(Facade of Charlie Trotter’s; image taken from restaurant’s website)
Charlie Trotter’s has now been in existence for 25 years, and has achieved virtually every possible award. The restaurant will be closing in August of this year so that Trotter can pursue a Master’s degree in philosophy and it is uncertain whether the restaurant will resume operating following Trotter’s graduate studies. Chef Trotter largely transformed Chicago from a steakhouse-pizza town to a city with a reputation for fine dining. By introducing the degustation menu format to the United States, he literally initiated a normative fine dining convention. While Trotter’s 8-course degustation format has in the last decade become somewhat overthrown by the even larger, 15+ course-formats of molecular gastronomy restaurants like Alinea and Moto, the influence of the degustation format is still widely pervasive around the country. Trotter’s influence is also reflected in the multitude of chefs who worked under him, including Grant Achatz of Alinea, Graham Elliott Bowles of Graham Elliott, Michael Carlson of Schwa, Guisseppe Tentorri of Boka, and Curtis Duffy of the now-closed Avenues (and upcoming restaurant Grace). Trotter’s was awarded 2 stars by the Michelin guide last November, making it one of only two Chicago restaurants to hold such an honor (the other being Ria.) However, the restaurant has been in existence for a long time, and ‘newness’ represents one of the most valuable commodities for a restaurant. As such, Trotter’s does not attract the younger crowd that frequents Alinea, Ria, or Schwa
We arrived at Trotter’s about 15 minutes early for our 5:45 reservation and were the first patrons to arrive. Our table was already prepared for us, a nice two-top in the corner of the downstairs dining room. The exterior of the restaurant, pictured at the top, is understated, presenting itself as a house rather than a large institution. At Charlie Trotter’s there are two separate dining rooms (one upstairs and one downstairs), although it appeared as though only the downstairs room was in use during our meal. Eating in actual rooms within a house carries the connotations of a dinner party, a theme that would be continued with the tour of the kitchen following the meal. Unlike the more modern interiors of Ria or Alinea, which utilize earth tones and modern artwork, the interior at Trotter’s feels a bit precious, with red carpeting and lamps on the walls behind the tables. There were about 10 tables in the dining room, and all but one was occupied during our meal. About 15 minutes after our arrival, an elderly couple entered that was unfamiliar with the prospect that a meal can consist of more than two courses. When the husband asked what the restaurant would do if a diner just wanted a steak, the server told an amusing story about a time Trotter had accommodated this exact request and prepared a simple steak and potatoes dish. My companion felt that the space felt a bit antiquated, although I liked the space. While there were about 10 tables in the moderately sized room, the quiet atmosphere resulted in a perfect mix of private and public. Ideally, I prefer a ‘privatized public atmosphere’ (if that makes sense) in which I am surrounded by other people but without any sense of community, and Charlie Trotter’s fit the bill perfectly.
Offered both a vegetarian tasting menu and a grand tasting menu, we both opted for the grand menu. I understand that if one desires, they can also order the menu for the kitchen table, although I think that the more spontaneous and free-flowing format of the kitchen menu would clash with the staid décor. The meal began with a sea urchin chawanmushi paired with mioga and apple, presented by one of two back waiters who would deliver the bulk of our dishes throughout the evening. The somewhat forceful presences of the back waiters contrasted with the quiet atmosphere in a somewhat discordant nature. The dish represented probably the weakest of the evening’s courses, tasting similar to the white innards of a lobster—disagreeable in both texture and color (a ghastly white.)
Following the first course we were presented with the first bread of the evening, a miniature baguette that was wonderfully hearty and paired well with their soft butter. However, I felt the baguette somewhat out of place following the sea urchin preparation, although perhaps it served to represent a more hearty taste in preparation for the hearty soup dish to follow.
