Tuesday, November 05, 2013

on eating at Charlie Trotter's

I wrote this unpublished review for the Chicago Reader the day after eating at Charlie Trotter's in May 2005  (a one-paragraph version of it might have been blurbed at some point). It was the second of two times I ate at his restaurant in my life, and they were beautiful experiences. I interviewed Trotter for an article that same year, and he was extraordinarily generous with me -- his time, his food, his cookbooks. 

 . . . At its best, as on a recent spring night, a meal at Charlie Trotter's comes with that expansive sense of well-being and world-enough-and-time that being led on a beautiful gastronomic trip in a thoughtfully-designed, sybaritic environment with the most sensitive of service brings.

The converted town homes that comprise Trotter’s four dining rooms are entered via a discreetly covered set of stairs that contributes, once inside, to a sense of cozy but spacious comfort. The lighting is flattering and bright enough to feel comfortable, inviting curiosity about what’s around the corner without making you feel cut off from other rooms or confused about the space. The fabrics have subtle complementary sheens, the wood gleams. The banquette where I parked for over five hours that night was the most comfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever sat in and didn’t require any discreet can-can kicking afterward to get stretched out when I finally got up. The space feels human-scaled, intime, well thought-out.

There are three usual offerings at Trotter’s: the grand and vegetarian prix-fixe menus, each about eight courses, or the hard-to-book kitchen table menu, where diners occupy the thrilling space twixt kitchen and laypeople and nibble on about 18,000 courses. Trotter’s waitstaff makes it clear from the very beginning, setting the tone for the evening, that they can customize these menus however one wants; I found myself confessing an aversion to shellfish much earlier in than in any previous relationship. And I saw a flicker in the waiter’s eye as he noticed me unpacking my Lactaid and was attempted to ride that for a request for a dairy-free meal--just to see what I got. But I wanted the grand menu, although I found myself more seduced by Trotter’s mastery of vegetable cooking than I expected to be.

The meal was springy and seasonal in happily subtle but effective ways. I started with salty-sweet Tasmanian ocean trout with spiky, even saltier hajiki. The vegetarian amuse guele was a combination of spongy morels and perfect crisp/tender fiddlehead ferns, a vegetable that a friend of mine describes as “Mesozoic” in flavor. There’s something completely seductive about that earthy, tightly coiled vegetable that makes you understand the rhapsodic language of truffle-hunters--I tasted dark, chocolate-cake dirt and morning dew. There was baby asparagus, equally tender and glowing green on the plate with the halibut and noodles (which I had substituted for the scallop with the curled pork rind atop like a jaunty hat), although the savory turnip puree it rested on almost stole the show, turning the halibut from clean-tasting to almost bland. Indeed, the vegetarian menu in general seemed to often grab our collective attention; the caramelized maui onion soup with a “flan” at the bottom made our eyes roll back in pleasure. That stuff was unbelievable.

Is the food fussy? Yes, it’s fussy. Serious. Food there is assembled--the verb to describe the last thing that happens to the food before you see it is assemble, not grill, fillet, debone, broil (before flinging on a plate). Any of those things and more might be done first, to any one of innumerable components, but in the end they are fluffed and nudged and sliced and fanned and dribbled onto their last home. Some courses look almost nouvelle cuisine-like in terms of food:plate ratio, but the food doesn’t taste small, nor did I leave the restaurant remotely hungry. The guinea fowl and celeriac terrine (oh so good, not in the least gamey) was arranged on an oblong plate with droplets of onion relish and vinaigrette and tiny snips of parsley, looking a bit like a Starry Night landscape before my big bad fork pillaged it. But even the tiny bits of herb were full of flavor, asking you to notice them. The chocolate mousse terrine was inter-layered with single crepes that within grew soft and almost melted, so that the teeth barely noticed them.

