Saturday, December 24, 2005

Charlie Trotter's: A Diner's Dream

816 West Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614
Closed Sunday and Monday

Charlie Trotter's on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007

Charlie Trotter's is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Its consistency in quality and standards over such a prolonged period of time is just as impressive as its always perfectly executed tasting menu that is constantly adapting and updating, incorporating new flavors and techniques, without ever veering too far from its classic French base. How reassuring and magnificent...

Previously tried: January 2007

The first time I dined at Charlie Trotter's was over ten years ago. As I contemplated returning this year, I must admit I was worried that Charlie Trotter's might have become like some other fine dining establishments where the reputation of the chef continues to lure diners but the quality is intermittent, if not a distant memory. My recent meal proved that my concerns were unfounded, despite the fact that Chef Trotter was not personally at the helm that evening (notwithstanding this deviation, I continue in my firm belief that the chef's presence in the kitchen makes a difference-- I have been disappointed too many times with the quality of the food when the chef is absent, which has occurred even during the course of a single meal. Once the chef has left the building, the finesse also retires for the evening, and the quality of subsequent courses drastically diminishes). The fact that my meal was so magnificent made me wonder exactly how much of a perfectionist Chef Trotter must be that his kitchen functions at this level even in his absence.

The restaurant was as elegantly appointed as I remembered, with comfortably sized tables that were strategically spaced to create spacious yet romantic dining areas (I was seated in the upstairs mezzanine on this visit), resulting in a quietly animated atmosphere. I felt all of the stress of the day melting away as I reclined into the cushiony upholstered seat and perused the menu and the thick binder of wines.

The first course brought to the table was Tasmanian ocean trout poached in olive oil, sitting atop a yin-yang design of hijiki (seaweed) puree and parsnip puree. The fish looked and tasted like the freshest salmon sashimi, except softer and somewhat saltier, and the flavors imparted by the two purees were delicate and delicious. With it, I enjoyed an Alsatian Riesling, 2001 Rosenbourg Domain Paul Blanck, from the restaurant's extensive list of wines by the glass.

Next came a rectangular platter composed of slices of bright red tuna sashimi, bright yellow uni, and opaque succulent sweet mussels, interwoven with white strands of raw coconut in the shape and texture of freshly made spaghetti. Vibrantly green and white blanched tender bok choy and drizzles of mustard-colored curry sauce were placed across the platter, with a sesame tuile perched in the center, on top of a quenelle of beige-pink shellfish puree. The dish looked like a Jackson Pollack painting, with all of these different colors, flavors, and textures slashed and draped across the plate. Yet each element complemented and highlighted all of the various flavors, unifying the dish into a satisfying and thoroughly modern taste. I had heard that Charlie Trotter had recently gotten into the raw food movement. Instead of the bland flavors I had previously experienced in raw food offerings, Chef Trotter's kitchen skillfully blended the clean elements of raw food with sashimi quality seafood and flawlessly cooked vegetables, utilizing French and Asian techniques. This is what fusion cooking aspires to be.

The next course still retained the lightness of seafood in the form of cooked hamachi but with added dimensions of richness. By virtue of cooking the fish, the hamachi had become meatier in taste and texture, similar to swordfish, which complemented the crisp yet chewy pieces of shredded pork on top and the sweet potato ravioli and leek puree underneath. The surrounding valencia orange foam tied everything together masterfully. The sommelier's recommendation, the 2000 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee, matched perfectly with this dish, as well as with the remaining savory courses.

Elevating the intensity of flavors, the next dish was rabbit with chewy wheatberries, braised escarole, and pickled dried chanterelle mushrooms, all bathed in thyme consomme. The rabbit was as supple and tender as poached chicken, and having absorbed the thyme consomme, it was resplendent. I had also noticed that on every dish, there were tiny piquant greens perched on top. Upon inquiring as to what they were, I was informed that they were different micro-herbs that Chef Trotter had specially grown for him.

The next course was squab with beets and mushrooms presented three ways. The beets and mushrooms were sliced, pureed (garlic, cumin, and rosemary), and fried like potato chips. The squab was tender and flavorful, and mixing and matching with the different mushrooms and beets was fun as well as tasty.

The last savory course, bison with blood sausage sauce, surrounded by sweetbread, white beans, trumpet mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and huckleberries, was the only composition that I felt was not quite as finely tuned as the previous dishes. Although still a lovely preparation, this one plateaued from the lofty expectations that the rest of the menu kept raising with each course. The brussel sprouts and huckleberries blurred together without distinction, and the sweetbread was lost among the white beans, mushrooms, and blood sausage sauce. Nonetheless, each of the elements separately were perfectly prepared, especially the bison which almost did not require the use of a knife.

With the desserts, the excellence returned, particularly the panna cotta topped with wild grape jelly. The thin layer of tart jelly was an excellent contrast to the eggy, sweet custard. I finished the entire bowl in less than thirty seconds. (I raved about it so much that one of the servers brought me an extra one-- unfortunately I was too full by this point and had to turn it down.) I was also quite impressed by the transition dish, served after the savory courses and before desserts. It was a unique take on the traditional prosciutto with melon-- balls of melon sorbet sprinkled with tiny bits of fried lardons and garnished with tiny mint leaves from Chef Trotter's miniature herb garden. The last dessert was roasted fig glazed with a merlot reduction, on top of a spicy chocolate cream mixed with bits of crushed toffee and garnished with mini-rosemary. As full as I was, I could not resist from polishing off every bite. There is a reason that every trip I make to Chicago, I make a point to free up an evening to get up to Lincoln Park.


Erin said...

What a fantastic blog! A pleasure to read. I will have to visit again for the pure pleasure of it.

I too am an attorney, who hates my job. In fact, so much so, that I discovered your blog when I should be billing.

Anonymous said...

You're my first comment! Thanks for making it such a nice one.

Sorry to hear you hate your job, but I am guessing there are quite a few of us (I'm hoping one of these days to score a gig like the one that Jeffrey Steingarten has. Not likely, but I can pretend with this blog...).

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