Sunday, October 15, 2006

Charlie Trotter's

Charlie Trotter's is one of those legendary, nationally-known restaurants I've been obsessed with for years. Before I ever became so enthralled with the culinary arts to even consider going to culinary school, I'd heard about and longed to dine chez Trotter. I own two cookbooks Trotter penned (his classic "desserts" and "vegetables" editions) and have spent hours looking at the beautifully photographed dishes that accompany the impossible to recreate at home recipes. When I received a gift certificate for the place for my most recent birthday, it was truly the one about which I was most excited.

Though I'd heard rumors of three-month long waits for a reservation (this warning was, in fact, printed boldly on our gift certificate), Peter was able to secure a Saturday night spot just a few weeks after he called, in honor of our one-year anniversary. When Saturday rolled around, we arrived perfectly on time, ready to experience the meal of our lives. My first impression of the small bar we entered was somewhat more chaotic than we expected. Most likely because it was 9 pm, and a sort of changing of the guards, it was crowded with people coming and going. Had the hostess even noticed us? Why hadn't anyone asked to take my coat? Was our name really in the closely guarded reservation book? I took the waiting time as an opportunity to peek inside the dining room, which was fancier and more traditional than I thought it would be. Perhaps it's because I've become so accustomed to the cool, hip, modern decor of the "it" restaurants that seem so typical of Chicago that I was a bit caught offguard. The room was lovely, don't get me wrong, but with its muted palette, textured wall covering and wall sconces, it felt much more Maisonette than I was expecting.

We were seated not long after, and one of the waiters presented us with paper menus. I was still skeptical. The menu cover had the signature Trotter "T" logo of course, but the edges of the paper were a bit tattered and worn and seemingly unfitting of a restaurant of this caliber. I opened the paper cover to find two simple, printed pages on the inside, again not terribly remarkable. But when I looked at the right-hand side and saw printed at the top "Happy 1st Anniversary, Angie and Peter!" I was pretty wowed. While I'd thought we had just been shuttled in and sat at the first available table in a hurry, all the while they'd known exactly who we were and why we were there. A very nice, personal touch, plus I now had a keepsake of the evening!

We read through the two eight-course tasting menu choices, offered in "vegetable" and "grand" varieties, and quickly settled on the "grand" option. Not much of a decision in my mind, since I think you'd be crazy to come to a place like Trotter's and order just vegetables. There was no indication of price printed anywhere, mind you, but I was confident that what we'd chosen would cost a pretty penny. We also decided on the chef-selected wine pairing to accompany our meal. This came with it an $85 per person price tag, but we figured that such a special occasion was no time to skimp.

As I've tended to do of late, I had planned to unobtrusively take notes during the meal on the back of an envelope I had in my purse. I wrote down the name of our first wine, a delicious Bouzy champagne, and tucked the envelope to my side, only to realize a few minutes later that the envelope had fallen between the seat and the wall completely out of my reach. This wouldn't have been that all that big a deal if I hadn't had a check inside the envelope. I didn't want to ruin the moment though, so I put it out of my mind and tried to commit every detail to memory.

Our first couple of courses proved to be tasty, but strange. In fact, that theme carried throughout all our courses. The meal began with a nearly raw skate wing with mushrooms and horseradish foam. The foam was something I'd seen in Charlie's books, and I was always amazed at how he could create this substance in a professional kitchen. Even more surprising to me was that the foam held its shape and substance for upwards of ten minutes, whereas I had assumed foam would deflate in mere moments. I liked the dish, but Peter thought it was just okay. From there we had two additional seafood courses, one a Japanese hamachi and the other an extremely flavorful ocean trout. Service was friendly and informative. Everyone who brought us a glass, utensil, wine or food was accommodating and happy to explain the details of what we were eating. With each wine pairing came a fresh, perfectly shaped Riedel glass, perfectly suited for that particular varietal (never mind that every teacher I had in culinary school thought that Riedel was full of it and just marketing 80 different types of wine glasses to make money).

