I was born in November. November has always been sort of a dud month in general. I’ve always been jealous of Bryan, whose early October birthday coincides with glorious fall colors and perfect, crisp hiking weather here in New England.
November is that weird month after all the leaves have fallen but before the magical snow of Christmas has blanketed the ground. For my birthday, I could never go on a leaf peeping hike, a lovely outdoor picnic, or a trip to the beach. Instead, for the last five years or so, we’ve bundled up indoors, enjoying a traditional Chinese hot pot for my birthday.
Then I found out something awesome about November.
Two words: white truffles
Yep, November is when the white truffle season goes full bloom. I have been in love with white truffles ever since the moment I tried them. Their fragrant, earthy aroma is intoxicating, and I am drawn to anything that incorporates this mystical fungus.
I even told Bryan I wanted to go to Alba, Italy for my birthday someday.
Well, I didn’t get a chance to visit Alba this past November. However, Bryan did treat me to a White Alba Truffle Tasting Dinner at Menton.
This meal was really like no other meal I had ever enjoyed. For the first time, we got to dine at the Chef’s Table at Menton.
Now, before I go on, let me tell you something cool about the kitchen at Menton. If you’ve ever been to Per Se or the French Laundry, you can’t help but notice an uncanny resemblance of the Menton kitchen to those kitchens.
As it turns out, Menton’s kitchen was designed by the exact same people. According to a chef I met at Menton, the Menton kitchen is probably one of the nicest (if not THE nicest) restaurant kitchens in Boston. Once you cook there, you really become spoiled because no other kitchen is so well-designed, well-organized, spacious, and stocked with so much special and useful equipment.
Anyway, back to the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table is actually inside the kitchen. You walk through the kitchen (a cool experience in and of itself) to enter the door to this small, exclusive room. The room has one long table (seats about 20), and has a HUGE window that looks into the kitchen.
It’s seriously front-row seats to all that intense action going on in the kitchen.
It’s fascinating to sit there and watch. There’s a mirror on the other side of the wall opposite the window, so people seated on all sides of the room can enjoy the spectacle.
The manager of the restaurant, Alec Riveros, sat with us throughout the evening and taught us all about white truffles. The dinner was both educational, fun, and (of course), delicious. Because of the intimate nature of the room, you actually get to know the people at the dinner, which is kind of fun.
Before the meal began, the staff brought in the huge white truffle we would all be eating today. The aroma alone engulfed the room, making everyone just a little swoony from the luxurious smell. We passed around the huge white truffle, admiring this rare jewel. White truffles, unlike black truffles, cannot be cultivated. For some reason, no one has figured out a way to farm these precious nuggets. As a result, the only way to obtain white truffles is to go to the Alba region in Italy and hunt for them during their short season. The truffles are buried underground (about 6 inches?), so you can’t even see them if you go into the forest. This is why truffle hunters bring truffle dogs of truffle pigs, whose keen sense of spell can pick out white truffles that are buried underground. The price of white truffles varies wildly depending on availability.
This year was a sparse year for truffles, which is why prices shot up as the season progressed and not a lot of truffles were harvested. Alec told us that the executive chef, Colin Lynch (no relation to Barbara Lynch), is quite picky about truffles and will spend quite a bit of time smelling the various truffles that the truffle vendor brings before picking one out. (Can you imagine being a truffle vendor? Walking around town with that box of truffles! I would so be afraid of getting mugged!)
Nova Scotia Lobster, Royal White Sturgeon Caviar, Honey
NV Ferrari Brut
We started with a non-truffle dish, actually, the signature “Butter Soup” from Menton. This soup seriously reminded me of melted butter, yet was more velvety, luxurious, and refined. The addition of caviar and lobster just made the entire soup that much more decadent. Of course it was delicious, though I couldn’t help but feel just a tad guilty that I was literally drinking butter!!
Bay Scallop Ceviche
Chives, Honeycrisp apple, Celery
2010 Cascina Roera Arneis “Ciapin”
The next course was a simple dish of bay scallops topped with the first magical shaving of white truffles. The Bay scallops were fresh and very sweet, which was offset nicely with the crisp apple and celery components. The white truffle smelled incredible on the dish, and worked perfectly fine with the components. Part of me did wish I could taste the white truffle more. In this dish, there were many equally strong flavors going on in conjunction with the shaved white truffles. Unlike simpler preparations where the white truffle is clearly the star, here it acted as an equal player in an orchestra of several flavors.
Fondutta, Braised Lettuce, Madeira
2005 Cascina Roera Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Cardin”
The chestnut agnolotti was one of my favorite courses of the evening. The fresh, homemade pasta had fantastic texture, and the fondutta sauce (a rich, creamy sauce made from fontina cheese, butter, milk, and egg yolks) bound everything together beautifully. Of course, the white truffles added a gorgeously sweet, earthy aroma that worked really well with the other components in this dish.
Braised Beef Cheeks
Ris de Veau, Parsnip, Sauce Perigueux
2007 Bianco Aldo Barbaresco
2006 Oddero Barolo
Our last savory course was braised beef cheeks and ris de veau (sweetbreads) in a Périgueux sauce (a rich, brown sauce made from Madeira wine and black truffles!). They came with these peculiar looking seashell shaped root vegetables that none of us had ever seen before. They sort of tasted like a cross between water chestnuts and potatoes, and were actually quite good. The braised beef cheeks went very well with the deep, rich Périgueux sauce. The white truffles were a nice balance to the intense flavors in the meal, though (again), part of me wished I could taste the white truffle more.
The meal included wine pairings, which was pretty unlimited. In other words, if you were a fast drinker and finished your wine before the course was over, they would just pour you some more. Of course, I had the opposite problem. I had trouble finishing so many glasses! This is why so many red wine glasses started “piling up” in front of my plate!
We moved onto a simple cheese course. I regret to say that I cannot remember the name of this cheese. I can say that it was nutty, creamy, had nice depth, and was lovely with the accompanying toasts, Marcona almonds, and fruit jam.
Cardamon, Milk Chocolate Crumble, Grand Marnier Glace
2010 Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui “Pineto”
Though we were all crazy full by the end, we ended with a few more sweet bites! The decadent chocolate mousse was nice – rich and chocolatey yet not too sweet.
Before we left, the last thing we enjoyed were these baby mini-macarons! This was not the first time I had seen these, but they were still just as fun to eat! Each color is a different flavor. I think we had espresso, mint, raspberry, and orange (though I am not positive!).
All in all, these special Chef’s Table dinners are really an interesting and different way to enjoy dinner on a Sunday evening. Instead of paying the crazy $2000 minimum to reserve the Chef’s Table for yourself, you can just pay the price of a dinner.
The white truffle dinner was significantly more expensive than most largely due the the cost of the ingredients. However, they often have other, more “normally” (normal for Menton, that is) priced set tastings (usually in the $100 to $150 range) that are probably fun, informative, and (of course), delicious.
Thanks Bryan for a such a fun, unique “visit” to Alba. Maybe next year we can go for real. 🙂
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