Monday, November 30, 2009

A tradition is reborn.

Just like your family (I'm making what I think is a safe assumption here), mine has certain inviolable Thanksgiving traditions. One of these is serving creamed onions with the meal. For the last 29 years, I've been a reluctant consumer of that dish. Definitively Waspy both in frugality (it consists of little more than onions, flour and milk) and flavor (as in, not a lot of it), it's a staple for most New Englanders, and my mom has served it every year in living memory. As did her mother before her.

This year, I stumbled across a recipe in Saveur's November issue that gave me hope for creamed onions. Saveur chronicled several American Thanksgiving feasts, one of which was cooked by Anna North Coit, a 101 year-old woman from Stonington, Connecticut. Anna (a fellow Yankee - even better for authenticity's sake, a fellow Connecticut native) spikes her creamed onions with curry powder and Tobasco. Surely, I thought, this will make the onions at least a bit more edible, and curry goes so well with turkey.

Luckily, I was right. My mom was out of Tobasco and I had to substitute cayenne, and her Florida grocery store only had jarred pearl onions, but none of that really mattered. This year, the creamed onions were not only edible, but tasty. And instead of being yet another white or brown element of the traditional Thanksgiving plate, they were a gorgeous yellow.

I hereby declare a tradition.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Queenie's Treasury

Good morning, my lovelies! I hope you're all recovering nicely from your Thanksgiving festivities. I am on my way home to NYC today - cross your fingers for me that that the travels are calm and quiet (last year we sat in the Jacksonville airport for 6 hours).

This week's treasury will hopefully help you get into the holiday spirit, in case you, unlike me, haven't been binging on a diet of Christmas music for the last 24 hours. First, an awesome advent calendar roundup from Design Crush. If you haven't bought yours yet, it's not too late! I'm seriously considering downloading the one from mibo studio.

From How About Orange comes my favorite gingerbread man ornament of ALL TIME. It may be dark, but it's funny as hell. Whenever I look at it, I can't stop laughing. I am seriously considering whipping one of these up for a friend who shares my love of the perverse.

Do you have a typewriter? Well, then, here's a holiday party invite idea for you, courtesy of The Haystack Needle blogger, Jen. Using paint samples as stationery, Jen typed out invitations to her recent housewarming and sent them off to her friends. The paint samples are a natural choice for a housewarming, but a set of them in the same colors you're using to decorate for Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year's could be pretty dang cool.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A happy accident.

On Saturday morning, I visited the St. Stephen's Greenmarket at 82nd and First, where I bought some dill, brussels sprouts, shallots and beets - at least, I thought they were beets.

Turns out, they were a batch of the biggest purple radishes I have ever seen. I made this discovery when I started slicing them for a roasted beet and cucumber salad. Not to be deterred, I decided to roast the radishes instead, and to add some sliced carrots to replace the sweetness of the beets.

It also turns out that roasted radishes and carrots make a pretty damn good salad when tossed with cucumber, dill, onion and a lemon vinaigrette. The salad went perfectly with my roast chicken thigh, and I had to restrain myself from eating the second half of the meal, which had been earmarked for Monday's lunch.

All in all, a good showing.

Roast Chicken with Radish, Carrot and Cucumber Salad

Olive oil
1 bunch radishes, washed and cut into one-inch pieces
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into half-inch thick half-moons
Salt and pepper
2 chicken thighs (bone-in, skin-on)
2 kirby cucumbers, seeded and cut into one-inch pieces
1/4 large white onion, thinly sliced
3 tbs. fresh dill, finely chopped
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp. honey
2 tbs. canola oil

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush the foil with a bit of olive oil. Spread the carrots and radishes evenly on the foil, drizzle with a bit more olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and roast for 25-35 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender and beginning to brown deeply.

Meanwhile, pat the chicken thighs dry, brush another baking sheet with olive oil (no foil this time), and place the chicken thighs on the sheet. Season with salt and pepper and add to the oven. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden, and the meat's juices run clear. Set aside to rest for 5-10 minutes.

Place the cucumbers, onion and dill in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the shallot, mustard, lemon juice, honey and a bit of salt and pepper. Add the oil in a small stream, whisking as you go, until the mixture is emulsified. Set aside.

