We've all eaten and drunk enough to know that there are some foods that merit a little extra dough. An artisan chocolate, rich and deeply flavored, is much better eating than a waxy textured Hershey bar. A bland block of Monterey Jack cheese is fine for some preparations, but for snacking, a nutty-tasting aged chunk of Parmesan is worth the investment.
But there are some pricier ingredients in various foods that I can't really justify. I will readily admit that I don't get the special-ness of saffron. I've had it in paellas and beautifully colored sauces, but I'm not sure if the up-to-$50-per-quarter-ounce price tag is owed to its flavor or the fact that someone has to hand-harvest the spice from the insides of flowers. And as for caviar, I like it well enough, but I think that's mostly because it usually comes with good Champagne.
One fancy food that I can get behind is a truffle. There's a truffle mystique—romantic scenes of truffle-hunting pigs, nowadays mostly dogs, foraging in the bucolic forests of France and Italy. The tuber's value (a 3-pound truffle sold for $330,000 at an auction last year), has led to fungi deals on the black market and an abundance of artificially flavored truffle substitutes. I can count on two hands the times I've had the opportunity to taste the real thing, so I wasn't going to skip the chance to check out the all-truffle meal last week at Jsix Restaurant, the latest in a series of roving theme dinners put together by a group called the Cooks Confab, whose past meals have revolved around cheese, game birds and raw foods.
The group, whose roster rotates occasionally, is led by Christian Graves of Jsix and Andrew Spurgin from Waters Fine Catering, with Jeff Jackson from A.R. Valentien, Stingaree's Antonio Friscia and Brian Sinnott of 1500 Ocean often filling out the lineup. This last dinner also included new players: Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten and Oceanaire's Brian Malarkey. The gang even had team jackets—white chef's coats embroidered with a decorative fork logo. Each chef was set up at a station, cooking his dish to order, so my friend and I plotted our eating course and starting making the rounds.
Truffles are like an über-mushroom, a dense and intense concentration of woodsy flavor and fragrance. They're not much to look at, resembling a gnarled rock more than something edible, but their aroma is amazing, an unmistakable and penetrating smell of earth and musk. A truffle's scent is so seductive that a popular perfume uses truffle as its base note.
Black truffles are heartier than the white variety, which come from Northern Italy, and can stand up to a little cooking, while white truffles are best served raw. Because they're so pungent, not to mention expensive, they ought not to be mucked up by too many other ingredients, which might conflict, or mask, their taste. We thought they were best honored in a simple risotto, on fresh tagliatelle pasta with parmesan (Jason Knibb's creation) and thinly sliced over a pizza, though we did also love Andrew Spurgin's two-bite Croque Madame, a ham-and-cheese sandwich with a thick slice of truffle in the middle, creamy cheese sauce on the bottom and an oozy egg yolk on top.
But just about everything was tasty, as you'd hope from a group of top chefs elevated by a little good-natured competition. It was fun to see all of them out from behind kitchen doors, interacting with diners. This is my kind of all-star action league, and I can't wait for the next one, March 4 at Stingaree.