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You're Probably Paying Too Much for White Truffles in Restaurants

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Welcome to Suttonomics, where Eater Data Lead Ryan Sutton looks at facts, figures, and interesting data across the restaurant industry. This week, Ryan takes a look at why diners might be overpaying for white truffles, a seasonal autumn delicacy from Alba, Italy.

Every year from late September to December, chefs throughout the world perfume their dining rooms with white truffles from Alba, Italy. White gloved wait captains traditionally shave the pricey petals, famous for their pungent aroma, over buttered pasta, potatoes or risotto. Because the tartufo bianco is so expensive — a single portion can easily cost well over $100 in New York — here are five things you need to know before ordering them in a restaurant..

1. You might get a discount when truffle prices go down. But you probably won't.

It's been a good year for truffles, with heavy summer rains producing a 30 percent larger crop than usual, Bloomberg News reports. As a result, wholesale prices are down anywhere from 6 percent - 29 percent from the same week last year, and anywhere from 36 percent - 52 percent down from the same week in 2012. In other words, a 100 gram truffle that cost $260 at wholesale two years ago might fetch $130 today.

So kudos to a select group of restaurant for cutting prices this year. At Daniel, truffles are $60, $120 or $190, down from $80, $140 and $220 in 2013. At Marea, where 7 - 8 grams of shaved truffles over risotto cost $149 last year, diners will now pay $100 for the same a la carte portion size. And at Recette, chef Jesse Schenker says the falling price of truffles has prompted him to increase the portion size from 4.5 grams to 6 grams, while maintaining last year's price of $80.

Thing is, not all restaurants are lowering prices. Culinary establishments who haven't changed their truffle prices include Babbo ($80 over an egg, $120 with pasta), Maialino ($50), Del Posto ($120-$240), Burger and Barrel ($56), and Per Se, which has charged $175, service included, since at least 2010, even as wholesale prices have trended lower over the past three truffle seasons. Le Cirque, in turn, is asking more than last year, charging $150, up from $120 in 2013.

"I think we need a new vendor!" exclaimed Del Posto general manager Jeff Katz when I informed him that truffle prices were largely down this year. Katz says he has no plans to lower his prices. Mario Batali, in turn, tells Eater that he's paying the same prices as last year for the truffles he's using at Babbo, around $1600 - $1800/lb.

A spokesperson for Maialino says the restaurant "keeps the supplement cost consistent, meaning if the cost of truffles goes up, the supplement stays the same; if the cost goes down, the supplement stays the same." That rep adds that truffle sales "are minimally beneficial to the restaurant – it’s not something that the restaurant makes much money on, it’s really there to provide a luxurious experience to the guest." A spokesperson for Le Cirque did not respond to Eater's inquiry as of publication time.

The NoMad hasn't changed its truffle prices this year, but the Michelin-starred venue deserves credit for having cut its pricing in 2013 to $89 for 8 grams over pasta — a great deal — down from $115 for 3 grams in 2012 — not a great deal, but not out of line with the market that year.

2. You often don't know how much you're getting.

When it comes to caviar, good restaurants often weigh out portion sizes in the kitchen, or even send out the product in its original tin as a sign of transparency; you know you're getting 50 grams because it says it right there on the packaging. That level of measurement is more difficult with truffles because part of the joy of this delicacy is inhaling the aroma of the petals as they're shaved tableside. So choose restaurants where you know you're getting a good, consistent portion. Allow me to recommend Per Se, where the aggressive shavers don't stop until your entire bowl of risotto is covered with around 10-12 grams of truffles.

3. Restaurants don't always display their white truffle tasting menus online.

I found three New York white truffle tasting menus while researching this column: Babbo ($300), Bouley ($450) and Daniel ($595). None of those restaurants list the courses of their white truffle tastings online, and only Babbo actually lists the price, which is unfortunate as some of us tend to plan out these expensive experiences in advance. When I anonymously called up Bouley and asked how many (or what type of) courses were served as part of the white truffle tasting, a manager wasn't helpful. "It depends. We can make it larger, with fewer courses, or we can make smaller portions, with more courses." With respect, "It depends" is not a sufficient answer for a $450 menu.

4. Some restaurants require you to do mental arithmetic to figure out the cost of truffles.

I'm not going to name names, but certain restaurants like to price truffles by gram instead of by portion to make the dish seem cheaper; "$14 per gram" is a heck of a lot easier on the eyes than, say $84 or more after all the shaving stops. Okay I'll name names: Benoit.

5. You can totally enjoy them at home for less.

When you buy a $61 dry-aged strip from Minetta Tavern, you're not just paying for the product, you're paying for the luxury of having someone source a USDA Prime cut of beef that's unavailable in your local supermarket. You're paying for a cook to transform that raw meat into a steak using a broiler you can't afford and using techniques you're unfamiliar with. That's why you pay $61.

But with truffles, you're paying for someone to shave an expensive ingredient (that you can buy for less at a gourmet market) over a plate of pasta (that you could cook yourself without fail). That means truffles, unless a restaurant is selling them at cost, can feel like a pure arbitrage play, like the markup on alcohol or wine. So as much as it's nice to enjoy these luxuries in nice restaurants, allow me to suggest picking a 28 gram truffle from Eataly for about $168, and you'll have enough to feed three.

p.s. Here's the white truffle tasting menus from Babbo, which a representative from the restaurant was nice enough to send via email.

And see below for Daniel's $595 white truffle tasting, which a spokesperson for the restaurant sent via email.