Dish Flash: Charlie Trotter’s, in 25 Years of Chicago Magazine Reviews
In today’s Dish newsletter we excerpted Chicago magazine’s 25-year file on Charlie Trotter’s (816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-248-6228), the ground-breaking, stake-planting, chef-launching, breathtaking restaurant that Trotter announced he would close in August in an interview this past week with the Sun-Times. Trotter plans to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy and political theory before he returns to the culinary fray at an unspecified time in the future. Hugely influential not only in Chicago, Trotter gets credit in an article at The Atlantic’s website for the fine-dining ubiquity of the dégustation menu, local/seasonal ingredient sourcing, and the chef’s table, among other things. Consider the selection in Dish the amuse—and this lineup the grand menu.
• October 15, 1987, first-ever reviewer visit: There’s no salt and pepper on the table. . . . Sauces here use more flavoring and less cream than cream sauces typically do. They are a 50/50 ratio here, 80/20 elsewhere, according to the waiter. . . . Many dishes toy with a variety of textures. . . . There’s no offer of pepper with the salad because it was put on in the kitchen. . . . The crème brûlée is one of the best I’ve had.
• October 30, 1987, reviewer visit: There are no daily special items. All items are clearly set out on extensive menus which are printed fresh daily. Conversely, there are no regular items, and the menu changes (evolves?) gradually, so something your friend tried may not available when you go. . . . Main courses include vegetable and starch accompaniments specifically conceived to be appropriate to each dish. A rack of lamb was served with a lamb and fig crepinette sausage, which had a savory, delightful flavor. . . . You may bring wine ($10 corkage fee).
• March 18, 1988, reviewer visit: Starting April 11th for six weeks, they are going to start an approximately eight-course tasting menu for $48 per person. The menu is completely different from the last time we were here. . . . What makes this menu so striking is that not only are the dishes so novel, but even the things that they are served with are almost never seen elsewhere. Grilled venison comes with polenta-chestnut flan and truffled mascarpone. Braised John Dory is with tarragon gnocchi and root vegetables. Sautéed salmon is with spinach-cardoon-fennel purée with lobster and butter. . . . It’s really difficult to classify this cooking as derivative of any ethnic group because it’s all so original.
• May 11, 1989, kitchen table visit: Charlie relates this story about one of the first people to eat in the kitchen: “A regular customer, a pig farmer from Peoria. He sat here for about 15 minutes and he looked over at the hot line and said, ‘I think you guys over there are being too nice. I think things are too quiet. If you shout at these people, I want to see that.’ After two and a half hours of insisting on this, I finally injected a little bit of color for his benefit. We turn up the volume a little bit. We made it worth his while.”
• August 30, 1989, reviewer visit: One of our friends ordered a drink while waiting. She said, thinking out loud, “Well, I don’t want a Bloody Mary, because the last time I didn’t like it here. So the bartender talked about it, she ordered one, and he took it back to Charlie Trotter who sampled it and corrected it in the kitchen. “I was very impressed, and it was very good,” my friend said.
• June 20, 1990, reviewer visit: Smoked prawn, cured foie gras, and ginger coulis. The luscious foie gras is cured with port, sugar, salt. “Just like salmon,” said the waiter, “wrapped in cheesecloth, deveined. We cure everything here. Sometimes it’s awful in the wine room—we have these things hanging and dripping in cheesecloth—but it’s worth it.” . . . Pastries were flaky and tender and expertly made, as were the cream sauces and mousses. It all ran together into some kind of orgy of the taste buds that makes it hard afterwards to recall which was which, since my tape had run out and I couldn’t take notes on the spot, but it was one of the closest things to a near-death culinary experience that I’ve ever had.
• July 28, 1993, reviewer visit: Waiters don't even bother to show a menu to diners unless they specifically want to—just recommending they go for Charlie's special menu—the menu is becoming more a final memento of what happened, not something to choose from to make the dinner happen as the diner designs.
