Truffles seem to be in the news, thanks to Graydon Carter's Waverley, and his notorious $55 mac & cheese. If you are willing to travel outside of Graydon's neck of the woods, they pop up elsewhere. Work brought me to Athens, GA, and I ended up more or less by accident at Farm 255. An enterprise this high-minded is at risk of becoming overwhelmingly precious, but they seem a) sincere about what they are doing (I spotted an Emile bumper sticker in the kitchen) b) not dogmatic (the prosciutto is di Parma, [not di Iowa, of which more soon]) and c) they have a sense of humor (at the bottom of the print menu, though not the online one, they namecheck all the chefs, and add "6-packs of PBR tall boys are available to send back to the kitchen").
I could not stay for a full meal, but I did fortify myself for my schmooze with a side of truffled Red Mule grits. In the Southeast, at least, "Red Mule" seems do be to grits what "Berkshire" is to pork, in that if you are in the kind of place that uses the word "dayboat," and they have grits on the menu, the grits will be Red Mule. I am partial to Timms Mill, but the big thing is not Quaker and not instant. Grits are improved by a judicious application of butter and cream, and the Farm 255 kitchen had not stinted, but they had not enriched them to a flan-like consistency, a common pitfall for restaurant grits. Rather than a theatrical tableside grating, a la Graydon, the truffles come in the bowl, and they add a distinctive and subtle note. You do not get to show chunks of truffle off to your neighbor, but the bowl of truffled grits costs $51 less than the Waverley mac & cheese. That's right -- if you are willing to travel to Athens, you can have your truffled comfort food for four George Washington dollars. To put that in perspective, you could buy a bowl of truffled grits for the active roster of your favorite baseball team for $100.
It is not remarkable that the Waverley makes restaurants elsewhere seem like an exceptional value. (In fairness, you are less likely to bump into Julian Schnabel in the restroom at Farm 255.) This is not the first time that a chef has paired a haute ingredient with a humble southern staple. But I was warmed in more ways than one by my truffled grits. I've had some meals recently -- Savoy comes to mind -- where the provenance of what arrives in the kitchen seems more important than what happens after it gets there. At Farm 255, the eat local ideal is manifest, but they treat ingredients with wit and imagination, rather than reverence.