It's Sunday night and we're dining at a relatively new restaurant across the street from Lenox Square, Truffles Cafe (3345 Lenox Road, 404-364-9050). Frankly, I'm following AJC dining critic John Kessler here. A friend mentioned Kessler's recent review and I'd instantly balked.
"This isn't related to the Truffles Cafe in Hilton Head, is it?" I asked.
Sure enough, it belongs to the same people whose restaurant I visited quite a few times in visits to the South Carolina resort about — what? — 25 years ago. That was a strange period of my life, to say the least. I was flat broke. Fortunately, I had a few friends with more money than Rev. Harold Camping. One of them took it upon herself to provide me respite from a life of continually pending eviction and invited me to her resort home in Hilton Head frequently.
Truffles had been open a couple of years then and my friend insisted we eat there frequently. I was also visiting a friend in Savannah a lot at the time. We often dined at the new Elizabeth on 37th, a restaurant that became one of the main influences in the development of New Southern cuisine.
Truffles was laid-back and cozy; the food was well-prepared; prices were moderate. Elizabeth's, though certainly Southern, was more formal and cutting-edge ... and you certainly paid for the difference.
Truffles retains those same features in its new Atlanta location, the first in a plan to expand beyond Hilton Head (where there are three of the restaurants now). The Lenox restaurant was formerly a Ruby Tuesday. As Truffles, it operates under a licensing agreement that Ruby Tuesday's CEO made with the founder of Truffles, his brother. The idea was to provide Buckhead something of a higher quality than the downwardly mobile Ruby Tuesday.
For the most part, our meal was OK — not innovative, not great, not bad, not expensive. Notice I'm defining it by what it was not. It was not a place I'd return to, even if marooned in the horror of shopping at Lenox.
It was not, for further example, lovely. The dining room's pitched ceiling is festooned with mammoth faux lamp shades. Rectangular, horizontal windows reminded me of a train's. Overall, the dining room and the adjoining a bar area are kind of gloomy.
My meal started with chicken-almond soup. This was by far the worst item to hit our table. Its texture reminded me of the glutinous state of some Campbell's soups before water is added. Flavor was nonexistent except for the crunch of a few slivered almonds. New rule: If you can't gargle the soup, it's no good (purées exempted).
Wayne ordered what turned out to be a very good Caesar salad with white anchovies. Many restaurants could learn from Truffles what a real Caesar should taste like. I bet a lot of people have no idea.
Entrées were each yin and yang in their ways. I ordered sliced pork tenderloin. Our terrific server recommended I order it medium-rare — something you don't hear much in the overcooking South — and it was perfect. But, in true Southern fashion, the pork was under an overly sweet sauce that was insufficiently tempered by an alleged "mild chili rub." I guess this is really what people want to do with otherwise great-tasting meat. Strange. At least green beans on the side were all they should be in early summer and were unpolluted.
Wayne ordered a double boneless breast of chicken topped with blue cheese, chunks of bacon and a chipotle barbecue drizzle. The menu also mentioned red onion, but didn't explain that it was chopped and completely covered the chicken, dominating the otherwise effectively balanced flavors. It surprises me how often restaurants dump raw onions on food with no warning of the quantity these days.
Wayne complained and that initiated the most surprising thing about the restaurant. The staff turned into a gaggle of Mother Teresas. They offered to redo the entrée. They tried to ply us with extra food. They bared their backs to be whipped with our forks. (OK, not really, but close in spirit.)
Wayne explained that it was easy enough to scrape away the onions, despite them being somewhat glued to the melted cheese. He just wanted to give them advice. Nonetheless, the staff added an extra dessert to our order of decent Key lime pie. They brought out a warmed, gigantic butterscotch brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and chocolate syrup.
"That's very nice of you to add an extra two thousand calories to our meal," I joked to the server. It reminded me of a similar dessert at Chili's that has been ranked one of the most calorific in America. And like that dessert, Truffle's is outrageously good because it's so fatty, sweet, chocolaty and momentarily deludes you into thinking you're a teenager with a jet-propelled metabolism.
What is going on here, really? It's an explicit attempt to provide an upgrade of Ruby Tuesday, of course. But does it? Yes, 25 years ago, Truffles was a pleasant beach-town hangout with some spiffy recipes. I'm not sure the present menu — basically the same as the Hilton Head one — brings enough improvement to warrant a significant increase in business. As I said, I won't be going back.