The next course featured Chef Trotter’s interpretation of New England clam chowder: sweet corn soup, with geoduck clams, pickled fingerling potatoes and crispy pancetta. As someone who loves soup, I appreciated seeing a soup dish on the tasting menu as most tasting menus choose not to place soup or salad on the menu due to a perceived inherent lack of creativity in soup and salad. The ‘chowder’ held a pureed consistency that resembled bisque perhaps more than chowder. Every dish must balance sweet with savory, and this tension was perfectly balanced with the heavy pancetta gracefully contrasted by the sweet corn and potatoes.
I should note that we spent considerably longer enjoying our courses than the other patrons, and interacted with the captain and back waiters as they presented and cleared our plates. The couple next to us in particular ate extremely quickly. Although we were the first patrons seated, it was not long before the other tables passed us up in pace, finishing their meals well before us. I don’t understand why anyone would rush through a meal crafted so deliberately. A dining experience at Trotter’s features numerous ingredients that no one would eat on a regular basis, and the wait staff exhibited genuine interest and curiosity in asking for our response to each of the dishes. I ‘read’ a dish the same way I would read a novel, essay, or film. I don’t understand why a meal (or anything in life, really) wouldn’t merit the same attention paid to studying any other text. Chef Trotter famously never serves the same dish twice, and this imparts a special relevance to each dish. Every meal represents a performance of Chef Trotter’s creativity, so I personally believe that the patron should reciprocate the Chef (and wait staff’s) inspiration, enthusiasm, and creativity.
Shorty after our ‘chowder’ plates were cleared, we were presented with the second bread preparation of the evening. I appreciated the rhythm in which servings of bread were presented in preparation for the following course. The varying bread preparations foreshadowed the flavors of the succeeding course. For example, we were presented with a Hawaiian roll in preparation for our third course. The sweetness of the Hawaiian roll signaled that the following course would be sweet. With regard to tasting menus, I greatly enjoy dishes that tilt toward the ‘sweet’ side earlier in the meal, and saltier preparations with the heavier preparations later in the meal.
Having anticipated a sweet course, we were rewarded with grilled north atlantic squid with couscous, bok choy and carrot juice. Ordinarily not a fan of carrot juice, its sweetness actually paired quite well with the squid and, in particular, the bok choy. The last time I had bok choy was in a similarly sweet preparation of Duck L’Orange at Five Fifty-Five in Portland, ME.
Following the squid preparation we were given a salty pretzel, which foreshadowed the impending delivery of a saltier, heavier protein. Sure enough, we were then presented with a duo of pork (tenderloin and belly), Oregon matsutake mushrooms, tsuba mame miso, grilled farro, and braised salsify. I love farro and was very excited to see its presence on the menu. One aspect of fine dining restaurants I enjoy is the general tendency toward more creative starches such as barley, cous cous, farro and beans rather than rice or pasta. Our captain described this dish as Chef Trotter’s interpretation of the ‘essence of fall.’ But fall in the United States or in Japan? The presence of Japanese Mushrooms and the miso stock gestured toward Asian cuisine. The resulting mix of flavors worked perfectly—wonderfully salty and fatty. This was probably my favorite course of the evening.
Following the pork dish we were presented with bread similar to baguette, but much thicker in consistency as it was filled with nut and carrot. This bread was perhaps my favorite bread of the evening, both in its uniqueness and the hearty combination of flavors. The heaviness of the bread anticipated the hearty savory course to follow—72 hour braised short rib with tamarind, elk loin, pickled kohlrabi and lotus root. The short rib held a pleasant fattiness, very similar in consistency to a pot roast. Meanwhile, the elk loin was firmer in consistency, although it was still very juicy—certainly no more than medium-rare in temperature. Already beginning to get full, I was grateful that this dish did not incorporate any starches. Needless to say, the multitude of bread offerings throughout the evening held substantial filling power, and I was pleased that Chef Trotter focused more on the proteins, vegetables, and sauces than on incorporating starches into the last of the (official) savory courses.
