It's not that I don't like the free samples at Costco. They can be a full meal on a Saturday afternoon. But it's not the most ambitious food: frozen burritos, Frappucino-like beverages, breakfast sandwiches. After a while, you start to believe that free samples are worth what you paid for them.
So it was a little surprising when I was walking through the Pike Place Market the other day, had a tray pushed at me and heard: "Cream of celeriac soup with white truffle oil?" It's the signature soup at La Buona Tavola, a new restaurant and takeout counter on Pike Place with a truffle theme (the earthy fungal kind, not chocolate).
My first thought was: Every restaurant should do this. You walk by Dahlia Lounge, they should be out front with a tray of coconut cream pie. My second thought was: This is pretty good soup.
La Buona Tavola began as and still operates a mail-order business, selling olive oil (both truffle-infused and plain) and truffles in other forms such as whole (jarred) and spreads. The restaurant features sandwiches, soups and salads, nearly all with black or white truffle oil. The oils and other products are also available for sale or free sample at the storefront, which is a surprisingly relaxing place to sit, given that it's on the busiest stretch of Pike Place.
It's easy to understand why they're pushing the soup samples. It's tough to sell a product most people have never tried. And I'm not convinced that truffle oil is the best way to use these mycorrhizal fungi (although La Buona Tavola's oil is much better than average). Even in their pure form, truffles are earthy, funky and taste like extraordinarily fertile soil. It's an acquired taste — not the stuff of the impulse buy, unless there's a handsome waiter with a truffle shaver involved.
But La Buona Tavola has a fighting chance because they take their food as seriously as their mission to bring truffles to the people. The prosciutto is from Parma, and the panini-grilled sandwiches are made with good bread (I am a sucker for the panini grill). The chicken breast is stuffed with spinach and herbs and served on focaccia with pecorino cheese, roasted red pepper and red-pepper oil ($6.50). Other sandwiches include meatball with tomato sauce and black truffle oil ($6.75), and a vegetarian with avocado, cucumber, greens, roasted peppers, two different spreads and white truffle oil ($5.95).
Whether they succeed in democratizing the truffle, La Buona Tavola's lunch menu is an affordable luxury. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a stroll up Madison, and Rover's had better have free samples.
Truffled porchetta sandwich: A pulled-pork sandwich, Italian style. The pork is braised with onions, garlic and herbs until falling-apart tender, drizzled with garlic and white truffle oils, then layered on focaccia with peppers and pecorino cheese and grilled. The sandwich could have used a little more meat, but the braised pork was loaded with flavor.
Prosciutto, turkey and brie sandwich: I'm not a fan of molten brie, but even I had to hand it to this well-composed sandwich, which also includes real Prosciutto di Parma, arugula, sundried tomatoes, and garlic and red-pepper oils (no truffle!) served hot on an Italian roll.
Cream of celeriac soup (cup): This soup is best hot, so eat fast. Celeriac is celery root, which has the flavor of celery without the crunch. Here it's puréed with leeks, potatoes, cream and white truffle oil for a soup that couldn't be more earthy. It's not the best soup on a 90-degree day, but I'll be back for more as soon as the weather turns nasty.
Truffled spring greens salad (half): This salad of mixed lettuces, roasted beets and carrots comes with a balsamic truffle-oil dressing and a slice of the house chicken breast, which is stuffed with spinach and herbs. It flirts with the overcomplicated but ends up on the good side of the line, and the tangy dressing goes especially well with the beets.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Truffled porchetta sandwich $7.25
Prosciutto, turkey and brie sandwich $7.75
Cream of celeriac soup (cup) $3.00
Truffled spring greens salad (half) $4.00
Matthew Amster-Burton: email@example.com