Once the roasted vegetables have cooled for a minute or two, add them to the cucumber. Add half of the vinaigrette and toss the salad until all ingredients are evenly distributed. Taste and add more vinaigrette as needed, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon the salad evenly onto two plates, and place a chicken thigh on top of each little pile. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 2.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

On this most food-obsessed of all holidays, I wish you all the very best! And if you need a little help today, don't forget that the Butterball hotline is open all day long (Sam Sifton of the New York Times is answering questions until 3 PM EST, too!)

Don't be ashamed to call - after all, the greatest president of all time wasn't scared to do so.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


For a long time now - years, really - I've been on the hunt for a great pumpkin bread recipe. Most of the ones I've tried have been insipid and sweet, too loaded down with oil to actually bake all the way through without burning to a crisp on top, or just plain boring. Finally, though, I think I've hit gold. Or orange. Or whatever.

Ironically, it's a recipe that's been sitting in my apartment for over a year now. It was featured as part of a review of Cindy Mushet's The Art and Soul of Baking back in the October 2008 issue (which also has a great article about the Wonka-esque effects of a meal at Alinea), and I'm completely in love with it. It, unlike so many other pumpkin bread recipes, features ginger, allspice and cloves - not just allspice and cinnamon. It has a nice balance of spicy and sweet and bakes to the perfect consistency. Like most quickbreads, it's a mix-and-dump affair, which only adds to the appeal. In short, it's awesome.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. I test-drove it (minus the walnuts) at work (where its fragrance perfumed our entire pod within an hour) and at my book club meeting last week, when I sent everyone home with leftovers.

Now it's your turn - enjoy!

Pumpkin Walnut Bread
Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet

The one thing I changed is the amount of ginger - I think a little extra dash really gives the bread a nice zing.

2 cups flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup prepared pumpkin
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F and position the oven rack in the center. Butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and line it with parchment paper, ensuring the paper extends an inch over the rim on all sides.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger and salt until well-combined. In another, medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and water. Add the sugar and blend well. Add the pumpkin, canola oil and vanilla extract and stir until combined.

Add the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients and whisk until the batter is blended and smooth. Add the walnuts and stir with a wooden spoon until the nuts are evenly distributed. Using a spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the bread is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool completely before slicing. Leftovers should be wrapped in aluminum foil and left at room temperature (where they'll keep for two days) or in the fridge (where they'll keep for four days).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Resting our tummies.

When you're spending the weekend feasting on lobster, caviar and pheasant fritters, it probably isn't a terrible idea to pause for something on the simpler side. On Saturday afternoon, before we met up with Josh and Liz for an architecture boat tour of downtown Chicago, Nick, Louisa and I went out in search of sushi.

Nick and Louisa's concierge recommended Oysy, which was just a few blocks south of our hotels. We sat down at a table near the window, ordered some unfiltered sake, spicy shrimp and three bowls of chirashi. Louisa had been craving chirashi ever since our visit to Go Fish in St. Helena, and I couldn't very well let her go it alone!

Before the sushi, though, came the miso soup. It was warm and delicious, and, as always, a nice way to kick off a meal.

The spicy shrimp were awesome - fried in tempura batter and then tossed with a spicy red-chili sauce, they were piping hot. The shrimp themselves were fresh as could be and pretty much popped in your mouth when you bit down on them. Bar food, elevated, is something the Japanese do so well. Sooooo well. (Exhibit B: Kasadela.)

Finally, the chirashi! I forgot to snap a photo before I dug in, so please excuse the bite marks on barbecued eel (Nick's personal favorite.). Chirashi remains my favorite way to consume sashimi - what's not to love about a heap of pristine raw fish atop a bed of sticky sushi rice, especially when it always comes with that nifty egg cake thing? Not a thing, that's what. My favorites in this batch were the white tuna (down front with a dot of plum sauce), the red tuna (toward the back) and the ridiculously rich salmon (at nine o'clock).

I know you've all seen thousands of dishes of wasabi and ginger before, but I just couldn't resist - this one was too pretty not to share.

50 E. Grand Avenue (at Rush Street)
Chicago, Illinois

Monday, November 23, 2009

A little guidance goes a long way.

In case you're dying for another fix of either Alinea or Trotter's, I've posted copies of both menus over at GoogleDocs. (Tru's current menu can be found over here, on their website.) Now you can peruse Louisa's 30th birthday dinners over and over to your heart's content! Click here for Alinea, and here for Trotter's.

