Review: Truffles Grill

The downside of upscale in Buckhead

There are few symbols of culinary elitism as fraught as the truffle. Truffles imply decadence above all else. They baffle regular diners with their expense and elusive flavor: Why would someone pay hundreds of dollars an ounce for something that tastes kind of like dirt? Truffle oil is just as loaded — a cheap alternative to the real thing, a way to fancify any dish with just a splash. For the serious gastronome, truffle oil is akin to a knockoff Prada. The layers of snobbery triple back upon themselves. This poor fungus signifies far more than its knobby facade lets on.

As the name of a restaurant, “truffle” has an unmistakable implication: upmarket. So it’s fitting that an eatery that wants to upgrade its status would rename itself Truffles Grill. Which is just what a few Ruby Tuesdays around the country have done in an attempt to break into the casual fine dining market. In recent years, even regular Ruby Tuesdays added items such as lobster to its menu and changed servers’ uniforms to look sleeker. But for a handful of underperforming locations, the name and concept were changed to become Truffles, modeled after Ruby Tuesday CEO’s brother’s successful Hilton Head restaurant, Truffles Café.

In Atlanta, the Lenox Road Ruby Tuesday across from the mall got the revamp. Gone are the wood paneling and faux Tiffany leadlight shades. The stained glass approximation has moved to a large round window at the end of the room that’s kind of art deco and kind of mid-century but too characterless to be either. Reproduction French vintage liquor posters line the walls, the tablecloths are white, and muted lime green provides most of the color palette. Mirrored wall panels sport lines of spherical protrusions. Look, ma, we fancy!

There are no truffles on the menu at Truffles. Instead, the restaurant serves American clichés, without the burden of luxe ingredients or pretentious platings. There is a spinach and artichoke dip, which has real chunks of real artichokes and is served with the same tri-colored tortilla chips that appear on the Ruby Tuesday spinach artichoke appetizer. Coconut shrimp, unmistakably from a freezer bag, come with dipping sauces titled “apricot” and “honey mango.” It has been years since I’ve dipped a McNugget into that small square tub of sticky brown barbecue sauce, but the flavor is burnt into my memory as distinctly as childhood itself, and the “apricot” sauce is exactly that. Not kind of. Exactly.

The French onion soup was surprisingly full of beefy flavor, despite the almost clear broth. This version was sapped of any personality but exhibited all the right components: melty cheese, soggy bread, sweet onion goop at the bottom. And the chicken pot pie - basically hot cream dotted with barely cooked broccoli and carrots under a pie crust - had a kind of nondescript comfort to it, like if you kept slurping it up you’d find an antidote to the scars left by your traumatic school lunch memories. But apart from the genuinely positive and helpful service, these dishes were the absolute highlights of my experiences at Truffles, their relative inoffensiveness making them stand out amongst the misery.

I may be scarred for life by Truffles’ meatloaf. I’ve never encountered such a pointed, overspiced pile of spongy mush before, not on transatlantic flights in the ’80s, not at truck stop cafeteria lines, nowhere. As if to crown this outrageous achievement, the loaf is slathered in “honey barbeque glaze,” or, cane syrup with ketchup in it.

Other entrées were cooked so much there was no telling if they were ever edible. A mahi mahi filet dueled with a tequila lime chicken for the title of Driest, Most Arid Dish in the Universe. New Orleans pasta, an exercise in the fallacy of richness for richness’ sake, swam with thickened “spicy cream sauce,” an amalgamation of low-rent cheesy glop punctuated with overcooked shrimp.

Let me state here that I have no particular beef with chain restaurant food, even kind of bad chain restaurant food. It’s easy to bring dining critic snobbery to a place such as Truffles and seem to miss the point — people want food that’s accessible, uncomplicated, and a little nicer than usual. What bothers me about Truffles is not this seemingly straightforward approach, but instead that the place is genuinely swindling the good people who choose to spend an awkward first date here. For $12, you should get more than a pre-formed crab cake, gummy with filler and industrial strength breadcrumbs. I swear there is not a lick of alcohol in most of the $9 cocktails. OK, maybe a lick, but even the martini and Manhattan tasted totally boozeless, like watery estimates of booze-flavored flavoring.

People looking for something a touch more special than their regular night out don’t need truffles and foie gras. They don’t need style and panache and cheffy showmanship. But they deserve far better than this bogus, bad, aspirational approximation of a fancy restaurant.