Every season offers its own mix of irresistible fresh gems. Think of a gorgeous summer peach and fat juicy melons, autumn’s luscious golden pears, bright spring asparagus. Winter’s root vegetables and leafy greens, in comparison, can sometimes seem a little dull. But shining there among those nutrient-rich but slightly pizzazz-free options are winter’s ace in the hole … truffles.
Referred to as “the diamond of the kitchen” by 18th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, truffles are the edible fruiting body of certain types of underground mushrooms, and have become such a staple of modern haute cuisine that they can fetch ridiculous prices for even the most petite serving. I recently had dinner at one of Lidia Bastianich’s restaurants in NYC and was shocked when the polenta dish ordered from the day’s specials, carefully topped with freshly shaved truffle, amounted to a roughly gelato-scoop-sized portion floating in the center of a lavishly oversized dish; price: $45.
With such a caviaresque pedigree, truffles are usually something you just get a small sample of, whether a dish includes wafer-thin fresh truffles, truffle-infused olive oil, or a combination of preserved truffles and truffle paste. Above Restaurant recently hosted a special four-course Truffle Dinner, however, that made the most of this gourmet ingredient with a varied and playful sampling that showed off both the truffle’s unique appeal and the South Orange eatery’s successful approach to fine dining without the fuss.
The four courses featured:
An amuse-bouche of thick, grilled hickory-smoked bacon layered over a mound of crunchy-sweet jicama cantaloupe slaw with a cloud of citrus truffle foam. Airy and a little tart, the foam added a cool layer of texture with just a hint of earthy truffle flavor.
A beautifully prepared Snapper Consume that made me swoon. Tipped from a pitcher over an artful mound of chick pea fritter swirled with red snapper mousseline, the fishy broth was soothing and rich. Shaved truffles and a few scattered greens added to the combination of textures, and the result was a delectable treat.
The main course was listed on the menu as “Heaven and Earth” – an upscale cousin of the seaside favorite surf & turf combo, perhaps. Here, a tender petit filet mignon was layered with a plump mushroom-stuffed scallop, centered in a pool of truffled foie gras sauce sidled up against a creamy truffle Moscato dressing that graced a handful of celery leaf salad. Fresh truffles generously shaved over the dish offered the opportunity to take a simple, clean bite of the fungus and really taste its shroomy richness.
Last but not least the dessert course, a beautiful trio of miniature indulgences, was a winner: a square ramekin filled with rich crème brulee with thin truffle slices stickily adhered to the browned sugar topping; a juicy sliced strawberry drizzled with a crunchy maple Grand Marnier glaze; and the true stand-out, a cool scoop of caramelized white chocolate and truffle ice cream nested on a thin cookie crisp on a base of something humorously termed “Coriander Chocolate Dirt.” Never mind that I was eating ‘dirt’ – that stuff was awesome! When asked to explain his inspiration for this unusual treat, Chef Joe Catalano described how the ground chocolate he was working with reminded him of the coffee grounds he added to the soil in his mom’s garden as a kid. Combining it with sugar and toasted coriander, his hope was to create a unique flavor where “the chocolate is going to coat, the sugar is going to pop, and the coriander’s going to break right through.”
It was a treat to sample the fancy food delicacy in so many ways and a great introduction to Above Restaurant & Bar, which I’d been hoping to visit for a long while. Situated one floor above the Eden Marketplace gourmet grocer on South Orange Avenue (directly across from the train station), Above features American cuisine with plenty of French and Italian influence, as well as sushi from their Sushi Bar. Lunch and dinner are served daily (closed on Monday); a special brunch menu and “Sunday Night Family Dinner” are offered on Sundays. There is also a late-night bar menu from 10pm to midnight every night. Monthly dinners and other special events are listed on their website.
To learn more about truffles and order specialty truffle products online, check out this treasure trove of information at GourmetFoodstore.com.
Above Restaurant & Bar
1 South Orange Avenue
South Orange, NJ 07079
free parking at the rear of the building
Deanna Quinones is the Jersey Bites Regional Editor for Morris County. A freelance writer, blogger, and unrepentant chocolate addict, Deanna spent 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area where life was good and the burritos even better. She recently returned to the Garden State and now resides in Morristown, where she and her Texas-born/Jersey-raised/California-found husband are raising two wild and wonderful kids. An experienced book marketer, award-winning greeting card writer, and entertainment writing dabbler, Deanna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (photo credit Pete Genovese/The Star-Ledger)