from October through early December, very similiar to summer truffle. Some call it late summer truffle.
    It is called burgundy due to its historic context first found origin of Burgundy region, which Tuber Unicinatum is called Burgundy. Some of the better burgundy truffle is found in Umbria with France and Spain having some as well. Burgundy is not to be confused with Black winter truffle aka, tuber melanosporum.

    Tuber Unicinatum has nutting, liquor and earthy aromatics.

    Vincent

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