Review: Truffles in Ladue

Truffles, 9202 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314.567.9100,

In a time when guys think dressing up to dine out means looking like they just stepped off campus in rumpled khaki cargo shorts and flip-flops, it’s good to know some traditions haven’t gone the way of civil discourse and family dinners. Not that Truffles is stuffy. Far from it. Even with a parking lot full of high-end autos and a lively bar full of gray-haired gents in navy blazers and ladies fresh from the couturier, Truffles has always managed that elusive balance of refinement and relaxed casualness, something younger, well-dressed – and -heeled – diners are discovering.

The venerable eatery in the tony suburb of Ladue has been a bastion of fine dining for well over a decade, all while changing with the times; it’s gone from steakhouse to French-influenced bistro to offering New Orleans fare for a bit. Enter chef John Griffiths. The former executive chef at An American Place took the reins at Truffles late last year and has gradually been shifting the menu to reflect his philosophy of incorporating local, seasonal ingredients into modern Italian cuisine. In fact, there was a lot of gradual shifting going on during my recent visits, including a welcome interior refresh. In between two visits, new dining room chairs were in place and updated wall sconces installed. By the time you read this, the room should be refashioned into a more stylish motif.

But it’s the menu that received the biggest face-lift. Even from one visit to the next there were subtle changes, such as the addition of four large dishes, including whole versions of roasted chicken and yellowtail snapper designed to be shared by two or more diners. The new bread service replaces olive oil with a pesto-like creamy, citrusy spread that should be sold by the gallon as you leave.

Burrata, salumi and pasta are all made on premise. A table of four could subsist on the burrata, a chubby mound of creamy soft cheese made from mozzarella and heavy cream, drizzled with cherrywood-aged balsamic vinegar, topped with tiny basil leaves and served with crostini. I suspect you’ve never had anything so fresh and creamy tasting, unless you make your own cheese. Pair that with the salumi, and you have a good idea of the care and skill coming out of Griffiths’ kitchen. There’s a Flintstone-sized roasted beef marrow bone, sawed lengthwise, topped with a mélange of ramps, capers and pistachios, and served with thick slices of grilled bread on which to spread the richness.

Without saying as much, the new menu essentially follows the classic Italian format. If starters are antipasto, then consider pastas the il primo course. Take home leftovers if you must, but do not skip this course. Strettine, fettuccine-like strands of green noodles made with stinging nettles, comes pumped with flavor from fava beans, local white asparagus and Caciocavallo, a cheese similar to Provolone, all bathed in a chestnut sauce. With Griffiths’ emphasis on seasonal sourcing, don’t count on the same combination, but do count on the same exquisite quality and robust flavors.

Entrées, or il secondo if you will, cover all the protein bases. Copper River sockeye salmon, while not as rich and oily as its King cousin, was full of in-season flavor, accented with fresh English peas, green almonds and mint. Four dense, terribly fresh day boat scallops arrived seared and accompanied by an unusual mixture of black walnuts, fennel and blueberry mostarda, an Italian condiment of candied fruit and mustard-flavored syrup, all of which was surprisingly complementary. Lamb shoulder is always a treat to see on a menu, and cooking it slow and low sous vide-style further concentrated the deep flavor and succulent, melting quality of the dense cut. As with all dishes, the accompanying course-cut ragu celebrated spring: fresh green ceci beans (aka chickpeas), fennel, mint and chopped almonds. There’s a flatiron steak, thick and juicy, that gets topped with a crunchy Gorgonzola pangrattato (gratin) and splashed with a tangy grape mosto syrup. But if you prefer your steaks relatively unadorned, the KC strip should be your choice.

Aleksandar "Aleks" Jovanovic, formerly of the now-shuttered Sleek, is the restaurant’s new wine director, and he appreciates those odd or unexpected regions producing very good wines with excellent value. His suggestion of a Rhône-style red – from Arizona of all places – to go with the lamb and steak was spot-on. In addition to a large selection of splits, Jovanovic offers several wines by the half-bottle at a buck less than ordering two glasses of the same wine.

Even after such a meal, something from the dolce or formaggi menu should be at least shared. The buttermilk panna cotta was creamy thick, like Greek yogurt, and topped with chopped plums, pistachios and slightly sour petite sorrel as a foil to the sweetness. A trio of mix ’n’ match gelato or sorbet is a tidy, light ending with interesting flavors like rhubarb and plum. The most addictive has to be bombolini, puffy pillows – doughnut holes really – of deep-fried deliciousness coated with sugar and warm spices of cinnamon and allspice. The accompanying chocolate-espresso-hazelnut dipping sauce only sealed the deal. And yes, they are all worth dressing up for.

Where: Truffles, 9202 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314.567.9100,
When: Tue. to Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m. (Bar: Tue to Sat. – 3 to 11 p.m.),
Don’t-Miss Dish: Any pasta dish that fits your fancy, lamb shoulder, burrata
Vibe: Refined yet relaxed, dressy but not pretentious, old school rubs shoulders with new school. Updated interior and a convivial bar scene with live music on weekends.
Entrée Prices: $21 to $42