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September 21, 2006

Charlie Trotter's - The Dinner

Dominic Armato
Well, it pains me to see the Summer of Fine Dining come to a close, but I can't think of a more appropriate finish than Chicago's four star cuisine stalwart. It was actually just over a month ago that I hit Charlie Trotter's, so this post is long overdue. By way of explanation, I'd love to float the romantic notion that I just couldn't bear to bring the summer's deliciousness to a close, but the truth is simply that the conclusion of the Summer of Fine Dining happened to coincide with the Month of Crushing Workload. As such, I'm writing about a ridiculously complex dinner that's now four and a half weeks in the rearview mirror. My impressions are quite clear... buuuut some of the finer details are fuzzy. Be kind.

This was my second time at Trotter's. When my ladylove and I visited about three years ago, our assessment was that we understood why Trotter's is so highly regarded. However, in the wake of two astounding meals at Jean Georges, we were pleased, but far from blown away. Since that time, I've felt compelled to get back to Trotter's for a second pass, but with places like Alinea, Avenues and Everest still on the hit list, it's been hard to justify a return trip. As such, it was wonderfully fortuitous when some friends of ours, to celebrate their anniversary, snagged a reservation at the kitchen table and invited us along. Kitchen tables seem to be gaining in popularity, and while Trotter may or may not have been the one who popularized the practice, he's been doing it for a long, long time and he does a rather excellent job of it. One of the perks of the kitchen table, aside from the most obvious benefit of allowing its inhabitants to observe a top-flight kitchen at work, is that it is the only table where Trotter's most elaborate and lengthy menu is served. A few weeks after our dinner, I had the opportunity to return as a "guest chef for a day", so I'll save my observations of the kitchen for when I write about that experience. I figure 13 elaborate courses, including a ten item amuse-bouche extravaganza and a six dessert bento box, is more than enough material for one post... even taking into account the gaps in my memory.

Dominic Armato

One thing I can state without reservation is that the kitchen menu at Trotter's is fast out of the gate. When our amuse arrived, it arrived as a swarm of fifty tiny Japanese bowls, each containing a little taste that, in larger form, might pass for a fully-composed dish. There was a brashness about the concept that I absolutely loved. When six or seven servers descend upon your table and proceed to set down so many dishes that the cascade of dull thunks as they successively hit the tablecloth comes close to constituting a low rumble, the tone for the evening has clearly been set. Each of us had ten items to try, and right from the start I had absolutely no hope of remembering all of the ingredients and preparations, delay in posting or no. Of course, quality is far more important than quantity, but the former was definitely not an issue. Some of the tastes were excellent, some were good, one or two were okay, but all were fully realized and meticulously prepared. Working from left to right, as best I can remember, we start with a bit of white asparagus with some type of spring onion that had been poached in a little wine and a bit of crisped prosciutto or similar ham. The second item was one of my favorites... a bit of intensely marinated and wonderfully rich bluefin tuna. Next is a simple but tasty bit of halibut with grape tomatoes, and then a very lightly poached bit of hamachi with a red pepper sauce, pickled onion, micro cilantro and semi-cooked egg yolk. Then, some porcini mushroom in a wonderfully intense consommé, paired with a little foamy drink about which, sadly, I remember little other than its deliciousness. Starting the second row is a small spoon the contents of which completely escape my memory except that cauliflower was somehow involved, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit. Next, pickled radish with a leek puree, and then a piece of lightly cooked salmon with a very fresh, green pea puree. The second to last item you see here was a piece of seafood tempura... crab or lobster, I believe... and then the only item that didn't work for me, despite my affection for sea urchin, a piece of uni with a horseradish granita. In the kitchen's defense, however, I believe the uni was a substitute for raw oyster, which my ladylove felt it best to avoid in her pregnant state. From seeing a list like this, you'd think it was overkill and wonder how we were able to take the time to savor anything... and you'd almost be right. It was difficult not to blow through them in an effort to not let them sit too long, but they were all simple and bold but not so overpowering that one imposed on the next too greatly. In the end, I felt that even if the scope of the course detracted ever so slightly from my ability to enjoy each bite individually, the fun of being presented with Trotter's Army of Amuse won out. If the purpose of amuse-bouche is, in fact, to wake up your palate, mine was at full attention by the end of this onslaught.

Dominic Armato
Veal Heart with Pickled Celery & Yellow Curry

The first dish was dynamite. I'm not certain, but this may have been my first experience with heart. As a general rule, muscles that are used more frequently are tougher when cooked, but they also possess a more intense meaty flavor. It wasn't the least bit organ-ey, but rather it felt as though an entire veal chop was compressed down into a few tender slivers of meat. It was, in fact, surprisingly tender... the result of a very long and slow cooking process, I suspect, and perhaps also a byproduct of a potent marinade. It was accompanied by a light, creamy curry sauce, the aforementioned pickled celery, some type of herb oil, a crispy tuille for texture and a bit of togarashi. It's unfortunate that it was out of the way so early, but this was my favorite dish of the night by a longshot.

