Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Dinner with Charlie

From the Master

When we first moved to Chicago and asked about great places to eat, one place continued to be extolled: Charlie Trotters. Of course at the time The Husband and I were fresh out of college and couldn’t imagine spending more than $200 for dinner. Even that was breathtakingly expensive (we went to the now closed Opera for our first anniversary and purchased a bottle of wine. Our dinner was $250 and that was the most either of us had EVER spent on food and it was so delicious).

As we started getting more and more interested in dining in Chicago, our gazes moved towards the rising stars, Graham Elliot, Paul Kahn, Michael Carlson and the powerhouse Grant Achetz and away from the old school Trotter. When we would speak with people about the restaurants we’ve been to and someone would say “Oh, I haven’t heard of that place…but I’ve been to Charlie Trotters and it was really great!” I would internally roll my eyes and think “Neophite!” Yes, I judged you.  

In my mind Trotters was of the Old Guard. It was a restaurant of white table cloths, waiters in tuxedos, lacquered chairs and silk wall paper. If I was going out to eat an expensive dinner, I wanted to not only have amazing food, but I also wanted it to be an experience. One that I didn’t feel as though I had to speak with hushed tones and sit with my legs crossed and a rigid back while I dine, else I be judged by the wait-staff for being gouache.

However, when Charlie Trotter announced on New Years Eve that he was going to be shutting his restaurant after 25 years in August, The Husband and I had to second guess our choice to avoid. How could we say we’re in touch with the Chicago Food Scene if we had never been to the Grandfather of Chicago Haute Cuisine?

I realize I just spent the last three paragraphs bagging on the man. And it isn’t fair. Charlie Trotter did some amazing things for fine dining.  To start, he and a few other chefs in the country started a Degustation Menu, otherwise known as a Tasting Menu or a Pre-Fix menu.  While other restaurants were offering a la carte menus, where dinners could pick and choose what they wanted from a larger menu, Trotter decided to focus his menu on a few dishes. This way he could perfect them all. It was brilliant and became his signature. Currently Trotter’s only has two menus: The Grand Cru and the Vegetable menu.

Which brings his next big thing for dinning: The Vegetable! Trotter wasn’t the first to cook them, obviously, but he was one of the first to make them the center piece for a meal. Alan Richman, the food critic from the New York Times said, “A plate arrives bearing what looks like a cross section of slab bacon, but it’s really a terrine of three separate beet purées — red, golden and chioggia — that have been set in a mold and then sauced with another purée, of horseradish and roasted parsnips: a root-crop tour of the five taste sensations…. Charlie Trotter’s offers a more traditional grand menu, but it’s the vegetable menu — an ever-changing, never-boring meatless dégustation — that is his crowning culinary achievement.”

Finally, he also was a huge proponent of Seasonal Dinning.  Trotter’s never has a set menu, their menu changes every day based upon what the seasonal vegetables they receive that day. For the most part the concept of the menu remains similar during seasons, parts of each dish changes, but even still, that is impressive. If one component changes in a dish, the flavor profile changes and the sommelier has to change the wine pairings as well.  White asparagus tastes different than green, which tastes different from baby asparagus, ect… The trickle-down effect of ONE ingredient in ONE dish is challenging, let alone doing this every single day for nine or ten courses.

Many big name chefs in Chicago have, at one point or another, worked with Trotter. Grant Achatz (of Alinea),  Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), and Bill Kim (of Urban Belly) and many other chefs and sous chefs throughout Chicago and the United States have worked under Trotter. 

Okay, so now I’ve spent four paragraphs making up for my first three. So when Trotter announced that during the final nine months of his restaurant, he was bringing the old band back together (award winning sommelier Larry Stone returned!), we couldn’t resist.

Our dinner reservation was made eight weeks in advance (we were seating five people on a Friday night) however if you are interested in going there are still tables left and they can be found on Open Table.  If you’re interesting in learning more about Mr. Stone, Eater had a great interview with him.

When making the reservation, we were informed that men were required to wear jackets, ties were optional. I groaned. Again, I prefer an environment where eating is an experience and I’m not required to look a certain way (although it irks me to NO end that people walk into nice restaurants in something I wouldn’t  dream of running to the grocery store in).

As the dinner approached, I was walking in with some apprehension. I was prepared to spend the money, but I wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I thought of it like something I had to do.

