When Truffles opened, just over a decade ago, within earshot of the venerable Busch's Grove, it looked to many people that Charles Cella and his daughter were tossing a red challenge flag at the fading jewel next door. Well, they won. The space to the east, now a grocery store, can be described as Busch's Grave and Truffles stands alone as Ladue's top restaurant. That may be slightly hyperbolic; Truffles' excellence spreads far beyond the tony suburb, and is a tribute to John Cain, its long-time general manager, and a series of first-rate chefs.
At the moment, John Griffiths, formerly the executive chef to Larry Forgione at An American Place, is settling in as the head man in the kitchen, with some menu jiggery-pokery in process. Cain has an excellent eye for talent (he probably would have made Sam Bradford a No. 1) and for trends. Truffles began as a steak house, added French touches here and there. When Hurricane Katrina sent Mark Serice in search of work, Cain hired him and the menu shifted into New Orleans mode. Now, Griffiths is turning it slightly toward Italian, but the bouillabaisse, which we raved about nine years ago in "Beyond Gooey Butter Cake," remains brilliant.
We ate very well there the other night, enjoying the changed focus and the fact that Griffiths has added a few Italian-inspired dishes that we have not seen on local menus. (Please don't expect perfection from us, we haven't seen every menu.)
The Italian version of steak tartare, carne cruda, is a sure winner. Excellent raw beef, without egg yolk, is seasoned with a little chopped, roasted chile pepper, giving flavor, but little if any discernible fire. What lifts it to the unusual is the sprinkling of roasted hazelnuts, adding a woodsy note and a delightful textural lift to the meat. Served alongside is a little arugula and slivers of red onion, a fine combination wearing such a light slick of olive oil that they could dance in a club on the East Side. Burrata also is new to us on a St. Louis menu; it's a fresh cheese, made in-house, a pouch about the size of half a baseball. The exterior is mozzarella, its soft interior a combination of mozzarella and cream. Simple but rich and sophisticated, it comes with grilled bread on which to spread it or merely as a mop to pursue any cheese that escapes the fork. An apple-fennel slaw gives some crunch and flavor contrast, but it, too, is understated.
And then there were the agnolotti, little pillows of pasta filled with pumpkin. Yes, pumpkin, a traditional filling around Mantua, Italy, although we're not sure if the ones there are sauced with a little prosciutto, as Griffith's was. Light, so light, the pumpkin savory--maybe a little sage in there?--a revelation.
Not all the menu is Italian, and we suspect/hope it never will be. Bouillabaisse arrived with a fine aroma, the outstanding, garlicky, rusty-colored broth holding scallops, shrimp, mussels and a white-fleshed fish. Topped off with a couple of the traditional toasted slices of bread, each wearing the garlic mayonnaise known as aioli, it was succulent. Our only quibble was that the fish, unlike their shellfish cousins, was quite overcooked.
It's the time of year for game, and the idea of pappardelle with a boar ragu was alluring. Pappardelle, the wide noodle, is traditional with game sauces; Truffles' pappardelle is fresh rather than dried. For those who haven't tried it, fresh pasta is a whole different beast than dried, the texture quite different, a little chewier without the graininess that can mark dried pasta when cooked al dente. And the ragu wasn't the tomato sauce that the commercial name has made a whole generation expect. Rather, this was smallish chunks of the meat cooked to fall-apart, fork-tender with aromatic root vegetables plus onion and celery, a little grated orange peel and some wine. The resulting liquid, mainly the meat juices, sauced the pasta to perfection. Despite the seeming simplicity, this is deeply flavorful, clearly a reward for venturing out in the increasingly cold weather.
Bananas Foster is something we seldom succumb to, as much as we like it. The dish is a house favorite, with Cain delighting in the service. The kitchen also is making its own gelato, giving us another--and sufficient--excuse to splurge on dessert. Rather than the usual vanilla, we opted for pina colada sorbet and capuccino gelato. The pina colada was extremely good, first the pineapple hitting the mouth and then a lingering coconut, but to our surprise, it was completely overwhelmed by the banana-brown sugar-ness of the Foster. But the capuccino stood up nicely, adding its own delicious notes.
Service is always first-rate here, unobtrusive and knowledgeable. And the wine list, as we said, is deep and wide--Hallelujah!--thanks to Cain. We drank an excellent, nicely priced (about $40) Spanish grenache blend, which did particularly well with the carne cruda, but was sufficiently balanced that it handled both the boar ragu and the bouillabaisse.
Please note that the web site menu is not up to date.
9202 Clayton Rd., Ladue
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good