Our first "meat" course was a whole-roasted squab breast, served with hominy and huitlacoche sauce (yup, that's right, it's corn fungus). This was by far our favorite of the savory dishes, and finally had the richness, substance, and body we had been looking for. The lamb loin that followed was okay, but the fried pieces of brain that accompanied it almost finished me. It looked nice and creamy inside, and I knew I had to be adventurous and try it, but after half of a bite I was convinced I didn't need any more fried brain. Truthfully, it was the texture that got to me. A little softer than cooked egg white but not as firm as feta, it just didn't taste good. The waiter that picked up our plates at the end smiled at me and inquired, "Are you sure you don't want to finish your brains?" I was sure. It looked like he'd carried a lot of half-eaten fried brains back to the kitchen.

Next began the sweet courses. We had a sherry granita with dates that was good but overly boozy tasting. The next course was my all-time favorite. Instead of just one beautiful plated dish, our table was suddenly covered with three varieties of desserts: an apple and endive crisp with a bleu cheese cream, chocolate profiteroles with crème fraiche ice cream, and a small dish filled with mignardises: small tidbits of sweets including ginger gelee and pistachio nougat. Every last bite was absolutely delicious.

It had been three hours, eight courses, and seven different wines, but I can't say that after all this did we find ourselves overly full of either food or wine. There was no one dish that I thought was truly a standout or that I would even order again, but we'd eaten some things we never had (fried brains, olive sorbet, corn fungus) from one of the most highly regarded chefs in the country and it had been a fun experience.

And then the check came. Again, recall that the dinner price was not printed anywhere on the menu, nor is it listed anywhere on the official Trotter's Web site. We had of course assumed that this meal would be pricey, but nothing prepared us for the amount that was printed on the bill. Our only consolation was in the fact that an 18% gratuity was already included in this ridiculous high price. I won't disclose the exact amount but I will tell you that even with the gift certificate this meal was three times what we'd estimated, and three times that of a prix fixe (and what I'd consider tastier) meal at Jean-Robert at Pigall's. We had to laugh about it a bit to make ourselves feel better, but in truth I think that no matter how long I live in this city I won't think that the meal we had there was worth what we paid.

So as we prepared to leave, still shocked by the total amount bill, I suddenly remembered the check in the envelope I'd dropped down the edge of my seat and asked for some assistance from our waiter. Ever the accommodating staff, he sent us off on a tour of the restaurant with another waiter and said that he'd have the envelope for us upon our return. This was by far one of the coolest parts of the evening as we got a glimpse of the behind the scenes view of the surprisingly small production kitchen, the sleek and luxurious TV-show kitchen, and the expansive wine cellar. Sure enough, we came back to find that the waiter had magically made my check appear. We exited and just as we turned to head down Armitage to catch a cab, the woman working at the valet stand handed us a mini loaf of sweet cherry bread, beautifully packaged and again adorned with that signature "T." Again I had to admit, it was a nice touch. Throughout our entire experience, there wasn't a single detail left undone.

Was it an enjoyable meal? Sure, it was good. But was it the meal of our lives? I'd have to answer that it wasn't. It was wonderful, and the small touches and impeccable service made everything that much more delightful, but I can't look at the price of the meal and equate it to our experience. I'm glad we went, but unless someone else is footing the bill, I can't way we'll be back.

The damage: I refuse to write it. Unless you're accustomed to frequenting restaurants of a national caliber regularly, you can take the most expensive meal you've had and double or triple it and that will put you in the right ballpark.

Food: 4 1/2 out of 5 forks - good, but strange. You're completely in the chef's hands, so get ready to be adventurous. You'll undoubtedly try something you've never ever had before.

Romance: 4 1/2 out of 5 kisses - the soft colors and refined atmosphere can't help but put you in a romantic mood. Plus, it's always kind of fun to giggle through the experience of trying completely new food together.

Watch out for: yes, I'll mention it one more time and then I'm done: the cost! Just have room available on your credit card is all I'm saying.

Charlie Trotter's
816 West Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 248-6228

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