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!
816 West Armitage (at Halsted)