Why You Should Never Order White Truffles in Restaurants

On the surface, people who sell white truffles to restaurants aren’t quite the merchants of luxury one might expect. No Rolex watches, no Cartier jewelry. They fly under the radar like undercover cops or the neighborhood weed dealer. It isn’t unusual to see them dressed down, in sports caps and hoodies, nonchalantly wheeling around their nuggets of buried treasure in carry-on luggage like doe-eyed tourists who fly Spirit Airlines.

Their contraband is meticulously sealed in airtight containers to ensure no truffle aromas might seep out and blow their cover. When you’re shlepping around tens of thousands of dollars of rare earth candy, it’s unwise to make a spectacle of yourself. Unlike most business deals between chefs and their purveyors, the anonymous exchange of truffles for money is shady af.

Oddly, it’s difficult to authenticate the provenance of truffles, which adds to their mystique. Even though you’d expect that chefs would insist on buying the genuine article, the truffle industry lacks a proper ombudsman in the way that consortiums govern Italian wine production with A.O.C designations or Italian cheeses are assigned to a specific D.O.P. Truffles trade on trust.

This means there is always a chance that you’re being sold truffles advertised as from Alba that are actually from Slovenia or Istria, among the very few other places in the world that have soils conducive to unearthing these wild little tubers. White truffles cannot be cultivated. Nature decides for herself where they randomly spore, and she doesn’t make them easy to find.

Provenance aside, the most important reason you shouldn’t order them in a restaurant is freshness. Assuming you aren’t sitting over a bowl of fresh tagliatelle in a restaurant in Piedmont, the truffle you’re eating is likely well past its prime. While the importation of white truffles has become more efficient through the years, they’re still among the most highly perishable agricultural products. Even the most fastidiously preserved white truffle will have lost most of its potency within just a few days.

White Truffles

Chefs in upscale restaurant must front thousands of dollars to put truffles on their menus and sales can be very erratic and inconsistent. Unlike other products chefs would dispose of when spoilage is an issue, they’ll do anything possible to usurp old inventory of truffles before serving the freshest ones. They’ll never admit they do it, but they do. Chefs love serving truffles because they’re a profit machine that requires little effort. Buy them, shave them and overcharge.

Sommeliers in high-end restaurants face a similar predicament when opening expensive trophy bottles. If they perceive that certain wines may be slightly off or borderline, they may try to serve them anyway hoping that the guest will not object. Wholesale cost on an $800 bottle that was purchased by auction five years ago cannot be recouped.

All of this means that the truffles on your hundred dollar pasta dish are likely not the freshest ones the chef has in the kitchen. If the aroma is flat or newspapery, you’ve been suckered. Of course, all chefs aren’t guilty of compromising their standards. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know which kitchens are trustworthy and which aren’t.

The best way to avoid being served inferior truffles is to dine at restaurants that do more volume. The more they cycle through product, the fresher they’ll be. But it’s never guaranteed. Chefs prefer to buy larger quantities of truffles to get better pricing. That can lead to an unwanted surplus when sales lag behind expectations.

Beware the bait and switch. You might see sexy “show truffles” on display, filling the dining room with their musky smell but those will often not be the same ones the chef is shaving over your dish. Ask your servers if the truffle will be shaved table-side. If they say no, insist they do. Politely ask to smell the truffle beforehand. If its aroma is not potent when you smell it, its flavor wont be when they shave it over your food. Remember, generously covering a dish with shavings of an old truffle will only make it taste more like an old truffle.

Good Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

good food

I met a friend for dinner recently at a new Italian restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz. When we arrived for an early reservation, the bar was full and the decor was predictably minimalist and modern. It was the kind of restaurant that made you feel like you’ve been there before even though you hadn’t. The silhouettes in the bar area made it almost impossible to read the tiny font of the menu. Maybe it was the shadowy light, but the cocktail glasses looked sad and shrunken, struggling mightily to make a two-ounce pour look generous.

Delicate handmade pastas were flying out of the kitchen while we sipped on our Campari-less Negronis and waited for our meal to begin. We were surrounded on all sides by privileged millennials slugging back overpriced Rosé. As the parade of delicious pastas arrived to our table—Vongole, Ravioli, Rabbit Ragú—there was a sameness about the whole affair that didn’t feel as special as it did twenty years ago when nobody knew what the hell burrata was and everyone thought salumi was a misspelling. The food was good, but it felt like a meal I’d eaten a hundred times before.