If nothing else, you have to take a look at the Alinea menu - it's too cool. For each course, the size of the circle corresponds to the relative size of the dish itself. The position of the circle indicates its place along the meal's continuum from savory to sweet: the farther the circle is to the left, the move savory the dish; the farther it is to the right, the sweeter.
Nifty, right?

Sunday night at Alinea: pure imagination.

When you arrive at Alinea, the first clue that you're about to experience something totally out of the ordinary appears pretty quickly. The entry hall, which runs the depth of the small Lincoln Park townhouse, is a Wonka-like construction, becoming drastically narrower and shorter as it progresses, ushering you into Grant Achatz's world-famous culinary funhouse/wonderland.

The real fun, however, starts once you're up the stairs and settled into the spare, dark dining room. (Very dark, so I apologize for the grainy quality of the photos!) Alinea serves two tasting menus: a 13-course and a 24-course. Our reservation was for the 13-course meal, and we started off with a bang.

Our first course was Osetra caviar, served with all of the traditional accompaniments - sort of. The caviar and crème fraiche were their usual selves, but the red onions came in jelly form, while the buttered brioche appeared as a foam. The foam was incredible - I felt like the Wonka theme was continuing, and the foam was Violet's gum. Even though the foam was light as air and vanished in my mouth, it was so well-flavored that I felt like I'd eaten a piece of toast.

The next course was a big hit with everyone at the table. Pork belly confit served between two lightly warmed leaves of iceberg lettuce, accompanied by cucumber (Yum!) and a Thai basil seed vinaigrette. I thought this was awesome, but it wasn't my favorite dish of the night - that was still to come!

Next up was a symphony of mushroom goodness - one ingredient, matsutake mushrooms, prepared in several different ways. Creamy tiles, ice cream, a sort of crumbly pastry, and one fresh specimen, dead center. Mango sauce made an appearance, as did a delicious morsel of otoro. This was delicious, and a really great example of chef Grant Achatz's ability to make you think differently about an ingredient by playing with it in an assortment of ways.

According to our server, Chef Achatz likes to include one traditional dish in each menu, in order to remind us of where we've come from, and of the fact that though he may play with foams and gases and burning leaves (Just wait!), he's a classicist at heart. Achatz likes to challenge and delight you, but never fails to create something delicious. He doesn't sacrifice flavor at the altar of surprise.

The evening we dined, the traditional dish was Escoffier's trout monseigneur, a tour of the fish featuring roe, poached trout, and trout mousse. I could recognize the beauty of the techniques at work here, but am by and large not a fan of trout. Others at the table who are, though, reassured me that they loved the dish.

After the trout, we enjoyed my very favorite dish of the evening. A series of oak branches, their dry leaves still attached, arrived at the table. The leaves were smoldering, scattering tiny bits of ash around the dining room. Speared on the bottom of each branch was a fritter filled with roast pheasant, cider jelly and shallot confit. I picked up the branch, inhaled the unmistakable scent of burning leaves, and ate the fritter in one bite. All of my senses were flooded with the taste, smell and sight of autumn. The crunchy tempura batter didn't overwhelm the filling at all - the whole thing was a bundle of perfect flavor. I. Loved. This.

After the pheasant, I could have died happy - but there were still nine courses left to go! Our next dish was another single-bite course. Like the truffle at Tru, this ravioli, filled with black truffle, romaine lettuce and parmesan, exploded in the mouth. As I've said before: no matter how prepared you are (we received another "lips together, teeth apart" warning), food bursting in your mouth is never something you expect. It's awesome. I would love to serve something that explodes at my next dinner party. It makes you giggle. I like to giggle.

When we first sat down at the table, our servers had set a sprig of rosemary at each place. Our next course was a series of lamb loin medallions served on a sizzling strip of iron. The rosemary branches were placed in holes at the far end of the hot metal, and soon the air around our table was perfumed with rosemary. This scent was as much a part of the dish as the three different garnishes on the lamb. From front to back, they were pickled quince, pumpkin, and smoked eggplant. My favorite, somewhat predictably, was the quince, which I'd wisely saved for last.