The desserts in general were astonishing--all that piling up of ingredients really works in the land and proportion of desserts. The kaffir lime sorbet with the chocolate mousse; the suave olive oil ice cream with the kumquat baba (just slightly too unmoist, somehow, I think, by contrast) that I had primed myself to dislike out of an attachment to catholic ice cream flavors (and which I loved, of course); the rhubarb sorbet on a jewel-like bed of vegetables and fruit such as gooseberries. Even the bread (what a bad thing to say about the staff of life -- "even") rocked my world. It was chewy in the most deliberate and hospitable of ways -- fresh, warm, based on various grains and in one case Carolina low country rice, with just the thinnest layer of salt in the outside crust. It made me happy for the attentive bread service and sweet butter that at just the right time kept one from being Without.

And the wine. The wine degustation is what puts the average per-diner cost at Trotters’ in the over-$200 category. The wine and beverage service is as attentive as the food’s, unostentatious enough that I didn’t notice all the refills of Fiji water from their snug square coasters. On this night the evening began with the most perfect, pale Bellini, per a springtime urge, which set just the right note. Among the wine menu there was a crisp Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs Brut; a delicate Kruger-Rumpf Riesling Kabinett that brought seconds from our wine steward, perfect as it was for a May evening; a Movia Pinot Nero that, as my friend said, was full of leather and smoke; Bodegas Catena Zapata "Alta" Cabernet Sauvignon. The meal ended with Olivares “Dulce” Monastrell and a petal-yellow, honeysuckle-flavored Tokaji-Aszu "5 Puttonyos" Chateau Pajzos, which made me think winily about late afternoon sun and shadows sliding through Art Nouveau buildings onto the river in 1920s Budapest… The swerves in taste and temperature and texture of the various wines pulled us through the meal with layers of complimentary and challenging flavors that made it more than worth it.

Dining at Trotter’s -- which is leisurely, and should be -- gives you enough time for life to flip through the looking glass into the rarified, expensive, fine-dining world where more things are as you would wish them (delicious, waited-upon, comfortable) than not. This context of special treatment makes the mistakes stand out more sharply (I get the feeling Trotter is well aware of this). Even the puny things. Especially the puny things. Very princess and the pea. The butter knives, for instance, which I found strangely ill-balanced in the hand due to the weight and the “tilted” design (which work well at full-size) bothered me. I kept gripping and regripping them. Or the mignardises, which in our case were small chewy Parisian macaroons, one of my favorite things in the world. The filling holding the hibiscus-flavored variety together hadn’t set all the way and the cookie sandwich slid around as I held it, me confused like a spoiled child princess by the fact that it wasn’t quite perfect, delicious as it was.

More to the point, bigger mistakes in this high-paid context become all about how the restaurant handles them. For instance, unlike the juicy grilled Dakota bison tenderloin, I found the unctuous crimson meat of the roasted squab (served, among other accompaniments, with simple but highly-seasoned velvety grits I wanted to take a bath in) so underdone as to be totally without tooth. Raw as heck. The waitstaff took it back with absolutely no fuss and happily fixed the mistake, checking in unobtrusively but clearly about how the fix was working, letting me know they knew I knew. They knew I knew they knew I knew they knew I knew. The tiniest of gestures and eye movements made it clear. They are on your side. The service at Trotter’s is as good as rumored: thoughtful, attentive, energetic, full of forethought, interactive at just the right level.

Trotter and his staff often end an evening -- smooth the transition to valet parking, or work to seduce an unimpressed diner -- with a tour of the restaurant or the kitchen itself. I couldn’t decide I how I felt about seeing behind the curtain; it was a little like seeing a blooper reel for a film that until then had engineered complete suspension of disbelief. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to feel my feet slide around on the tile floor after hours of banqueted comfort, nor was I sure I wanted to encounter Trotter’s Michelin star-chasing / Jack Welch-style cheerleading MO in action -- I wanted to just taste. The kitchen was astonishing, though. I had the usual first impression of galleys in a submarine, but shining through was also a sense of the energy and order that put the food I had eaten that night on my plate. There were arrays of the most beautifully polished copper saucepans I had ever seen, some of them adorably tiny, rows of similarly hunched-over (à la mode de Trotter) absorbed staff, and everywhere intense and layered aromas. When I left I could still smell tiny zephyrs of lavender and peas and fennel, a little dazed in the spring evening that seemed to have a pale green haze hanging above the damp streets. There are probably worse ways to ease back to life. •

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