Dining » Cafe

Truffles and Flourishes

A meal so good, our intrepid reviewer chucks her notebook for a night


"You gotta go look at the urinal!"

Bobbo was ruddy with excitement. The busboy had just divulged the information that Georgia Frontiere would be arriving shortly with some football bigwigs (which delighted Scooter and Sherri), and we'd just had an excellent dinner (which delighted me), but it was the plumbing that blew Bobbo's skirt up. Slightly problematic was his urgent demand that I go have a look at it myself. This must be some urinal.

Normally I wouldn't balk at an invitation to tour a men's latrine, but tonight we were at Truffles, a fancy French restaurant in the heart of Caucasia where the elite meet to eat. Truffles pays decorative homage to the Belle Epoch, but the climate is decidedly Right Bank. It's not the sort of place where such juvenile hijinks as "Hey, let's sneak Jill into the men's room!" are likely to fly. Everything is brand-new, shipshape and top-notch. The dining room is awash in soft hues and tasteful appointments. Fastidious servers trickle about noiselessly with napkin-draped trays. Pink-faced captains of industry nod absently at each other over plates of foie gras. Once in a while you overhear a French accent issuing urgent commands in the wings. Even the napkins reflect the mood: They are folded like miniature stuffed shirts. On the evening in question, with the exception of an anxious junior exec in shirtsleeves, I was the youngest person in the joint. And I'm no spring chicken.

Speaking of chicken: Truffles' roulade de poulet was the only dish out of the nearly 20 I sampled that wasn't completely swell; the meat affected a disposition that was slightly less than moist. I mention this minor bobble now to get it out of the way, because I sense a wave of gushing hyperbole about to sweep me off.

See, there are times to review restaurants and times to abscond to a more primitive plane and just wallow in 'em. This, my first visit to Truffles, was one of those latter times. The company effervesced, the wine was thoroughly decent and both service and food were shaping up nicely. Arriving on the heels of an amuse-bouche (slivers of duck confit on toast), the first course was such that I chucked my notebook and clocked out; I wanted to enjoy these prandial revels like a proper trencherman, without the burden of having to overintellectualize. A month later, I look back and fondly recall that parade of well-honed delights: ethereal, paper-thin slices of chilled beef tenderloin; seraphic lump-crab cakes with cucumber salad; a footed bowl of sumptuous lobster bisque. There was a plate of garlicky, plump grilled shrimp on a whisper of polenta, a strip steak that might have ascended to the right hand of God had Scooter not ordered it medium-well, and, oh yeah, the bouillabaisse.

The beauty of chef Alessandro Bozzato's cooking is his seamless tweaking of what used to be called Continental cuisine to appeal to modern tastes. He uses quality stuff and cooks it without irony. It's almost too good to be true: The food here won't confound you with byzantine metaphors or distract you with funky innovations. There's no sign of palate-numbing chile rubs, no half-cooked fish with wasabi cream. Everything falls lightly within the parameters of classic southern European cuisine, a tactic that nearly qualifies Bozzato as a renegade. In this wacky, wanton age of the new American bistro, with its attendant pesto abuse and Southern-fried Thai-chicken black-bean pizza, nothing warms the cockles like a good fragrant bouillabaisse. Truffles' city-dwelling version, a steaming bowl of succulent sea morsels ladled tableside with saffron-scented soup, was flawless.

Returning a couple weeks later, we enjoyed a meal that possibly surpassed the first, making the temptation to give myself over to libidinous gourmandise all the more overwhelming. But "devotion to duty" is the Posey-Smith motto. This time I took notes.

No amuse-bouche tonight; forced to improvise, Sherri and Bobbo and I amused our bouches with gossip and a crisp baguette with little stars of room-temperature butter. Simple but effective, it held us over until the first course shimmered into view.

We'd selected a bunch of seafood dishes to start; all were exemplary. The smoked salmon perfectly illustrated Bozzato's admirable reluctance to monkey around with the tried-and-true. The fish, of excellent character, tasted more like salmon than smoke for a change and was treated simply with fresh dill, red onion and capers. Dollops of mascarpone took it to the next level.

Sherri's salad of seared sea scallops over field greens was truly killer. Impeccably cooked, the shellfish possessed a texture of such refinement, a flavor of such delicacy, that I was moved to go "whoa" with a startled jerk of the head.

Bobbo's intriguing casserole marinière turned out to be a sort of shellfish soup with vegetables and a highly aromatic broth. Its only flaw was the mysterious inclusion of an unopened mussel. "Guess I can't eat that one, huh," Bobbo mused dejectedly. He'd been on a diet for two weeks and was wasting away to nothing.

He need not have worried; I was so stuffed from inhaling the above that I gave him three of my four lamb chops. A textbook case of medium-rare, these were of such high quality that there was no need to overstate the case with flashy additives. A whorl of potato purée, a spot of ratatouille in a zucchini ramekin and the classic handful of flageolet beans were all oomph they needed.

Neither could I find anything wrong with our other entrees. Like the rack of lamb, Bobbo's black-Angus fillet on a round of grilled polenta was simplicity itself. Seared to produce a toothsome crust, the meat was surprisingly flavorful for beef tenderloin; the red-wine reduction gave it an edge. Meanwhile, Sherri's excellent roasted veal chop, stuffed with prosciutto and fontina, was ultrafancy; I couldn't stop sopping the marsala sauce with my bread sponge.

We ended with a couple of nonchocolate desserts. After a lag that was a trifle lengthy, a velvety crème brûlée wafted along, topped with a flaming sugar cube. This was fun and melodramatic, but my favorite was the blueberry thing. Riding a fine line between cookie and cake, this purple puck-sized confection was crowned with an exquisite cassis sorbet and drizzled with crème anglaise. Just sweet enough to be called dessert, it stopped short of inducing a coma.

But you'll be wondering about the urinal. Bobbo and Scooter did, in fact, sneak me into the men's room. There I encountered a mammoth floor-mounted specimen of antique porcelain so magnificent the owner has seen fit to bestow on it a brass plaque proclaiming its illustrious provenance. (It hails from the American Theatre when it was still the Orpheum, in 1917 -- a big year for urinals. That same year, Marcel Duchamp signed a flatback Bedfordshire model "R. Mutt" and called it art.) Impressive. But so was the women's room, which featured piped-in French radio and state-of-the-art commodes with self-cleaning rotating seats: no brass plaques, but a diverting spectacle all the same. The female tushes of Clayton are in impeccable hands.

TRUFFLES, 9202 Clayton Rd. (Ladue), 567-9100. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 5:30-11 p.m. Thu.-Sat. (bar opens 5 p.m.). Entrees: $15-$28.

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