Before the dinner, the group decided that rather than do the normal wine pairing, we were going to work with the Somm and find some interesting bottles to go with our dinner(we learned later that at that point, they had over 4,000 bottles of wine in the cellar). The goal was to keep the wine at the same per person price point as the wine pairing.

We spent some time trying to decide what bottle to start with and who was going to do the Vegetable Tasting verses the Grand Tasting.  The Husband and I knew walking in we were planning on the Vegetable, since we had heard amazing things about it. The Vegetable Tasting is NOT vegetarian, but can be made to be so. I think that is important to note. The idea is to highlight the vegetable and there can be components of meat (we had a vegetarian with us, so the melon sorbet with iberco consume was changed to a melon sorbet with eucalyptus consume).  

We were seated on the second floor in front of a wine cooler that spanned the entire wall of the room.  It was my view during our three and a half hour dinner. The other thing we noted was how relaxed we all were. For a restaurant that demanded its male dinners to wear jackets, we didn’t feel that we were in a stuffy environment at all. Neither did the table of eight that was seated in our same room. They were at the end of their dinner and were rather boisterous (we were grateful when they had finished dinner and left). We all spoke in normal tone, felt comfortable to take pictures and made sure to seat ourselves in a comfortable manner.

Sadly Trotters didn’t allow us to take our menu’s home, which stinks because I didn't get a picture of one. Luckily someone from our table did. 
The Vegetable Menu

Each of the menus built upon flavor profiles. The first four dishes were savory and the level of saltiness, the three dessert dishes built up richness levels, starting with a light melon course that cleansed the palate and finishing with a rich chocolate dish.

The savory courses on the Vegetable menu were fantastic. We had toyed with getting the Grand menu simply for the lamb saddle and the venison, but were grateful that we made the choice to go with the Vegetable.  What I can say though, was that a PERFECT menu would have been the savory from the Vegetable and the sweet from the Grand. The three desserts on the Grand menu were spot on (although I did love the second dessert).

Our dinner started with a terrine of roasted heirloom beets with wild celery and petite fennel.  It’s impressive if you look closely at the picture, because he presses the beets into distinct layers to make the terrine.  The dish consisted of yellow beet, red beets, crushed pistachios and goat cheese.  We found out later that this dish was considered the amuse bouche. We found it interesting, as typically amuses are single bites. And this was a multi-bite dish. Delicious, really wonderful, but technically not an amuse.
I'm sorry it's sideways! 

During our dinner, we had three separate breads to nosh on as we waited for the next course to come out. Our first bread was a delicious home-made pretzel roll with fresh made butter that was sprinkled with smoked salt. I love pretzel rolls, so it’s hard for me to find any fault in the bread and the butter was simply delicious. And you must remember, this is coming from someone who avoids eating butter 99% of the time. But I have learned, if it’s fresh, you can’t go wrong.

Our second course was a perfectly prepared poached white asparagus over a puree of broccolini, piquillo peppers and Manchego Cheese. The asparagus, while poached, wasn’t soggy and paired extremely well with the pureed broccolini.

Our third dish of the evening was a homemade tofu dish. Normally I shy away from tofu; I’m not a fan of the spongy like texture (unless it’s in my hot and sour soup). It was served alongside grilled peaches in a red curry. The curry flavors played perfectly with the peaches and the house-made tofu was really wonderful. The texture wasn’t spongy, rather it reminded me a little of the texture of a scrambled egg. Light, fluffy, but obviously with some substance.

Silky Tofu
The next two courses have popped into my dreams since our dinner last month. To start, course four was a one-hour poached Hen egg, over a bed or morel mushrooms and Swiss chard.  From my previous posts, you know how much I enjoy morel mushrooms. This one was no exception.  The combination of the salty sautéed chard, the earthy mushroom and the creamy egg was divine.