• September 8, 1994, kitchen-table visit: Early on, the kitchen is quiet but later on gets more noisy, although Charlie accounts for most of the noise. . . . As we leave shortly after 9, there is a party of expensively dressed people in the bar. Is that their Rolls-Royce out front? This is the kind of meal that ought to begin in a ride in a Rolls.
• July 13, 1995, reviewer visit: Bottom line of Charlie Trotter is that he's a genius when it comes to innovative combinations and contrasts of flavors—and he does it without using high-cholesterol ingredients, except when it comes to the desserts, of course.
• July 26, 1996, reviewer visit: Prices of each dégustation are up $5 from last year. But hey, who cares? They've stopped putting prices on the menu!
• November 10, 2001, reviewer visit: The bounty of desserts the waiters filled out the table with at the end of the meal, many of them not on the menu, reminded me of an early visit to Trotter’s a decade ago when his exuberance used to dazzle in the sheer number of desserts arriving to gasps around the room and he would dart out to explain them himself.
• July 23, 2002, reviewer visit: Grilled Maine bluefin tuna with braised oxtail, black-cardamom-infused roasted carrots, chanterelle mushrooms, and red wine essence. Where’s the oxtail? “It’s hiding underneath. They want to make sure it’s in every forkful.” How the hell does he do this? I’m saying. It’s astounding—like genius poetry. . . . This morel mushroom soup is amazing, essence of morel in the broth. Well, this may be the best mushroom soup I’ve ever had. . . . Assessment: This is more sublime but less exciting than Tru [under Rick Tramonto] or Trio. Trio’s chef [Grant Achatz] reminds me of where Trotter was in the late 1980s when he was the most exciting and creative young chef around. There’s a lot more seriousness here than at Tru, but the essential quality and maturity of the cooking is higher here.
• July 29, 2004, reviewer visit: Roasted red beet risotto with porcini mushrooms, lemon zest, and summer truffles: This is fantastic, and helps confirm my idea that Trotter is best at vegetables—he may be the best ever. My taste sense is that this is the best food in the city. . . . Easiest bill. Three items on it: Grand Menu, Vege Menu, Wine Accompaniment. Service charge (18%) included. And no charge for coffee!
• July 27, 2005, reviewer visit: Japanese hamachi with Indian pickle, Thai eggplant, and lemongrass-curry emulsion. Trotter knows how to use fusion flavors as well as anybody and this is memorable. Curry-lemongrass foam tops and froths over it all. First foam of the night—it’s so good it takes my breath away.
• July 14, 2007, reviewer visit: Not a real celebratory place—too serious. There for the food.
• March 14, 2009, reviewer visit: Maybe a sign of the times, on the first floor there were two vacant tables for the first seating. One of the vacant tables was set for six so perhaps they would be coming in for the second seating. . . . Poached hen egg with toasted brioche, torpedo onion, and parsley. None of the flavors in this are exotic, but the result is almost perfection. He sure knows when and how to use parsley to get just the right effect.
• February 26, 2011, reviewer visit: Service in general was lighter in tone than on many previous visits. Not so stern and humorless—more relaxed, but still very proper. . . . South Dakota bison tenderloin with quinoa and candied espresso. Wow, there are slices of smooth-textured bison blood sausage as well as two thick pieces of unbelievably tender bison tenderloin, rare and red and delicious from hot searing on the edge. . . .
There may be rumors of Trotter folding his tent here, but nothing in the experience tonight suggests it. Business looks better than what we saw two years ago, and the quality and creativity still show up everywhere—a great fine-dining experience. His style of delicacy and lightness in sauces is profound and this stuff just tastes wonderful. As I noted last time, nothing staggers in a circusy way as at Alinea, but almost everything delights and demonstrates incredible control and balance. He’s still incorporating new and exotic ingredients, but they feel natural, not manipulated with laboratory techniques. It’s still not pyrotechnic food, but exquisite. The service is better too, not so damn serious but almost error-free at a very high level. I’m impressed he’s held the prices steady for at least two years. Still clearly four-star, whatever those Michelin folks think.