I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Oh You Fancy, Huh? Part 7: Trotting on Broken Glass

It's a sad truth that Charlie Trotter's will be closing its doors after 25 years in August. Most people know the restaurant only by reference; "blah blah blah's new chef was at Charlie Trotter's for 5 years before winning the James Beard Award," "such and such was a busser at Charlie Trotter's before entering the space program," etc. For the last 3 decades it has functioned as a the sun in Chicago's restaurant solar system by spawning and giving us perspective on fancy destination spots such as Alinea, Moto and Graham Elliott (the chef and the place), as well as everyday eateries like Hot Chocolate, 2 Sparrows and Urban Belly, to name a few.

Not many people get to eat at the actual restaurant though. The cost, for one, is prohibitive, to say the least.* Another thing is that the restaurant is small and almost constantly busy. And, lastly, it doesn't have the sex appeal that it used to. That's been taken over by places like Next, Grace, Acadia and all of those happenin' Boka restaurants. Despite all of this, I couldn't let it close without paying a visit. To me, that'd be like being in Salt Lake City on June 14, 1998 and not buying tickets to the Bulls game because it was too expensive; you rarely get a chance to witness fleeting greatness, so why would you knowingly pass it up?

But enough pitter patter already, down to business. The options at Trotter's are few. Two, actually. A vegetable menu and grand menu, both can be paired with wine for an additional gazillion dollars. We had all of it.


(sawkeye salmon with english cucumbers & fennel pollen)
Trotter's secret was revealed early on: use simple yet sophisticated preparations with amazing ingredients to reveal honest flavors of the main component. In this case the sawkeye's rich and silky essence was supported by the fresh cucumber and long and silky notes of the fennel foam.

(hamachi with green tomatoes, avacado & kalamata olives)
I was downright surprised that the hamachi still tasted like hamachi despite looking like something Darth Vader pooped out. If you like avocado sushi your brain would've exploded at tasting the combination of squid ink soaked hamachi and avocado mouse.

(belgian white asparagus with broccolini, piquillo peppers & cipollini onions)
We also tried the vegetable menu. This was the winner of the vegetable menu. I don't know if I'll ever have Belgian white asparagus again in my life (I assume it's hard to find or expensive) but I'll forever remember this weird combination of delicate cheese, gelée and perfectly flavored spears of asparagus.

(steamed alaskan halibut with marcona almonds, acorn fed iberian ham & lemon balm)
I've never seen halibut look so much like mozzarella cheese and taste so much like halibut before. The perfect bite featured the crisp ham, soft almonds, tender fish on your fork and a big stupid grin on your face.

(one-hour poached hen's egg with morel mushrooms, swiss chard & licorice)
Why take one hour to poach an egg when most of us can do it in five minutes? Because it taste like a liquid tractor, if that tractor was made of expensive mushrooms, had salty/earthy swiss green wheels and was fueled by licorice. As for the difference between a hen's egg and a regular egg; nothing, it just means it didn't come from a duck or a velociraptor.

(muscovy duck with smoked coconut, spring onion & venezuelan chocolate)
This foul looking fowl from south of the border was a beautiful thing to behold in flavor.  The onion and chocolate partnership worked better than I ever could've imagined and if they made an ice cream out of that duck, I'd eat it. Far and away my favorite plate of the night.

(miso tortellini with red cabbage, turnip confit & ponzu)
Words are just symbols of what literate societies think to be truths. I just made that up. This tortellini was immaculate but not my favorite thing to hit the table that evening. I didn't understand that turnip confit, I didn't particularly like the stewed red cabbage and there weren't enough tortellini to go around. But it was perfect.

(broken arrow ranch antelope with toasted espresso, porcini mushrooms & boudin noir)
How in the hell they raise antelope on a ranch I'll never know. Those things move like the wind and have eyes that peer into your very soul. But I'll be damned if the majestic beasts didn't taste good. The knee jerk reviewer would toss the word "gamey" in at this point but that would be inaccurate and I'm no knee jerker. The flesh was seared rare and tasted milder than most venison and was a lighter accent to the deep rich boudin noir that dominated the dish.

-Sorbet and Cake-
By the time dessert rolled around Mr. Trotter himself was on his second visit to the table and I was too distracted by his bravado and jibing (he said I was a mouth breather) to take note of this particular dessert. Also when pressed on his stance on foie gras, his soliloquy was so lengthy, and my manners were so impeccable, that all of the sorbet had melted and all of the dessert wine had evaporated by the time he stopped talking. But I think it tasted good?

-Sorbet and Bread-
(meyer lemon sorbet with rosemary puff pastry & szechuan peppercorn)
Is sorbet supposed to be foamy and half melted? This is how most of the cold stuff hit our table. It may be the only criticism I have of the whole meal. This sweet plate was a nice composite of homey/savory and spiced/sweet. The texture blend was real nice.

-more sorbets and bread stuff-
(thyme glazed brioche with georgia blueberry compote & lavender blueberry sorbet AND zucchini cake & blossom with basil & saffron reduction)
I can't be blamed for not having great notes on this plate, for one it was our third dessert. Secondly it was our eighth glass of wine. Thirdly it was two desserts on one plate (one from the grand menu, one from the vegetable). I remember inhaling the brioche puff and wishing there was a pint rather than a scoop of the blueberry lavender sorbet. The zucchini cake saffron number didn't make a huge impression on me but I ate all of it, to be polite.

-Hmmmm, cake and ice cream-
(criollo cake with parsnip, red wine & candied vanilla)
Now this, this is a dessert. A black hole deep chocolate cake topped with a caviaresque Bordeaux jelly and vanilla three ways was everything you'd expect in a classic American dessert but with all the upgrades you'd expect from one of America's most iconic restaurants. Thank you, Charlie.

-Take a wild guess-
I haven't a clue what this foamy, coldish beautiful joke of a dessert is. It was all blended together and delish no doubt but I'm pretty sure I had slipped half way down my rabbit hole of a food comma by this point and I was drunk off of fancy wine and good company. If you go there and make it to this course please let me know what's in it.

-House made confections-
It was a struggle to eat these. They were good but after five dessert courses the last thing I wanted was more sweet things. I'll be damned if I didn't eat every last one of them though. They were raspberry, apricot, peanut butter and a praline, I believe.

Journalistic integrity and objectivism are two of the pillars that hold this site up (the other three are Wikipedia, RC Cola, and moist towlettes). So I tried my best not to be in awe of Charlie Trotter and his eponymous restaurant. I think I succeeded by and large, but I'd be lying if I didn't say my dream like expectations weren't slightly off base. I've eaten at a few really fancy restaurants in my day and I thought Charlie Trotter's, being a predecessor to many of them, would outdo them all. Instead what I experienced was a restaurant that was trying to live up to nothing other than the very high standards it set for itself twenty five years ago. Not overly flashy, and not falsely humble. Rather than striving for showmanship and glitz, honoring the food and dining experience were paramount. Overall, I was glad I tried Charlie's place before it closes in August.

Editor's Note: Charlie died today (11/5/2013). He changed the restaurant world and made really good food for 25 years in Chicago.

Charlie Trotter's on Urbanspoon
Charlie Trotter's

*I have to admit that I'd saved up for months to eat there. You read that right, months of saving for one meal.

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