Charlestonians are still experiencing 75-degree weather even as we approach Christmas, but our cravings for wintery food haven’t gotten the memo. Crisp, summery salads and chilled gazpachos were exhausted back in September, and pumpkin-spiced everything has run its autumnal course. What we need now is a stick-to-your-ribs kind of robustness that’s perfect for eating in front of a crackling fire — though the source of that “fire” may be the Darth Vader Yule Log YouTube video since we still need to run the AC everyday.
Enter the white truffle, arguably the season’s earthiest, heartiest ingredient. White truffle season begins in mid-fall and runs through December, and though their black counterparts are in season from December to March, it’s the lighter variety that holds optimal flavor. Black truffles have a pronounced but less dramatic odor and are usually cooked — it helps release their essence. White truffles, which have a denser, muskier fragrance, are often shaved raw onto full-bodied pastas and risottos. They don’t need much help to have a full impact on any dish. They’re so rich, the taste is primal, sexy even. Walk into a room where a white truffle sits, and you’ll smell it instantly — nutty and barnyard-y, it is nature’s most dedicated umami incantation.
This month, a smattering of restaurants have been rolling out truffle offerings, and Nate Whiting of 492 says it’s all thanks to a great year for truffles. Last week Jason Stanhope of FIG delivered a one-night only five-course truffle menu. On Sun. Jan 17, Whiting is bringing in chef Carlo Zarri of Ristorante Villa San Carlo in Cortemilia, Italy for a special dinner featuring truffles and hazelnuts. And Indaco is offering a special white truffle menu from chefs Mike Perez and Kevin Getzewich.
We got a taste of Indaco’s three-course prix-fixe truffle menu ($70, $95 with wine pairings). It began with an appetizer of coddled egg with truffle cream and crispy headcheese croquettes. Coddled eggs — similar to poached — can run the gamut from barely to completely cooked, and the chefs at Indaco have chosen to present theirs in the nearly raw form. It wouldn’t work in every dish, but the thick truffle cream that cloaks the egg transforms the whole thing into a custard-like bowl of mmm. Crispy headcheese croquettes offer a salty, textural variant, which holds up nicely against the sauce. However, we found our culinary nirvana when we asked for some of the house-made focaccia and used it to mop up the creamy goodness.
White truffles are a fine punctuation to the second course, a plate of ricotta cappellacci, Marcona almonds, lemon zest, and Pecorino. Cappellacci, a filled pasta that falls somewhere in-between ravioli and large tortellini, are cooked al dente and plated simply so that the subtler, earthy flavors are allowed to sing.
A final dish of apple crostada and white truffle gelato rounded things out nicely, though we found ourselves wondering why the two would be paired. The baked apple tart, while it isn’t exactly a forno paragon (the crust lacks some flakiness), is a suitable wintry dessert. The gelato, dolloped on a bed of chocolate crumbles, is inspired. Yes, using a normally savory ingredient to make ice cream is a tired trend — it’s often the easy way out for an ingredient-focused tasting menu. But this version was complex and buoyant all at once, the crunchy chocolate a lovely underlier. The two elements of the dish simply don’t marry well, but it’s easy enough to separate crostada from gelato with the sweep of a spoon.
Conversely, the wine pairings worked exceptionally well. The verdant 2013 Pio Cesare L’Altino accompanying the coddled egg cut through the unctuous dish with ease, and a 2014 Popolo di Indie was spicy enough to pepper up the cappellacci. The final pairing, a sparkly, sweet 2013 Brachetto d’Acqui, made for a pleasant dessert drink.
So while you’re keeping it real in short sleeves, extra deodorant, and full-throttle air conditioning, do your stomach a favor. Give it a dose of winter love in the form of an unctuous white truffle dish or two. And keep your eyes on social media for more truffle menus while the bumper crop lasts.