Our last savory dish was a home run - like the mushroom bonanza, this duck presentation was a tour of preparations. We had foie gras, magret, and what I think was kidney. Along with a few, peppery brussels sprouts leaves, this was served with an orange broth and mace-scented foam. Mace! I never think to use mace (a spice made from the coating of nutmeg seeds), but I love it, and hereby resolve to use it as often as possible.

Peanut butter was chosen to usher us into the sweet courses. In this case, the peanut butter was dried to a powder and spiced with chiles. Placed on the tongue, it first crumbled, then reformed into that signature stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth texture. Too cool, and so delicious. Josh has decided that all peanut butter should be spicy.

I seem to be missing photos of the next two courses, both of which were small bites. The first featured another exploding sphere! A grape-like ball sat atop a small glass, and we were instructed to take all elements into our mouths at once. The ball burst instantly and, it turned out, was flavored with Concord grapes and filled with a watery juice that tasted lightly of Maytag blue cheese and walnuts.

The next course, a one-bite combination of ice-cold Thai banana, beer, mustard and pecans, was delicious, even for those at the table who don't typically love bananas.

The third sweet course was fun in a completely different way. Before the plates arrived at the table, servers placed a linen pillow in front of each of us. The pillows were filled with nutmeg-scented steam, which was released little by little as the weight of our plates, placed on top, gradually pushed downward to the table. On the plate was a delicious combination of coffee and huckleberries, topped by spun burnt sugar.

The chocolate course was a big one, featuring chocolate frozen with liquid nitrogen, applewood bacon (bacon and chocolate are an excellent combination of salty and sweet) and, surprisingly, a crabapple juice. The juice was contained in that little sphere in the middle of the plate. Like an egg yolk, all you had to do was prick it to spread its goodness throughout the dish.

The staff heard us talking about Louisa's birthday, and brought her a little treat to celebrate. This is Alinea's version of birthday cake. The chocolate cake came ensconced in a little ball of tempered chocolate and was revealed by a stream of hot pastry cream poured by our waiter.

Finally, it was time for one last science lab touch. This being Alinea, this test tube filled with hibiscus jelly, crème fraiche and bubble gum-flavored tapioca, and stopped with a disk of long pepper jelly, was not only cool as hell - it tasted great, like the best bubble gum ever. It was also tons of fun to eat. You had to suck on it like a straw to pull all the goodness out of the test tube and into your mouth.

If the rest of the meal hadn't yet turned us into excited little kids, this would have done the trick pretty damn nicely. As I left, this was all I could think of:

1723 North Halsted (at Willow)
Chicago, Illinois

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Queenie's Treasury

Hello from New York, my darlings! It's been a crazy couple of weeks, and with Thanksgiving fast approaching, it doesn't look like things will be calming down any time soon. I hope all of you are relaxing today before jumping into preparations for what I'm sure will be magnificent holiday feasts. (Or, if you are not American, just plain relaxing!)

The first item in this week's Treasury is some fashion-inspired brainstorming from Coco & Kelley. Her Thanksgiving table will take its cue from current trends in the fashion world, including the use of rich navies, refreshing grays and tulle, tulle, tulle! A nice break from the traditional orange and red, don't you think?

Next up, in preparation for the holiday baking season, Serious Eats brings us a look at the best (and worst) apples for baking. My personal favorite - Gala - comes out on top. I can personally confirm that an apple pie made with Gala apples (and by yours truly) was a massive hit at my office potluck this week. Trade in your Granny Smiths, but don't forget to compensate by using a bit less sugar in your filling.

And, finally, just because it looks insanely delicious, I bring you this recipe for churros and spiced chocolate bisque (Can anyone say Prague hot chocolate?) from Cannellé et Vanille. Don't you just want to dive right in? Well, make sure there's room, because I think you're probably not alone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Saturday night at Tru: upping the ante.

After our night at Charlie Trotter's, I wasn't sure what kind of dinner I'd be able to consume at Tru on Saturday. Then I picked myself up, reminded myself that I'm a food blogger and of the power of mind over matter, and met Nick and Louisa at their hotel for a pre-prandial cocktail.

We walked a few blocks south and east to the restaurant, which is one block off of Michigan Avenue, toward the lake. We sat for a few minutes in a sort of anteroom graced by several pieces of modern art (neon and bright colors abounded against the pure white walls), lilies on every little table, and a cart of after-dinner drinks. After our table had been readied, we made our way into the main dining room.

