"They’re playing with fire," we concluded as we sipped our coffee and listened to the slender young chef and his beaming bride expound on his cooking. We had dined one evening early last summer with three other couples as guests of friends in a luxurious North Shore residence. The chef was Charlie Trotter, a neighbor's son. At this and nearly five dozen other fashionable dinner parties—including his own wedding reception for 200 people—Trotter had cooked to test his ideas and techniques before opening his own restaurant. After dessert, the couple came from the kitchen to applause and a round of friendly questioning. Charlie Trotter responded in a breathless rush of deadly serious philosophy while Lisa Trotter glowed with the radiance of a new wife. Later the guests discussed the meal among themselves. The cooking, they agreed, was mostly competent—at times inspired. Yet there was a widespread concern for the couple: The expectations of a dozen socializing guests are easier to satisfy than those of several dozen paying customers ordering varied meals partaken over a five-hour period. Did they have what it takes to survive?
Trotter, 27 at the time, had little experience and even less study. He had worked at Gordon and at Sinclair's and apprenticed a short time with San Francisco’s Bradley Ogden (Campton Place); his formal training was a six-month course at the California Culinary Academy. While most other chefs attract investors as they rise through the ranks, Trotter's backing is ensured by family funds.
Before the $1.5-million restaurant opened last August in a gutted-and-rebuilt townhouse on Armitage, Trotter had spoken earnestly and naïvely of breaking new ground in his quest for superior dining at reasonable prices. He had expected some operations to be slickly computerized, and they are: The entire menu is printed daily, an attractive exercise in desktop publishing. The kitchen staff gets its food orders not from servers dashing into the kitchen, but from a dispassionate computer printer, part of a system that also lets cooks and servers communicate hands-free by intercom.
When the business grew faster than anticipated, Lisa Trotter decided to forgo law school, ultimately to manage the wines and supervise the dining rooms. The food and wine bargains Trotter originally hoped would be his hallmark have diminished as business soared. In about two months, food prices climbed an average of more than 20 percent and appetizers shot up more than 40 percent, reportedly at the insistence of pater-partner Bob Trotter, formerly a hard-nosed executive with IBM.
The wine list now carries few bargains. Still, the selection of more than 175 varieties is impressive for its depth and reach; it has more Oregon wines than many lists have California chardonnays. In addition to two dozen French Champagnes, there are avant-garde favorites including three luscious choices: buttery Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierre chardonnay ($32), fruit-rich Flora Springs barrel-fermented chardonnay ($28), and the complicated Bonny Doon red blend called "Le Cigare Volant" ($20). Although it is difficult for a small restaurant to offer a large selection of wines by the glass, this one has nearly two dozen, enabling diners to taste great wines or to have more than one wine with a meal, yet keep prices within check. Best of all, the wines aren't those commonly touted around town, but include several of special merit—yet most are under five dollars a glass.
Though Charlie Trotter's is far from the bargain it was in August, it is still a good value: Its richly embellished main courses run around $17 and desserts average $4.50. Given their quality and the surroundings and appointments that go with them, they could justifiably fetch more—and probably will, once the place is fully established.
Trotter's is elegant. A distinctive Brazilian cherrywood floor sets off a two-story foyer and a small wine bar. Beyond that a pair of dining rooms on two levels provide a luxurious, refined setting with soft carpeting, understated but effective lighting, fabric-covered walls, and handsomely upholstered chairs and banquettes. Though popular, therestaurant nonetheless exudes a civility missing from many of today's popular places: It is actually restful; there is no music—not elevator, jazz, or philharmonic—and the noise level is modest, especially on the second floor. The china is custom glazed, there is silver for every purpose, and the glassware is of notably good quality. The waitstaff is dignified but unstuffy, considerate, and extremely well versed.
Best of all, Trotter's fare is original, but rarely jarring; while his cooking is rooted in French disciplines, his style is light and the ingredients up-to-date. Yet modern advances are kept in their place: Nearly everything from the kitchen has been made there from scratch, using the freshest wares—thanks to Trotter's training in kitchens that are at the vanguard of the so-called "New American Cuisine."
Trotter is much more an American chef than a French one, which is to say his cooking lacks a strong national identity and is chock-full of ethnic surprises and hybrids. How does one classify smoked sea scallops combined with sesame mayonnaise and Asian vegetables? What culture makes pasta dough with sweet potatoes?
