We’ve had 99 cent meals at fast food outlets, two-for-one BOGO offers in casual dining and, as we reported last month (http://restaurant-hospitality.com/news/value-meals-hit-fine-dining-0928), even upper-echelon chains and their independent fine dining brethren have succumbed to the lure of the bargain meal, with “bargain” being a relative term at their level. But the restaurant industry will reach the final frontier of cut-rate dining later this week at San Francisco’s Palio Asti, which is offering a sizable markdown on its legendary truffle dinners. Will other fine dining restaurants follow suit?
Nothing screams “over-the-top luxury” like freshly shaved truffles. They’re the only ingredient restaurants buy whose prized specimens are auctioned off via a video conference that links the richest cities in the world. In 2007, Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid $330,000 for a 1.5 kilogram truffle, a record that looks like it will stand for some time.
Not all truffles go to auction, however. Most of the ones that wind up in U.S. restaurants come from dedicated specialty suppliers. The market price of this tier of truffles is significantly lower, although still stratospheric. That’s because truffles can’t be cultivated and are instead hunted down one by one in the wild. Some harvests are better than others, yet demand has always outpaced supply in the fresh truffle market, allowing purveyors to charge whatever the traffic will bear.
That traffic bore a lot until the recent economic downturn, which caused truffle prices to decline, too. Bad new for the truffle hunters, but restaurateurs may be able to find some relative bargains if they shop wisely this year.
Palio Asti chef/owner Dan Scherotter jumped on the opportunity early.
“We are very fortunate to have an exclusive Italian purveyor who provides Palio with probably the best selection of truffles in Northern California,” he says. “These specific truffles are in such high demand that typically many top Bay Area chefs are not able to attain them for their restaurant.”
Paolo Asti is famous for its annual truffle events, so a secure supply was crucial for Scherotter. But he also serves as president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, whose member restaurants do business in 800 locations. That role provides him with more in-depth knowledge of the current operating climate than a typical independent restaurant owner might have. He’s aware that customers no longer want to break the bank, even if they can afford to. To fill the tables today, the price has to be right.
“We know that truffles are a luxury for most, and with the economy being the way it is, we are making this year’s event much more affordable,” Scherotter says. “We have dropped our prices from $120 to $75 per person.”
But this is no cut-rate affair. Take a gander at what a Palio Asti patron will get for his $75:
Bagna Cauda (Cauliflower and Peppers with the Classic Piemontese Dipping Sauce)
Uova Ripiena di Tartufi (Truffled Devilled Eggs)
Carne Cruda (Milk Fed Veal Tartare)
Risotto con Fonduta (White Risotto with Melted Fontina Val d’Aosta Cheese, Shaved Piemontese White Truffles)
Uccellacci in Uccellino (Roasted Sonoma Quail stuffed with Squab Breast, Duck Foie Gras, Tuscan Black Truffles and Porcini Mushrooms, Served with Savoy Cabbage and Squab Leg Sugo)
Mar e Monte (Braised Black Cod with Dayboat Scallops, Black Truffles, Smoked Porcini Mushrooms, Salsify and Cipollini Onions in Porcini-Baccala Brodo)
Formaggi Piemontesi (Mixed Unpasteurized Seasonal Cheeses from Piemonte)
Tartufi Amedei (A variety of Chocolate Truffles made from the World’s only Single Origin Chocolate, refined in Tuscany)
What a lineup! It’s hard to see another restaurant meeting or beating the price of a truffle dinner like this. But if you’d like to try, this is the year to do it. White truffles sold for $1,800 to $2,500 per pound last year, down significantly from the average price of $3,500 in 2007. We’re in the midst of truffle-hunting season right now, so 2009 prices are still being set.
However, the folks at Italian purveyor Urbani Truffles expect those prices to eventually move up a bit from 2008 levels. They point out that in addition to demand, the size, quality and perhaps even the shape of a truffle will have an influence on its market price. And if you don’t have access to a truffle purveyor, it’s easy to find one on the Internet. At our deadline, Urbani’s online store was selling single ounces of white truffles for $193 each. Shave ’em thin!