I suppose I have a few food-inclined friends who are still obsessed with truffles. They tend to reside in the countrified regions of France, though, or Italy (or even England), places where the truffle still appears irregularly, in all its richly variegated, seasonal forms, and where it tends to be served fresh (ripe is the term truffle hounds use) or not at all. For the rest of us, though, the truffle experience has worn a little thin. Except in the fall, when a handful of restaurants serve them at great expense, truffles in New York are rarely ripe. Meted out in tasteless little portions, smashed into oils and splashed over food like gourmet ketchup, they’ve become a kind of cheap shorthand for the haute cuisine experience. Which may be why my friend the food aristocrat sounded a little peevish when I told her about 325 Spring Street, a new truffle-centric restaurant in Soho. “I have one rule about truffles,” she said. “When I see them in New York, I don’t order them.”
Truffles are all over the menu at 325 Spring Street, and if you can’t actually bear to order them, you can peruse a little showcase in the foyer that is full of expensive truffle products (truffle oils, truffle pastes, truffle jellies) to buy. The restaurant is located on the far-western edge of Soho, in the old (truffle-colored) UPS Building. The elegant space, which was last occupied by a restaurant called Theo, comes with a grand upstairs lounge. The lounge was filled with luminous, spaceshiplike lampshades the last time I checked, but the new owner, Jonathan Morr (BondSt), has replaced them with frilly chandeliers and commissioned the artist Jim Walrod to paper the walls with images of Greek couples in different stages of bacchanalian undress. The downstairs dining space has been recast in a more subdued, Art Deco motif, with (truffle) brown walls, rolls of (truffle) brown paper covering each table, and a set of café tables set up on the sidewalk so you can eat your truffles alfresco if you wish.
I counted eight truffle items on the appetizer-and-salad section of the menu alone, and if these don’t fulfill your truffle longings, you can order a ten-gram “supplement” of black truffles, to eat as a side dish, like potato chips. The first item I sampled was something called a truffle pizza, which was appropriately truffle-laden and cheesy (it’s made with comte cheese and truffle bordelaise sauce), but it cost $26 and was about as big as a super-size chocolate-chip cookie. After that came a skinless baked potato ($22 for the full order) swimming in fluffy béchamel-style sauce flavored, this time, with truffles and caviar. The potato was more or less useless, but the sauce was so compulsively edible that I found myself hoarding it from my fellow diners and slurping it noisily with a spoon. Ditto the poached egg, which was set in a martini glass and folded in al buffera sauce (another ancienne invention made with port and foie gras), and the simple scrambled eggs (at $11, by far the best truffle bargain), which were intense and smooth without being runny.
These creations are the conceptual work of Clément Bruno, a noted truffle hound from the south of France. Chef Bruno isn’t actually in the kitchen, however (he oversees the New York menu while operating a well-known truffle boutique in a town called Lorgues), and in his absence the proceedings can get a little rocky. Our table enjoyed most of the other truffle items, particularly a giant, crusty wheel of bread ($20) piled with shavings of white summer truffle (it costs $32 if you pile on black truffles, too) and four kinds of melted cheese. However, the chilled pea soup was gelatinous and not very fresh, and the wan, watery crab consommé tasted like something from the kitchen of an ambitious, up-market old persons’ home. The lobster minestrone was marginally better than that, although it was served flattened out in the bowl, so the ingredients looked disparate and a little lonely, like they’d washed up from the sea. And my order of vegetable ravioli was so overwhelmed with sage that my extremely herb-conscious colleague thought the kitchen had made some kind of tragic mistake.
Several of the entrées conveyed a similar sense of foreboding and disarray. My neighbor’s papillote of bass emerged from its pouch tasting bland and mushy, and my serving of Bruno’s famously lethal puff pastry (stuffed with foie gras and truffles and wrapped in bacon) was as hard as a billiard ball and about as appetizing. The halibut that I sampled (covered with a dice of fresh vegetables) was strangely salty, and the grilled tuna (with olives, capers, and a nice tomato compote) was served in such a large, bricklike portion that it was unavoidably rare. My friend the duck nut enjoyed a dish called “duck three ways” that was a combination of sautéed duck breast, duck confit, and duck liver, all flavored with nectarines, and I liked the chicken breast, which was roasted to a brown crisp and served with a pile of roasted parsnips. Best of all, though, was the simple black-Angus steak (with frites), and the extravagant, truffle-infused tournedos Rossini ($34), which would have been even better if its little cap of foie gras wasn’t faintly cold.
The avant-garde upstairs lounge at 325 Spring Street seems like a potentially happening spot, but the only person I ever saw there (albeit at around eight o’clock every evening) was the solitary bartender, dressed in his black after-hours ninja outfit. The restaurant, by contrast, is a relative hive of activity, filled with well-dressed uptown adventurers and haughty-looking Euro truffle aesthetes inspecting their plates with pursed lips. The best dessert, from the truffle perspective, is a little wedge of Camembert served over a layer of oiled black truffles. There’ s also an overeggy version of crème caramel, plus two unremarkable items served in highball glasses, one a peach Melba made with what tasted a little too much like Cool Whip, the other a kind of lemon mousse with lime gelée that tasted a little too much like extravagant Jell-O. Best of all, though, is the apple tart. It’s made in the classic way, with slices of lightly charred, caramelized apple laid over a thin, slightly crisp, slightly chewy crust. It’s served with a scoop of freshly made caramel ice cream, which melts, to reveal tiny, pepperlike specks of black truffles. I’m not sure truffles add to the pleasure of this simple, pleasurable dish. But then simple pleasure isn’t the point of this curious restaurant. Truffles are the point, whether they make sense or not.