Americans used to be ignorant about food. We’re still ignorant about many things—politics, climate change, soccer—but not about food anymore. Our newfound worldliness is a blessing and a curse. We expect more from restaurants but it takes more to satisfy us. Cooking comfort food has become too comfortable.

good food

This puts chefs in a difficult predicament. Delighting guests that are more food literate can cause restaurants to prioritize innovation over flavor. As they push harder for new discoveries, their kitchens become more experimental but they inevitably function more like sterile laboratories than as incubators for culinary creativity.

Satisfying more discerning guests also puts undue pressure on the front-of-the-house to entertain. Staying out of guests’ way used to be a feature of attentive service, now it may be perceived as negligence. Table-side shtick makes service feel more like busking, unapologetically drenching guests in manufactured charm lest anyone forget to leave cash in the guitar case on their way out.

I recently dined at a new restaurant reinforced these ideas. The food was quite good and the kitchen hit all its marks, but it felt uninspired somehow. The obligatory Sashimi style raw fish appetizer—stripped naked of its Asian roots—was Anglicized and safe. The compulsory pan-seared rhombus of farm-raised white fish sounded as fresh as a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in the early 90’s. A vegetarian dish, blatantly pandering, headlined the entrees but even vegetarians would probably swipe left on its predictable presentation.

Many articles have appeared lately about the “New Nostalgia” that has seen the resurrection of relics of America’s culinary past like the gaudy pomp and circumstance of Chrome trolleys carrying Prime Rib and Flinstonian slabs of Chateaubriand buttered up and sizzling on Mauviel copper pans. It would seem that once certain chefs run out of fertile new ideas or futuristic flavor combinations, nostalgic cooking becomes a convenient style to fallback on.

Perhaps some diners, too, long for the days when chefs didn’t exist to challenge our palates; they were there to simply feed us. There will always be a segment of the population that wishes we could “Make Restaurants Great Again.” But as with American politics in the Trump Era, yearning for yesteryear causes us to build more walls than bridges and too easily forget just how far we’ve come.

Ordering Side Dishes as Appetizers is Lame

side dishes

Waiters are accustomed to dealing with people’s dietary peculiarities when they order. Some guests find joy in manipulating the menu to suit their needs or their budget. It comes with the territory, so servers learn to live with guests who dedicate themselves to finding loopholes to exploit. We understand that a menu is a template for success not a rule book, but of course—like everything in hospitality—some guests take more liberties than others.

There will be guests who request to have their salad served after their entrees because they think it makes them seem more cosmopolitan. It doesn’t. Others will order appetizers as their entrees because they prefer to eat light. It’s not ideal, but it’s forgivable. Occasionally, you have a table that cobbles together small plates into a meal or asks you to course their food in an unorthodox way. It’s pointless to resist. Just give ‘em what they want.

But one menu hack that most servers find intolerable is when a guest orders a side dish as an appetizer. Although there are exceptions, the decision to order a side dish as a first course is often a veiled attempt to game the menu for a cheaper alternative to the appetizer choices. Even the most well-intentioned guests come across completely obnoxious when they do it.

Naysayers will bristle and scorn at the elitism of presuming that menu items should only be served at the times of the meal that they are intended to be. They’ll say if people want a small dish as their appetizer, it’s their prerogative. Why should you ostracize those people, even if the decision is a financial one? These are all valid points. But just because you can do something in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily make it right. You shouldn’t order a sandwich, ask for more bread and then make a second sandwich by redistributing what’s inside the first one. Yet some people do.

Implicit in these choices is a disregard for the experience that a restaurant is trying to craft for its guests. You have no obligation to honor that framework, but if you don’t you may be perceived as someone who abuses privilege.

So follow the template that’s given to you, if you can. It’s better to have the side dish come alongside your main course (as it was intended to be) instead of having it come beforehand even if it means you’ll end up waiting longer or feeling out of place while your tablemates enjoy their appetizers. After all, it wouldn’t be called a side dish if it was meant to be the center of attention. Accepting that will make you a better diner.