Black Diamond or Fungus?
Soho’s Ode to the Truffle”What exactly is a truffle?” asked my teenage son dubiously. We were having dinner in a restaurant on Spring Street that offers over a dozen dishes made with truffles.
The menu answered his question: “It is the black diamond of Provence. It’s elegant, refined, fragrant and light. It’s like a caress which delights the palate. One could eat it every day as it’s healthy and very low in calories. It is also said to be an aphrodisiac and that it can awaken your every desire!”
“It’s a fungus,” said my husband.
“Then I’m not ordering the pizza,” said my son.
The pizza comes with black truffle sauce and fresh summer truffles. It sounded as silly as the pizza with foie gras, mashed potatoes and truffled pecorino cheese that was on the menu of another restaurant our family visited a few years back (like this one, a contender for the pages of Ripley’s Believe It or Not ). But I had a job to do, so I ordered the pizza for myself.
It arrived topped with a thick, dark layer of shaved black truffles piled up over melted Comte cheese, which is like a sharp Gruyère. A small jug of truffled bordelaise sauce was served on the side, which you pour over the pizza. The combination of the tangy cheese, the earthy truffles, the thin, delicate crust and the rich, meaty sauce was wonderful. I made my son taste it, and he ended up finishing the whole thing.
The restaurant is in the former post-office space of a U.P.S. building on the far west reaches of Spring Street, an area that used to be desolate and is now crowded with late-night clubs, U.P.S. delivery trucks, limos and, a week ago, dozens of throbbing motorbikes lined up outside the local watering hole, the Ear Inn. From the tables on the sidewalk in front of 325 Spring Street you can see across the Hudson River, where the magnificent old power station is now lit up in patriotic colors of red, white and blue. A bouncer stands guard by the restaurant’s front door, granting entrance to the late-night club upstairs.
Until recently an American brasserie called Theo occupied these premises, but it never really took off. So owner Jonathon Morr-whose clubs and restaurants include BondSt, APT (a club so chic you have to enter through two unmarked doors) and Republic-shifted gears and turned Theo into a Provençal restaurant specializing in truffles. The chef, Clément Bruno-owner of Chez Bruno in Lourges in the Var district of France-greets you at the door, his jolly round face beaming out from the cover of a book that’s displayed in a glass case by the entrance. Though he’s listed as the chef, Mr. Bruno has yet to appear in person. According to the restaurant’s press release, Chef Bruno regularly creates his dishes sitting at a simple wooden table under a fig tree in France. He’s probably sitting there right now, in his kitchen clogs, dreaming up dishes like truffles with chicken feet or lobster tail. Meanwhile, there are two chefs de cuisine in charge of the kitchen in New York, Frederic Thevenet, who worked with Mr. Bruno at his restaurant in France, and William Quinn, formerly of Town and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole.
The décor of the dining room is inspired by 1930’s New York and resembles an ocean liner’s first-class dining room. It has an Art Deco feel, with the original curved ceiling and round wall sconces, and a long white banquette that runs the length of the room, with a mirror angled behind it. The tables are well-spaced and lit with votive candles, but the lighting is a bit dim, as though the manager hadn’t paid the electric bill, and the room gets very loud as the evening wears on. To emphasize the casual bistro effect, the tables are set with brown paper over white linen.
The very idea of truffles suggests exorbitant prices (such as the $280 truffle-tasting that was featured at Alain Ducasse last year). But the most expensive dish on the menu here is the puff pastry with foie gras, at $36, with black truffles and bacon..
The poached egg with truffle caviar and black truffles comes served in a martini glass and is an absolute decadence. The sauce is made with cream, chicken, foie gras and a demiglace seasoned with port. The truffled risotto is creamy and perfectly cooked, so rich you need only half an order. Silken strips of papardelle come topped with shaved truffles and Parmesan. It’s only available in a full order, which is a bit too much, but it’s great to share.
Not all the dishes on the menu are made with truffles. My son was thrilled with the terrine of poultry with creamy, pink foie gras scented with herbes de Provence. Another stellar combination consisted of a couple of warm shrimp beautifully arranged on a plate with two braised baby artichokes, slivers of raw artichoke and lemon. A small white bowl of chilled pea soup arrived on a rectangular white plate, next to a mélange of green vegetables, peas and fava beans with bacon.
Octopus with mussels and braised white beans was ordinary, but the real disappointment was the grilled tuna. It came in such a thick slab that it was overdone on the outside and raw as sushi in the middle, and it was given the Provençal treatment with tomato compote, olives and capers. The grilled halibut, in contrast, was a snowy, perfectly cooked chunk of fish with a pleasantly tart citrus sauce. Also good was the duck, which came three ways: leg confit, breast roasted rare, and liver on toast with roasted nectarines.
For dessert there’s a peach melba, served in a glass with fresh peaches. There’s also a lovely molten chocolate cake and the best apple tart I’ve ever tasted. It’s made with a circle of feathery pastry topped with thin, buttered apple slices crisped around the edges. On top is a scoop of caramel ice cream with little speckles in it. They’re not ground vanilla beans, of course-they’re black truffles. What else would you expect?