Hen Egg and Morel Mushroom

As I said previously, each of the savory courses increased in their level of salty. The final savory course, Miso tortellini with Red Cabbage was mind-blowing. The tortellini was cooked to perfection and filled with the salty deliciousness of miso and was placed over a bed of red cabbage.  If it wasn’t wildly improper, I would have licked this plate clean and asked for another round.  A week later The Husband and I were at a gathering and were on opposite sides of the room, and I vaguely heard him speaking about what we had been up to since we had last seen him a few weeks ago.  The Husband called my name and I immediately replied “Miso Tortellini”. The person The Husband was speaking with looked at the both of us with shock and said “How did you know that we were speaking about your dinner and moreover, how did you know that he had just spent five minutes speaking just about that dish?” My response (pointing to The Husband) “He would only call me over if I was in the middle of a conversation to emphasis a point. And it was just.that.good.”

Miso Tortellini
From here we moved onto the first of three desserts; cantaloupe sorbet with Anise shortbread in a eucalyptus consume.  We had a vegetarian in the group and so instead of the iberco ham consume, we got the eucalyptus. This was our palate cleanser before moving onto the richer desserts and it did do its job well. Unfortunately I’m not a huge melon fan and on top of that, I found the dish to be a little sweet due, in part, to the eucalyptus. I would have been interested to try it with the ham consume, but I wouldn’t jump to it.

The second dessert was my favorite by far.  This is interesting because it was not the chocolate dessert. This course was a zucchini cake with basil and saffron reduction. Honestly, they had me at the basil reduction.  The cake was well prepared; the icing was perfect, not overly rich and complemented the light cake really well.
Zucchini Cake 

The final dish was a mocha ice cream with hazelnut dacquoise and steamed coffee cake. It was a solid dessert, but nothing I would write home about. The Grand Menu’s final dessert however, was spectacular- a molten chocolate cake with chocolate sauce poured over it.

Other than our savory dishes, the one thing I must say that blew me away was our Somm. He did a spectacular job of pairing various bottles of wine with two totally different menus.  We started with champagne, moved onto two very lovely and very different whites, from there had two reds and finished the evening with a dessert wine.  Sadly, I didn’t get a picture of the bottles, so I can’t tell you what we had. You'll have to trust me though, it was good.
I did, however get a picture of my favorite decanter, the Reidel Mambo. 
Note the wine glass fort I surrounded myself with

After our dinner we were invited down to the kitchen for a tour. As many top restaurants do, they literally take apart the entire kitchen every single night and wash it- ceiling to floor- to ensure the utmost cleanliness.  Since our reservation was at 9:30pm, we were able to see the kitchen finishing up the breakdown when we went in.  We were also able to see the sheer volume of bottles of wine drank that evening. A counter, two feet deep and four feet wide, was full of empty wine bottles.  If I was smart, I would have taken a picture, alas, I was not.  From the kitchen we then proceeded in the studio area where Trotter used to film his cooking show and then back out to the front, where we chatted with our Somm as well as the Master Somm  and thanked them for the perfect pairings and for the lovely evening. Before we walked out of the door, we asked where they were headed once the doors were closed in August (less of a “hey, what are you up to next” and more of a “You’re so good, I will go wherever you’re working” type thing). Both plan on heading to Napa and aren’t sure what their next steps will be.  But I imagine if you’re coming from a place like Charlie Trotters, you really don’t have to worry much.  


  1. I went in 2000 to celebrate the college graduation of a bestie from Northwestern. I was almost 25 and not making a ton of money, but we wanted to celebrate a big event and I was the most likely person in Chicago to do CT with her. We had a similarly great experience, but what stands out the most is that a) she had dietary restrictions that the staff accommodated without hesitation and that b) the staff treated a 21-yo and a 24-yo with exactly the same level of professionalism that all the rich Oldie Hawns around us got. You've gotten to really enjoy the explosion of the Chicago Food Boom over the past few years -- and that's totally great -- but looping CT in with other "Chicago Establishment" joints like, say, Gene and Georgetti or even Le Francais or whatever isn't fair. I'm thrilled you did CT before the impending closure; I wish my mom had planned her trip to Chicago (tomorrow!) earlier so that she could have done Trotters.

    1. I'm really happy we went as well. I put Trotters up there with places like Everest, Tru, Spaggia and L20 (now that Laurant is gone). They're really really good places, that get great reviews, but aren't going to totally blow my mind away. I'm really happy we went and I'm thrilled that we had such a great experience and a wonderful somm and there were some spectacular highlights, but looking at the experience on the whole, it didn't hold a candle to Alinea or even Ko, at least not for me (Matt thinks Trotters was better than Ko).