Tru is in an office building, and the dining room is dramatically high-ceilinged. The large windows are dressed in dramatic velvet drapes, and the widely-spaced tables are covered in white linen and surrounded by chairs upholstered in blue velvet. Nick found the dining room a bit severe, but I quite liked the serenity of it all. Some of the art was particularly pretty, especially a gray-and-white photographic print of birds in flight hung over the banquette on the southern wall. Loved.

The service at Tru was as impeccable as the dining room. Once we sat down (with little velvet stools for our purses - also very convenient for this photographer's camera), our head waiter brought us our menus and a wine list, along with three little gougères made with Comté cheese. These were delicious - light, flaky, and buttery - but I missed the peppery bite of Parmesan from my own homemade version.

As you can see, the table was beautifully-lit for photographs - like this one of our two kinds of butter (unsalted on the blue glass, salted on the green). The butter was AWESOME, as was the bread. Our unanimous favorite were the teeny, salted brioche rolls. Delicious.

After perusing our menus for a bit, we decided to do the standard three-course meal, which we thought would be a nice break from our tasting menu marathons at Trotter's and Alinea. We each ordered an appetizer and a main, Nick discussed wine with the charming (and adorable!) sommelier, and out came our amuses.

They were three little cups of seriously meaty and perfectly clear beef consommé, with a teeny ravioli at the bottom. I loved my sea life-themed cup, and the soup's deep flavor and expert execution seemed to telegraph the arrival of a good meal.

Oh, did I forget to mention this? Well, my friends, this is Tru's caviar staircase. As Louisa rightly pointed out, it looks like something out of an Esther Williams movie. This is the culinary equivalent of a show-stopping pool number if ever there was one.

From top to bottom, you have four types of caviar (starting with creamy Osetra), egg yolk, egg white, capers and red onion. Each of us was presented with toasted, buttered brioche, a dish of crème fraiche and a mother of pearl caviar spoon. We dug in like kids in a candy store and didn't stop till every last bit was gone. Can you blame us?

Hot on the heels of our caviar came our appetizers. Louisa ordered the beet salad with apples, which came with three different kinds of mousse (One was pumpkin, but the others escape me - Louisa, help a girl out?). The salad was fantastic; the beets were perfectly cooked, and the mousse that I tasted was creamy and full of pumpkin-y flavor. And, like everything else at Tru, it was gorgeously presented.

My appetizer was a very indulgent choice: seared foie gras served with a roasted pear, a strip of crispy bacon and a chestnut cream. Foie gras and autumn fruit are a classic match, and this pairing didn't disappoint. The pear was tart and lightly sweet and cut the rich foie gras quite well. The bacon lent a smoky note to the proceedings, while the chestnut cream (dotted with whole chestnuts) grounded everything with its earthy flavor. Magnificent.

Nick's starter was the beef tartare, which did not photograph well, but tasted amazing. Louisa and I agreed that it was a close second to our all-time favorite, the steak tartare at Camille in Paris. The presentation of Nick's dish was just as pretty as ours - the egg was coated in gold leaf. Really!

The organ meat parade continued during our main courses. Louisa ordered the veal cheeks and sweetbreads, which were served with an onion tart, figs and raisins. Tender, meaty and full of rich, fruity flavor - this dish was delicious. I loved the play of textures between the sweetbreads and the veal; after all, these are parts of the same animal, and for all their differences, they have some of the same precocious, just-beginning-to-develop beef flavor.

I decided to round out my ridiculously self-indulgent evening with an order of the lobster. Poached lobster was served on a bed of the most tender pasta I've ever tasted. The sauce was creamy and spiked slightly with tomato and rosemary and studded with perfectly-cooked broccoli. I can't remember the last time I saw broccoli pop up in haute cuisine, but its peppery, vegetal bite worked marvelously - I tasted the lobster in a whole new way.

Nick's main was, again, in the dark. He had the venison, and though venison is not my favorite thing, this version was deeply flavored and beautifully cooked. The meat was a jewel-like magenta color ringed by a razor-thin black sear. The best part of the venison, in my opinion, was the cabbage-wrapped cabbage that came along side. Cabbage taken to the next, sweet level. Amazing.