That sweet-potato pasta is formed into a giant pumpkin-colored raviolo about six inches across, filled with chopped quail, and decorated with fleshy shiitake mushrooms, dried tomato, bits of quail, and a dainty fried quail egg. Smoked sea scallops have a Pan-Asian character. Barely cooked and thinly sliced, they ring a salad of rice noodles, enoki mushrooms, julienne vegetables, and tree ear, flavored with fermented black beans and sesame-oil mayonnaise sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Some first courses are combinations of related dishes, such as a collection of three salmons—mild gravlax, assertively smoked fish, and superb tartare, its texture enlivened with crisp minced vegetables, black olives, and green peppercorns. Another opening assortment is link sausages of three different fish—salmon, shrimp, and scallops—in a crayfish-tomato butter garnished with roe and julienne leek.
Soups and salads are substantial enough to substitute for appetizers—and are priced about the same. Eggplant soup is a thick vegetable purée topped with ovals of roasted baby eggplant alternating with smoky slices of peppery lamb tenderloin surrounding a pool of bright saffron mayonnaise, which proves that even soups can gain by being cleverly sauced. Salads are symphonies of texture and taste: One included tiny snails mixed with tender spinach, crisp pancetta, soft cooked garlic, and fleshy shiitake mushrooms, and another combined slices of smoked duck breast with walnuts, papaya, raspberries, pears, and red leaf lettuce.
Half of Trotter's main courses are seafood, and like all of his other dishes, they are sauced with blends that rely more on vegetable purees and other flavoring agents than on butter and cream. He makes a spectacular decorated pastry dome filled with lobster, shrimp, and oysters mixed with crisp snow peas, carrots, and leeks in savory Champagne-tarragon sauce. Surrounding it are intense green and yellow sauces, the first of spinach, lobster stock, and butter, the other of saffron, lobster stock, and cream. And ringing the plate: more seafood, with vegetables tossed in a tomalley butter. Though the combination sounds busy, the flavors are clean, pure, straightforward. Another first-rate dish is braised monkfish with fennel, baby leek, and artichoke bottoms, its textural variety further enhanced with crunchy rosé "peppercorns" and its buttery sauce uncharacteristically but agreeably rich and tart.
Trotter's sous-chef, 30-year-old Geoff Felsenthal, also trained with Bradley Ogden. It was Felsenthal who came up with the delicious juicy duck breast rolled around a filling of shiitake, crimini, and portobello mushrooms. Accompanying it are crisp fingers of deep-fried salsify, a pancake of celery root and potato, and a custard of spinach cooked in chicken stock.
Trotter's is not the sort of restaurant that decks out every main course with the same assortment of vegetables and starches. Roasted baby chicken might come with orzo—rice-grain pasta—mixed with chopped olives and garnished with baby red beets, a purée of carrots with a baby-carrot garnish, and a garlic custard with striations of wild mushroom. Rack of lamb is accompanied by a wonderful flat lamb sausage and a warm radicchio salad, but the disappointing polenta that comes with it is like cold, runny Cream of Wheat. A cooked-all-day distant cousin, Greek potato-garlic skordalia, served with sea bass, is also thin and lackluster.
Though the selection is modest, desserts cover a broad range, from simple fruit and cheese to combinations such as the pretentiously named but gratifying "study in pear," which includes a hot tartlet, pear ice cream, and intensely flavored pear sorbet. Trotter could take a cue from neighbor Tom Culleeney at Les Plumes, who places his frozen confections in a pastry cup. Trotter's, with nothing separating them from the hot plate, melt quickly. Dedicated sweets lovers would do well to choose the rich, dense chocolate marquise studded with dried apricots, raisins, and apples. One side nestles in a strawberry sauce decorated with creme anglaise, the other in creme anglaise decorated with strawberry sauce; a pool of buttery warm caramel lies where the sauces meet. The dish went particularly well with Quady Elysium, a pruny California dessert wine. We were split on the merits of Trotter's cashew-praline creme bailee, a confection of understated sweetness. Its crisp crust is first class; the custard itself is silky; but we disagreed on whether the somewhat starchy cashews that are mixed into it enhance or detract.
Charlie Trotter's is the only restaurant we've been in that charges the same price for coffee, teas, caffe latte, cappuccino, or cafe filtre—but that price is $2.50, fairly steep for plain coffee.