Three things I thought I’d never see at Charlie Trotter’s: (1) staffers who aren’t sure what they’ve just served, (2) dirty dishes sitting on a table for 20 minutes, and (3) Trotter himself, a man normally as rigid as a slab of steel, joking around with customers in the dining room like Shecky Greene in the Catskills. “I can do this because I’m Mr. Chef!” he roared to my party after plopping unexpected brioches on our bread plates. He watched them rattle around for a moment and then scampered off to yuck it up with the next table.
None of this qualifies as a national crisis. But to witness all three during a recent meal in the sealed sanctuary that is Charlie Trotter’s—one of the world’s most serious, disciplined, and consistently excellent restaurants of the past 25 years—was nothing short of surreal.
Ever since Trotter surprised a group of guests last New Year’s Eve by announcing that he would close the restaurant this August to pursue his master’s in philosophy and political theory, it’s been strange days at Charlie Trotter’s. The phone has been ringing like mad, even after Trotter raised the prices for his hallowed prix fixe menus. (The grand menu jumped $30, from $165 to $195.) A cynical gambit? A well-deserved bump for a restaurant that never made anyone rich? Either way, most of Chicago’s dining elite—the chefs and fans and all the people who always meant to eat at Trotter’s—have popped into Lincoln Park’s most famous brownstone to kiss the man’s ring before he’s gone. It recalls the blitz on tickets during Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls, before he passed the torch to any player willing to take it. But this is not a torch-passing to Grant Achatz or Paul Kahan or anyone else; those guys already pried it from Trotter’s hands just by doing what they do. This is an eight-month victory lap.
Truth be told, Trotter has never been quite the tyrant that many believe him to be; those who really know the man say he’s more intellectual than intolerant, and maybe even a bit goofy. He likes control, of course, but over details—like dusting the tops of light switches—not people. And why shouldn’t he be in a great mood? The weight of competing, with the world and with himself, has finally been lifted from his shoulders.
While the celebratory mood may explain the carelessness in the dining room, the negligence has not infected the food. The eight-course grand and vegetable menus still sparkle with gems. Let’s start with the miso-informed tortellini with slow-braised red cabbage, turnip confit, and tangy ponzu. Or the tender-crunchy Broken Arrow Ranch venison loin crusted with oats, flavored with toasted espresso, and flanked by boudin noir. Both represent the brand of ballsy but nuanced creations that made Trotter a legend: creative, pretty, and technically impeccable compositions, on a par with what he was doing in his supposed heyday in the 1990s. The difference is that people are now outwardly enjoying them in a festive room rather than expressing hushed admiration in a silent one. Of course food tastes better at a dinner party than at a wake.
Those who complain that Trotter’s food is out of touch with the times probably ought to try the brilliant salt-baked potato with manchego, cipollini onions, and black winter truffles. A waiter pours out a puddle of concentrated potato soup, sending the truffle aroma floating up like a magic vapor. Few kitchens in Chicago could pull off a play on a loaded baked potato with even half this style. A lovely duo of skate wing, some steamed and some layered into a terrine fortified with grapefruit, kaffir lime, and kanzuri (a Japanese chili paste made from yuzu), reminded me of the kind of thing Curtis Duffy was doing at Avenues before he set off to open his own spot in the West Loop. Then I remembered: Trotter was doing this stuff when Duffy—one of the scene’s current alpha chefs—was just a kid in a home economics class in Ohio. And Duffy’s first job in Chicago was a three-year stint at Charlie Trotter’s. Some figures are so influential you don’t always recognize the shadow they cast.
Take any dish you think you know—say, cheesecake—and Trotter’s kitchen has spun it over the years in countless fascinating and satisfying ways you couldn’t have predicted. Most recently, cheesecake appeared in a ricotta version with a niçoise-olive-studded tuile and vinegary persimmons, which comes across as a glorious salad without the lettuce. The endless tinkering also means inevitable misfires, as in a mousse of tangerine and green curry that didn’t taste particularly of either, accompanied by stick-to-your-teeth white chocolate meringues and candied cashews. It wasn’t the only letdown. The Maine lobster with beet spätzle and veal sweetbreads felt scattershot, and the muted flavors of a crème fraîche ice cream with dark chocolate and Earl Grey tea tasted as if they’d been filtered through a sieve.
But it wasn’t the food that fell out of vogue at Trotter’s; it was the snoozy beige room, which has the unfortunate reputation of being stiff and quiet at a time when most restaurants are loose and loud. Ironically, my last visit was closer to the loose-and-loud variety, and while things felt sloppy—pacing problems, inadequate dish descriptions—it was the most memorable evening I’ve spent at Trotter’s in years. So go while you can, even if the experience is more about fun than excellence. Hell, blow out the whole event and spend the $125 on wine pairings, which are offbeat and note-perfect, because when September rolls around, the lights will be dark at 816 West Armitage Avenue, and Charlie Trotter will give up his superpowers to become just another graduate student.
At one point during my farewell visit, Trotter made a big theatrical deal of bringing out the baker, a dazed-looking kid he called Enzo, to introduce him to diners. “OK, Enzo!” he hollered after a few awkward moments. “Now get back in the kitchen and start baking!” Poor Enzo, the unwitting straight man in Trotter’s shtick. But what can he do? His boss has 14 cookbooks, ten James Beard awards, full reservation books, and an ironclad legacy in Chicago. If there is one man who has earned the right to loosen the buttons on his starched chef’s whites, it is Charlie Trotter.