Next up, that lovely ritual of civilized dining, the cheese plate. I rarely partake, but I had a hunch that the cart at Tru would contain at least one or two cheeses that even this cheese-phobic could love. Most delicious of all was the cheese at 10 o'clock in the photo above - a triple cream, mustard-coated cow's milk cheese.

Eaten on a house-made hazelnut wafer with a bit of orange blossom honey, the triple-cream was a little bit like heaven, except not light and fluffy. Not light at all.

After a palate cleanser of tapioca and sorbet flavored with herbs and citrus, it was time for...

...dessert! Tru is a collaboration between savory chef Rick Tramonto and pastry chef Gale Gand. I've been a huge fan of Gand's ever since her show first aired on the Food Network way back when, so I was very excited for the last few courses.

Nick pre-ordered the gianduja souffle, which came with pumpkin ice cream. Louisa had the blueberry and lemon vacherin (you can see it in the background above), which was INSANELY good. The buttermilk cake was like a pancake, elevated, and the contrast of the warm cake, creamy mousse and cold sorbet was delightful.

My dessert, the deconstructed chocolate bar, blew Charlie Trotter's chocolate out of the water. A gravity-defying squiggle of milk chocolate cream was topped with a bit of tempered dark chocolate, accompanied by Butterfinger-esque crunchies, coffee ice cream, caramel mousse, and malted caramel. Oh. My. God. Just a few days prior, I'd been talking about how much I prefer fruit desserts to chocolate ones. If Gale Gand made all my chocolate desserts, she might just end in converting me.

But wait - there's more! Out came the mignardises on their little cart (Again, note the elegant, French-style service - carts galore!), and I couldn't help myself. I tried five out of six options available. The pumpkin macaron was a bit too soft and sweet for my tastes, but I do have to admit it melted in my mouth.

Just above that is the apricot marshmallow, which was delicious. Fluffy as a cloud and impossibly fruity. The chocolate-whiskey lollipop was nice and boozy (we were warned ahead of time that the alcohol hadn't been burned off), and the passionfruit pate de fruits made me very, very happy (as all jellied things are apt to do.

Finally, the cannelé, which was a revelation. I've never been much of a fan; the cannelés I've tried have all been far too rum-soaked for me. I'm not a rum-lover, and I don't care for mushy pastry, so you can see my issue. This one, though, was perfect. The rum glaze had hardened to a satisfying crunch, and the spongy cake inside was, well, spongy - not mushy. I must master the cannelé.

And, finally, the last touch that signaled a trend in the weekend's dining. These pumpkin-saffron truffles were huge, but we were instructed to eat them entirely in one bite. As it turns out, they were coated in only the lightest chocolate shell, and the filling was a milk-like (as opposed to ganache-like) consistency. All of that meant one thing: it exploded in your mouth.

Trust me when I tell you that - no matter how long or specific the disclaimer - you are never, ever prepared to have something explode in your mouth. (Insert your giggling here - believe me, we did.) It's delightful and surprising, every single time.

All in all, I think it's safe to say that I loved our meal at Tru. I loved the service, I loved the dining room (though, like Louisa, a bit more buzz would've been welcome), and the food made me indescribably happy. It's not revolutionary, but it's interesting, and is also beautifully and thoughtfully done.

I can't wait to go back.

676 N. St. Clair Street (between Erie and Huron)
Chicago, Illinois

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Friday night at Trotter's: setting the tone.

Our epic weekend in Chicago began with an epic dinner at Charlie Trotter's. We sat at the chef's table, tucked into a corner of the kitchen. This made for excellent lighting, a lot of hustle and bustle, and a generally fabulous time.

Trotter's occupies a town house in Lincoln Park, and the restaurant is divided into a series of small-ish dining rooms, all hushed and calm, outfitted in cream and burgundy. The kitchen is at the back of the first floor, and is a welcome oasis of activity in such a hushed place. Our group of five (Louisa, the birthday girl, her husband Nick, our college friend Josh, and his wife, Liz) were ready for an over-the-top experience, and we got what we came for.

Ready or not, here goes.

First up, the view from our table. As you can see, we were seated right next to the pass; in reality, though, the kitchen is pretty small (very different from the other kitchen in which I've eaten: Gordon Ramsay's The London), so no matter what was going on, we had a really good view.

Also, see that counter on the right? That's where the waitstaff deposited empty bottles of wine; by the end of the service, the entire surface was covered with empty bottles. (We did the wine pairings with each course, which were fantastic. This meant, of course, that we tasted 19 wines. Yes, 19 wines.)

