Daily Pampering: new San Francisco restaurant debuts $390 truffle dinner

It’s truffle season again. In the Perigord, grizzled Frenchmen scour the forests using specially-trained female pigs or dogs to sniff out the rare black fungi growing from the roots of various tree species. In Piedmont, Italy, a similar hunt is under way for the even more esteemed white truffle. According to The Daily Beast, these little buggers can fetch an average of $3,500 a pound in a good economy (in ’09, the price for white truffles dropped to $1,800 to $2,500 a pound), making them one of the most expensive ingredients on earth.

In celebration of all this fungal goodness, Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco is offering a nine-course truffle dinner for $390, through early 2011. Inside Scoop SF also tells us that for another $110, the restaurant will pair the wines for you. The Japanese-inflected meat temple opened last month in the buzzing SoMa neighborhood, but the sister location in the Silicon Valley is offering the same special.

Why are people willing to spend so much cash on a glorified foraged mushroom that smells like male pig pheromones? Gourmands will tell you the essence of the homely truffle elevates everything from scrambled eggs to pasta to euphoric levels. And truffles are supposedly an aphrodisiac (the scent of swine sex hormones, and all). Fortunately, a little of the pungent fungi goes a long way, and Alexander’s uses a total of 15 grams (roughly half-an-ounce) of black and white truffles on its special menu.

Dishes include elegant offerings like bonito sashimi with salsify, garlic chips, celery, curry foam, and black truffle; binchotan-roasted bone marrow, black garlic panko, citrus jam, and white truffle, and Japanese a5 Kagoshima ribeye cap [in plain English: expensive cut of top-grade imported Wagyu beef] with parsnip puree, butternut squash, chestnuts, and white truffle. Are you feeling randy yet, baby?

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[Photo credit: Flickr user cyclingshepherd]

Mushroom Pickers Unite!

Well, it’s that time of year again in the Czech Republic. Time for those atavistic hunter-gatherer instincts to be unleashed. Thousands of Europeans with crazed looks in their darting eyes, trembling fingers clutching baskets, socks rolled over their pant legs (ticks!), marching, probing, snooping, we stumble through the forests like zombies. We guard our secret spots, we spy on others for their secret spots, we come home lucky, or we come home dejected.

Yes, it’s mushroom-picking time.

With Czechs and Slovaks, at least, it’s an obsession. I’ve heard claims that 80% of us do it at least occasionally. And this is the time of year. A certain combination of weather conditions (usually rain then heat) makes these buggers sprout up, filling the forests. And collect them, we do. It’s a family affair, taking up our weekends. The fuller the basket, the better. They are sauteed, made into soups, dried for the winter.

The kind we hunt is called the “hrib,” also known as the boletus or porcini mushroom (pictured above).

Americans can’t seem to understand this custom, although there is ‘gold in them thar hills’: one need only read a recent New Yorker article about the fortunes made mushroom-picking in the woods of Oregon, for example. Wikipedia, in a well down article, lays mushroom picking down as a Slavic custom, only for those braving poisoning, using knowledge passed down for generations.