Truffles is a good example of a restaurant in its middle years that just keeps chugging along. That's not, in this case, a pejorative. It keeps reinventing itself, time after time, personnel change after change, and manages to keep going. That speaks to the consistency of the experience. This crowd - at least the one in the dining room - doesn't suffer change lightly. Truffles is in the heart of Ladue, the old-line upper-crust suburb that is as Establishment as it gets, and the diners are frequently denizens of that zip code. (The busy bar, with its patrons in expensive denim, seems to draw from a wider catchment area.)
Early in the week, things are often quiet enough to enjoy a conversation without shouting, but on busier nights, the architecture of the dining room seems to concentrate, blur and replay every syllable. So much for the alleged tip-toeing hush of wealth. But service, almost without exception, is exactly what would be expected in such a plate, quiet and attentive.
This is American food, both for the cautious and more adventurous eater. Plenty of steaks, Dover sole that's been a fixture since the place opened, duck and lamb and, even on the dinner menu, a hamburger. Appetizers and sides get rowdier, and show the New Orleans influences which first appeared in the post-Katrina years and now return under chef Brandon Benack. An order of Plaquemines Parish oysters were grilled and topped with a little bacon and manchego cheese. (Recent weather may mean other oysters will appear, but grilled oysters are a new classic all over New Orleans now.) And a bowl of gumbo, its deep, coppery color promising the complex layers of flavor from more than just the roasted chicken and sausage it contained, was deeply satisfying.
New Orleans' version of barbecued shrimp aren't grilled, they're cooked in a rich, spicy butter sauce that holds the juices of the lightly cooked shellfish. Traditionally served whole, they're messy to eat and demand plenty of bread with which to sop up the succulent sauce; indeed, the shrimp are mostly just an excuse for that nectar. Truffles' come peeled, except for the tail, to serve as a handle, and the head. Now, shrimp heads are like crawfish heads. The fatty debris therein is deeply succulent and there's a reason why "Ya gotta suck da haids" is advice given and emblazoned on t-shirts throughout crawfish country. Ditto the shrimp, if you're game enough, and these guys are so huge , it's wasteful not to. The sauce was properly flavorful, a little cream added to give more body. But much of the sauce was way, way too salty. Not all of it, since the very center of the plate's sauce was not so painfully salinated. I have no idea why, unless someone was salting after plating the dish, but it came close to ruining what would have been an exemplary dish.
Leaving the Louisiana trail for entrees, the lightly smoked duck is served with a cherry sauce that's only a little sweet, making a nice balance. Alongside was perched a muffin-shaped rosemary-gruyere bread pudding, almost a stuffing that hadn't been cooked inside the duck, light and good for wiping up dabs of sauce, and a little green salad with some toasted chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on.
Cauliflower and artichokes complimented immense sea scallops, the artichoke hearts diced and gently braised in white wine. The scallops had been seared on only one side, the other side remaining pearly white, thus achieving both a moist tenderness and slightly chewy crust. I didn't get to try a (monster-sized) hamburger, complete with cheddar, bacon and caramelized onions, that one of my pals succumbed to, but the fries, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, were first-rate.
Bananas Foster, another New Orleans tradition, is made to order, although not at tableside, but at a buffet mid-dining room. It's a very traditional version, butter, brown sugar, rum, creme de banana cooked together with slices of banana, all served over vanilla ice cream. To my way of thinking, it should be heavier on the bananas than the ice cream, but that's just my quirk. After all, I can get vanilla ice cream any time. It's the sauce and fruit that make the dish. A round of yellow cake brushed with rum, then topped with pineapple and an Italian meringue was technically well-executed with the cake a fine texture and very tender. But it lacked oomph beyond its nice visuals, more polite than exultant.
Truffles continues to be proud of its wine list, both deep and wide in its holdings. This is the sort of list that the curious-but-budget-conscious can find some interesting stuff at the low end. The trick is to look at the uncommon offerings, from lesser-known locations or grapes. Why? If a house is proud of its wine list and has been choosing carefully, there's a reason that these unusual choices are there - they're good enough to be picked by trained palates and won't embarrass them to a wine lover who's interested.
And now they're doing lunch again. Large dining room, low noise levels, slightly out of the way - seems like a perfect business lunch site.
9202 Clayton Rd., Ladue
Lunch Tues.-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good