The first course was an amuse: a Kumamoto oyster with radish (I think!) pickled in gin, osetra caviar, and coriander. It was served on a bed of grey sea salt, which meant that when you picked up the oyster and tipped the whole lot into your mouth, you got a neat little surge of saltiness along with the briny oyster and sour pickle.

Next up, a series of three little fish dishes. I'll be honest with you - we deviated from the menu a bit here (we had a scallop allergy in our group, and a few substitutions were made), but everything was delicious. I've forgotten what the fish was in this first dish, but the grapefruit ceviche preparation was great.

Next, another dish I can't quite recall. This one was a bit more autumnal, with a slice of persimmon and some hazelnuts.

Finally, and predictably, my favorite of the three, bluefin sashimi with wasabi and lime. The lime came in the form of tiny little pearls of citrus flesh, which created an incredible texture in our mouths. Such careful attention, such a tiny detail - such huge returns. Honestly, it was one of the most memorable moments of the night for me.

As you've probably guessed, Charlie Trotter has a particular fondness for fish. It popped up throughout the meal, up to and including an appearance in the midst of the red meat courses. Our first full course fish was sea urchin with a mussel, served with ginger and razor-thin slices of Buddha's hand, a crazy-looking citrus fruit with a mild flavor.

Next, an interesting pairing of carrot with horseradish and what I believe was calamari. The carrot came in the form of warm custard as well as thin slices of the veggie; also in the sauce, one of my favorite spices: star anise.

One of my least favorite courses was the steamed kisu, a Japanese fish. I didn't love the texture of this (I'm a bit odd in that I far prefer my fish to be raw or just barely touched by heat.), but the accompaniments were pretty good. The braised fennel (on the right) was tender, and so delicately flavored that I almost mistook it for cucumber. Matsutake mushrooms were slivered atop the dish, and added a meatiness to the whole thing that worked very well.

As we moved gradually to the heartier end of the spectrum, meat dishes started to creep in. The first was also my absolute favorite of the night: grilled rabbit loin with a shallot confit-filled tortellini (Tortellino? Help!) and a pickled mustard sauce. I mean, what's not to love? Shallots poached in fat? Pickled mustard? Pasta? Rabbit? This dish was rich, buttery and complex. I die.

Aaaaand...back to the fish. This time, it was a more boldly-flavored grilled hamachi with red plums and chorizo. A great, Spanish-inflected dish (the fish was most definitely grilled on the plancha), this came in a fruity broth that I finished by tipping my bowl and scrape, scrape, scraping. You feel a lot less pressure to be classy when none of the other diners can see you (except for the people who already like you).

The second meat course was suckling pig, served with crispy pig's tail (more chewy than crispy, I'd say) and the sweetest gooseberries any of us had ever tasted. Seriously! Have you ever tasted gooseberries? They are sooo tart - but not these! These were like candy.

Oh, and - did I mention the bread? Things started off civilized, with gorgeous mini-baguettes served with delicious sweet butter. Then, about halfway through the meal, these appeared on our plates. Whole wheat rolls filled with pancetta and dusted in cinnamon and sugar. Yes, you read that right: bacon rolls. With cinnamon sugar. These might be why this meal, more than any other last weekend, filled us to the gills.

'Tis the season for white truffles, and the folks at Trotter's are by no means immune to the craze. I am not an indiscriminate lover of truffles. Truffled french fries? Eh, they're fun every now and again, but I'm not likely to order them on my own. By and large, I find that the flavor of truffles (you can see one of the staff shaving them onto Nick's plate above) tends to overwhelm pretty much everything else on the plate. This dish, though, defied my expectations.

This dish was one of the largest on the menu, and was some of the most perfectly cooked duck any of us had ever tried. The fat was rendered beautifully: crispy on the outside, but still fully-attached to the flesh. An achievement, for sure. Alongside the duck were eggplant, green curry, and some midnight-colored chanterelle mushrooms. Add in the shaved white truffles, and this became a dish that pretty much encapsulates everything good about autumn.

Next up, one of the more puzzling (and my least favorite of the) courses: grilled squid with crumbled nori, fried salted shrimp, rice crisps, eyeballs, and a seawater emulsion, in the form of foam.

