Snouts in La Truffe
By Daphne Wayne-Bough
In these apocalyptic times of economic meltdown when we are facing a recession alongside which the Great Depression of 1928 will look like a momentary shortage of cash, it is courageous - some would even say reckless - to set off to eat truffles in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But someone’s got to do it, so Scouse Doris and I dusted off the chauffeur and set off for dinner at La Truffe Noire.
Just entering is a special experience, ascending the steps of the elegant old townhouse through the imposing cast iron gates, into a world of sheer opulent luxury. The tables in the sumptuously carpeted ground-floor dining room are well spaced and beautifully dressed.
Not a glass or a spoon out of place. The colours are neutral - beige, cream, dark brown, the colours of truffles in fact.
We had a table in the middle of the room where we could observe everything, and were impressed by the provision of a small table for our handbags. It’s such attention to detail which makes the difference between a good restaurant and a really special one, and every detail here has been carefully considered.
Luigi Ciciriello, owner and Maitre de maison, gave us a potted history of the restaurant which he opened in 1988 and has run single handedly ever since with his small team of highly trained staff. He sources his truffles from Italy, Croatia and the south of France, where the precious tuber melanosporum is traded with as much drama and excitement as oil or diamonds.
At the present time, white truffles are trading at around €3,000 per kilo. Luigi, like many top class restaurateurs, negotiates the price at the beginning of the season for the truffles he purchases throughout the year. Customers inhale the voluptuous fumes with reverence.
A flight of appetizers, was placed in front of us, consisting of a miniature pumpkin teacake, a chiffony espuma de perdreau et cèpes au riz soufflé, and a bijou crème brulée salé-sucré de foie gras aux pignons de pin, while we perused the menu. The “menu privilège” which was our choice costs a stonking €225 per head, but trust me, you’ll remember everything you ate. There is a more reasonable €50 menu available at lunch and dinner, although you will have to pay extra for truffles (€10-20 euros per shaving) and, with wine, you’ll be lucky to get out for less than €120 each. But if luxury came cheap, it wouldn’t be luxury now, would it?
On the wine list is a Chateau Pétrus Cru Hors Classe 1982 at €3,700 which made our eyes water a bit. But there are a number of affordable wines starting at around the €40 mark. We opted for a different wine with each dish, and the sommelier, who clearly knows his stuff, rose to the challenge admirably. He appeared, smiling, with the first of our wines, a glass of something very crisp and white from the Ile de Porquerolles in the south of France. It married perfectly with our first course, which was a beef carpaccio dressed at the table by Luigi himself. Two rectangular plates covered with paper thin slices of almost translucent Belgian Bleu des Prés beef were bathed in a truffle-oil dressing, mixed by hand for each table, finished off by a generous shaving of aged parmesan and fresh white truffles, and presented with a flourish in a heady waft of truffle aroma.
Luigi presents the truffles to each client on arrival, and one is invited to poke one’s nose into the glass jars and breathe deeply. The perfume is unique. I cannot describe it. Peter Mayle said it is somewhere between meat and mushroom. If you’ve never tasted truffles, it is one of those 101 things to do before you die.
The flavour is all in the aroma, you taste it through your nose; the texture is firmer than a mushroom but softer than a nut, somewhat akin to a pistachio. Truffles cannot be farmed, hence their rarity and astronomic price, but the chemical ingredients have been identified and the aroma can be reproduced synthetically in truffle oil. A valuable bit of advice: buy truffle oil in the smallest possible quantity, since the aroma will disappear after a while.
Next followed a ravioli farci de truffes aux 3 céléris. Three wafer-thin ravioli containing slivers of black truffle, basking in a nage or soup made from duck stock and fresh cream, decorated with a few ultra-thin sticks of lightly-poached baby celery heart. The marriage of flavours worked perfectly. Doris said the nage tasted like the best mushroom soup in the world.
The sommelier brought us a glass of Slovenian Renski Rizling, which was surprisingly good. Slightly fruitier than the Porquerolles, it set the ravioli off to perfection. I was impressed to see that wines from ‘New Europe’ are finally being treated seriously.
A small fanfare for for the signature dish - La Croque au Sel - a whole 40g Périgord truffle (about the size of a small Brussels sprout) cooked in a rich sauce périgourdine, which sat in its own small detachable bowl in the middle of a handmade terracotta dish commissioned spe¬cially for the restaurant from a local potter, on which were laid out a row of tiny slices of melba toast, a small bowl of fleur de sel and a quenelle of creamy white truffle butter.
Luigi demonstrated how to eat it, placing a sliver of butter on a piece of toast, then adding a tiny piece of truffle in its unctuous sauce, and sprinkling a few grains of fleur de sel on top before popping it into your mouth, closing your eyes and ascending to heaven.
The wine served with this was a Tuscan Montechiaro which again went perfectly with the dish.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, God save the cheese. Swiss Tete de Moine shaved paper-thin and fashioned into exquisite flowers, drizzled with honey and - I kid you not - flakes of Cohiba tobacco with some truffled Brillat-Savarin. A witty touch, since it was the great French food writer Brillat-Savarin who dubbed the knobbly black fungi ‘Diamonds of the kitchen’.
We tried to keep the orgasmic moaning down as we ate, and watched the Maestro work the room. In between dressing carpaccios of beef or salmon, thrusting customers’ noses into the jars of truffles, meeting and greeting and keeping a gimlet eye on his irreproachable staff, he found time to stop and chat at length with each table in English, French, Italian or Japanese. No wonder he has “The Magician” inscribed on his office door.
On the first floor is a cool smoking room, well ventilated and furnished with masculine leather sofas, and next door a private dining room for up to 20 guests. If you’re in charge of the office Christmas party this year, bear in mind that group menus start at €139 per head including wine. This is where the likes of Prince Felipe of Spain, Prince Charles, President Barroso, and the great and the good have dined. It is also where Luigi keeps his “museum” of leather-bound wine lists dating back to the restaurant’s beginnings in 1988, each one decorated by hand by a different artist.
Luigi is a discerning patron of the arts as can be seen from the various paintings and sculptures dotted throughout the restaurant, many on a truffle theme. This is clearly so much more than a restaurant to him...
Dessert was a duo of apple crème brulée studded with truffles, and a scoop of home made vanilla ice cream also containing truffles.
I can’t in all honesty say the truffles added anything to the dessert beyond novelty value, but they are the whole raison d’etre of the place and Luigi would put them in the coffee if he could. Petits fours were served with jasmine tea and a glass of Frangelico, Doris’s favourite liqueur, from the well-stocked bar.
From the truffle-themed napkins to the unique tableware, La Truffe Noire bears testimony to the passion and dedication of Luigi Ciciriello. Each evening is a performance.
To quote the Maestro: “It’s not a restaurant, it’s a theatre. And a love affair.”
La Truffe Noire
12, Boulevard de la Cambre