Following the short rib/elk dish, we received a special gift from the kitchen, arriving in the form of loin of lamb paired with a porcini mushroom tart and black mission fig compote. This dish was not on the tasting menu and was not received by any of the other tables. I have no idea why we were presented with this complimentary course—perhaps the staff was grateful for our enthusiasm. At any rate, I enjoyed the dish as I dipped the lamb into the fig compote. Evidently, I gave the impression that I was knowledgeable about food, because after my companion went to the bathroom following this dish one of the back waiters assumed that I was in the industry and asked me which restaurant I worked at. Not wishing to assume a false identity, I told him that I enjoy fine dining restaurants and had been employed at one this past summer.
In preparation for the dessert courses, our table was crumbed, and we were presented with the after-dinner liquor menu. My companion selected a cognac that he enjoyed very much, sipping it throughout each of the dessert courses. The service was terrific, and the complimentary savory course that we received speaks to the close rapport between the captain and Chef Trotter, who clearly worked in concert to provide a dining experience that went ‘above and beyond.’
The first of the dessert courses was very refreshing, a strawberry sorbet with basil and olive oil emulsion. I did find it interesting that for the second consecutive week, I was presented with a fruit desert paired with basil (the first was at Ria). The use of basil was pleasant enough, although I still don’t find it remarkable enough that two highly acclaimed restaurants would both feature it in desert preparations within the same season.
Upon completion of the first dessert, I visited the men’s room. Adjacent to the door I noticed, hanging on the wall, a handwritten letter (in Spanish) from 1998 by Ferran Adria (chef of the famous El Bulli) to Chef Trotter. Although my knowledge of Spanish is minimal, I was able to discern that the letter announced Chef Adria’s intention to visit Chicago (and presumably, to dine at Charlie Trotter’s.) At any rate, it is not at every restaurant that a signed letter from Ferran Adria hangs on the bathroom wall.
Shortly after returning from the bathroom, we were presented with the second dessert course, a sweet potato pie with orange and sunflower sorbet. This was clearly a play on pumpkin pie, continuing the ‘fall’ theme of the night’s menu. Although I dislike pumpkin pie I certainly enjoyed this dessert, with its play on pie ‘a la mode.’
The final dessert course was mutually agreed on as the best. It consisted of huckleberry ice cream with dark chocolate and candied vanilla bean. Although I generally dislike dark chocolate for its extreme bitterness, I loved the juxtaposition between the bitter chocolate and the sweet (yet somewhat tart) huckleberry ice cream. I found that the candied vanilla beans served a similar function to the dark chocolate, representing a solid form to contrast with the ice cream.
After the last of the dessert courses were cleared, we were presented with the bill and a tray of mignardises. While all mignardises are somewhat generic, these were better than those served at Ria. We received a chocolate filled with almond, a fruit wafer (similar to a large sweet tart), a marshmallow, and a ginger-flavored jelly candy. We were also presented with signed menus and offered a tour of the kitchen, which we gratefully accepted. Unfortunately, the extra course we received was not listed on the menu, although this is a minor quibble. The tour of the kitchen represents a gesture of hospitality characteristic of the restaurant as a whole. The sense of order and precision within the kitchen identifies it as on a par with the attention to detail exhibited by the wait staff, and it was refreshing to notice the way in which the dining room is indeed a continuation of the kitchen, and vice versa.
The entire experience at Charlie Trotter’s was memorable in every way and one of the finest dining experiences of my life. I appreciated the way in which the restaurant recognizes the fact that dining there is an event, and therefore provide a level of hospitality greater than anywhere I’ve dined. While I don’t think it’s very hospitable that Trotter increased the price by $30 for all of 2012 (without changing the 8-course menu structure), the service and cuisine are focused and precise. Although Chef Trotter is closing the restaurant in August, he has strongly influenced both the regional and national landscapes and it will be interesting to track how his New American style is reinterpreted in new ways by other restaurants.