I'm sure plenty of people would love this dish - in fact, a few of the people at the table did. But, to me, nori tastes like salty dirt, and the rest of it wasn't much better. The eyeballs were oddly tasty, though.

Luckily, the next course was delicious. Lamb tongue with figs and cinnamon. Yum. The tongue was thinly sliced and lightly grilled, then draped over the figs. Loved this.

Next, the obligatory beef course. Note the gorgeous red sorrel - I was excited to see it used in so many of the dishes at Trotter's. You don't see sorrel often enough, in my opinion - it's delicious (a bit tart and sour, like rhubarb) and has such a gorgeous, fairy tale look to it. You can just imagine the baker stealing some for his pregnant wife in the opening scenes of Rapunzel. The steak (a tiny, perfect morsel of rib eye) was beautifully prepared, seared three times and basted in between with soy, vinegar and...something. Sadly, though, the plummy compote served with it was too tangy (for ME, even) and overwhelmed the meat itself.

The home stretch began, signaled by the arrival of the cheese course. Loyal blog readers ight remember that I have what people tell me is a bizarre aversion to cheese. I've gotten much, much better over the years (and even gladly partook of a cheese course at Tru on Saturday night), but I'm still fairly picky about my cheese. I was thrilled, therefore, to discover that our cheese would be one of my favorites, pecorino. Even better, it would be served with cocoa. To my dismay, however, the cheese had been cooked down to the whey, and the jelly-like form was served to us under a sprinkling of grated whole cheese. Just. Not. Good. Kind of flavorless and just icky. Even the cheese-lovers agreed with me here.

The palate cleanser was tons of fun. A jelly made with Saint-Germain liqueur, served with candied grapefruit (Yum!) and elderberry jelly. And, yes: Monty Python came up and was quoted in brief. No one farted in anyone's general direction, though.

Dessert was four courses, served two at a time. The first pair were fruit-centric: a creme caramel made with Kuri squash, sprinkled with thyme and served with a torched meringue resembling toasted marshmallows. My least favorite element of this dessert was the creme caramel, but the meringue, pumpkin seeds and pieces of squash were delicious.

My favorite of the four desserts was the apples with caramelized white chocolate and yogurt. I don't normally care for white chocolate, but in this case it came in sparing amounts and lent more of a buttery presence than a sickly sweet one.

The last two desserts were built on chocolate and coffee, respectively. The chocolate sorbet was served with a smoked vanilla jelly (weird but good, like a spreadable vanilla spackle) and some tempered dark chocolate. One of the pastry cooks, an adorable woman named Kady, came over to tell us about the origins of the chocolate. It comes from a fair trade plantation, and is completely free of additives or preservatives; it's pretty much the closest you can get to pure cacao.

Finally, the ginger kulfi (a frozen Indian dessert custard), served with coffee custard, ginger snaps, and a bit more of that chocolate. This was pretty good - I loved the ginger snaps (So gingery!), and the coffee custard was so intensely flavored that it had that slightly peppery, skunky aroma that really good coffee sometimes has.

Finally, just when you think you can't take any more, come the petits fours. The macaroon wasn't bad, though I'll never be a coconut-lover. The truffle was actually a hazelnut dusted in cocoa powder. The pate de fruits was passionfruit-flavored. I love anything in jelly form (Seriously, all a man need do is buy me a rainbow- colored assortment of pâtes de fruits from Byrne & Carlson, and I'll be his forever.), and this was no exception.

One espresso later, we were ready for an excursion down to the red wine cellar, one of four in the restaurant. We oohed and aahed over the inventory system and gaped at the older bottles on offer - like this 1870 (Yes, 1870) bottle of Lafite-Rothschild Bourdeaux.

All in all, I think it's clear that I seriously enjoyed our Charlie Trotter's experience. Sitting in the kitchen made the night incredibly special, and I don't think we would have had nearly as much fun in the dining room. The food was always interesting, and occasionally stupendously delicious. Trotter's fondness for foams seems a bit too slavishly trendy (Well, not so trendy any more, which makes it even more confusing.), but overall, this is very, very good food.

More than anything else, it set the tone for the rest of our weekend - things only got more luxurious and indulgent from here. Just you wait!

Charlie Trotter's
816 West Armitage (at Halsted)
Chicago, Illinois
773. 248.6228
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