This week's Food Fight was an exercise in learning valuable lessons. Lesson No. 1: Always do your due diligence before embarking on a trip to a restaurant that lies halfway across town. Perhaps check to see if that restaurant is actually open. This life skill will serve you well. Lesson No. 2: If you're going to a restaurant for one $8 item, make sure you don't get suckered into spending $114 on various other menu items because they "sound good." Your pocketbook will thank you.
That last lesson is particularly important because this week's Food Fight foodstuff was chosen for a particular reason: truffle fries are an affordable luxury at a time when most people are cutting back on dining out and other pricey expenses. Simple French fries dressed up with truffle oil and shavings of parmesan cheese -- other accoutrements like cracked black pepper or chives can also find their way onto the pile -- become more than just a pile of potatoes, and for only a few dollars more than you'd pay for a box of fries at McDonald's. What's more, they're great for splitting with a friend over a glass of wine after a long day at work.
The idea behind truffle fries is that you're getting a luxury item -- that diamond of the culinary world, truffles, which can sell for upwards of $1,500 a pound for fresh French Perigords -- for only a few bucks. Granted, the truffle oil used on the fries may or may not be synthetic, but that doesn't mean the gloriously pungent aroma and subtle taste isn't still there to be cherished.
This week's competitors were chosen, as you may know, from a hat earlier this week. Of the eight places in town that serve truffle fries, The Tasting Room and The Capital Grille were chosen at random. However, it turns out that The Capital Grille doesn't serve lunch (as we found out today after driving all the way over to the Galleria without checking its hours), so a last-minute substitution was made: Ibiza. Who won? Let's find out...
As recently discussed here at Eating Our Words, the swank, busy wine bar in Uptown Park has a revamped menu and a new chef. The truffle fries, however, are not a new item and remain as consistently popular as they always were, and for good reason. They're one of the less expensive items on the menu at $8 and pair quite nicely with wine, such as the buttery 2008 Neil Ellis chardonnay that was recommended with them.
While my dining companions and I happened to go a little overboard that night, inadvisedly ordering quail and lobster fritters and antipasto platters like Caligula on a binge, the focus was still on the truffle fries. Served in a metal cone with butcher paper, there were deceptively few fries to go around. Between the three of us, we ended up with perhaps ten fries apiece.
The fries themselves looked like old-school steak fries without the seasoned salt. While most likely not frozen, they still had the mouthfeel and general bland look of fries that had been sitting in a deep freeze for a while, although the taste didn't indicate as much. The mouthwatering scent of white truffle oil nearly hit us from across the room, but the fries tasted more of black pepper than anything else. And while we enjoyed them, they weren't nearly as good as the other menu items we were stuffing ourselves with that night, which inadvertently led to the $114 tab.
As a last-minute substitution, Ibiza was a welcome surprise. The healthy lunch crowd this afternoon was presided over handily by Charles Clark, turning out one stunning dish after another from the restaurant's open kitchen. For all the times we've gone to Ibiza, we've never sat inside; it was an enjoyable change.
The truffle fries on Ibiza's menu were less expensive than The Tasting Room's, at only $6. And when the platter of true-blue French fries hit the table with a little pot of herbed mayonnaise, this Food Fight was all over but the crying.
The serving of fries was vast -- enough to feed a table of four -- and the fries were properly cooked. That is to say, fried twice to a hot, crisp, golden brown with a pillowy interior. The smell of the truffle oil was far less intense than at The Tasting Room, but the taste was more pronounced. The fat crumbles of Parmesan stuck gloriously to each fry, and my companion and I found ourselves savagely snapping up any stray pieces with our fingers after all the fries were consumed.
Not only are the truffle fries at Ibiza far superior in taste and appearance than The Tasting Room's, they are also a much better bargain. And after all, isn't that what affordable luxuries are all about? Ibiza wins, hands down.