Dominic Armato
White Asparagus with Dragon
Beans & Summer Truffle

Next up was a light and delicious spring salad that wasn't terribly creative, but was beautifully composed and quite enjoyable. It had a number of fresh vegetable elements... asparagus, beans, greens, baby beets, herbs... that were nicely grounded by slivered truffles and an earthy puree of some sort. It was barely dressed, and kept the focus squarely on the pure vegetable flavors. The key with a salad like this is balance, and it was balanced perfectly. What's more, the small components and casually strewn presentation (that I'm sure was anything but casually strewn) kept it feeling rather light. It wasn't anything that blew me away, and but for this post I probably won't remember it in a few months, but as an understated expression of simple vegetable goodness, it was expertly done and quite lovely.

Dominic Armato
Japanese Tai with Tofu, Lotus Root & Hijiki

I'm a fan of lotus root, and I thought the composition of the hijiki foam was very interesting, but otherwise it was this dish that reminded me of why my first experience at Trotter's was less than superlative. It was subtle. Really, really subtle. It was nicely balanced, a number of the highest quality ingredients carefully selected and combined in expert fashion, but the flavors were so gentle and light that picking out their interplay was like straining to listen to a whisper. Without careful tasting, I think it could be seen as bland. But I believe the depth was there, it's just that I had to work much too hard to get to it. I kept wanting this dish to grab me in some fashion, and it never did.

Dominic Armato
Celery Root Soup with Confit
Shallot & Pumpernickel Bread

And then he came right back with a simple but bold dish that grabbed me just fine. The flavor matched the presentation, pure and striking. There was, in fact, soup beneath that foam, but I thought the foam was anything but gratuitous. It added a very pleasant textural twist. The flavor was quite intense, as green as it looks, fairly sweet with a bit of sourness courtesy of the shallots. The dark pumpernickel was an ideal foil, and the purple herb... the name of which escapes me, sadly... was very nice. This was one of the simplest and most straightforward dishes of the evening, and yet it was one of my favorites. I didn't need to work for it. It came to me.

Dominic Armato
Grilled Squid with Tapioca & Meyer Lemon

Though I liked where this dish was going, it was the only one that I thought was lacking on a technical level. The squid was dressed with a little vinaigrette, the tentacles in the background situated atop the thick, dark, intense ink. It was a dish that struck me as rather traditionally Venetian, with the exception of the Meyer lemon tapioca pearls that filled the head. Squid ink and lemon is one of those magical combinations. I once tasted a squid ink risotto with lemon zest at Da Fiore in Venice that was borderline intoxicating, and I liked this take on that flavor profile, but the execution was a little lax. The squid, surprisingly, seemed a little dry and tough... a little overcooked, perhaps? Forgivable at most establishments, but somewhat disappointing at this level. Moreover, I've had more than my fair share of squid and cuttlefish dishes, and some have achieved a much fuller and more enjoyable depth with their inky concoctions. More than anything, this course made me pine for other similar dishes I've had in years past, which was disappointing, since I thought the lemon tapioca was a creative and effective touch.

Dominic Armato
Whole Roasted Squab with Marcona
Almonds & Braised Sweet Onion

Here was a very straightforward dish, the kind of bold meaty fare with a potent reduced jus that plays well in Chicago, but I thought it was elevated somewhat by a couple of nice touches. Glossing over the fact that it was beautifully prepared, the dish was both grounded and enriched by the inclusion of what I'm fairly certain was the squab's liver, both as a healthy chunk of organ-ey goodness, and also worked into the sauce. Second, the almond was a lovely choice of accent, both blended into (or perhaps entirely composing) the puree and microplaned over the top of the bird. If not for these two elements, this would be the kind of dish you could get anywhere, but those two touches in concert with flawless execution made this dish just a little special. However, it struck me as notable that it lacked the whoa factor of the superlative squab we had a few months ago at Alinea.

Dominic Armato
Four Story Hill Pork Loin with
Porcini Mushrooms & Elephant Garlic

I believe it was around this time that our friends made a rather significant and happy announcement (congrats, guys!), so my attention to this dish may have wavered and some of the details escape me. But I'm quite certain that it was both very tasty and very conservative, with one bit of oddness. In some ways, it struck me as an strange choice to follow the squab as, despite being a different beast altogether, it was very similar in spirit. Again, it was a beautifully prepared piece of meat with a very natural-tasting reduction and a couple of complementary vegetables. But the slices of pork were topped with an item that was tough as shoe leather and almost completely inedible. My first thought was that it was a heavily seasoned bit of the pig's skin (of which I'm generally a fan), but I think it was, in fact, dried porcinis that hadn't been fully rehydrated. It was otherwise a very nice dish that suffered only because it was so similar to the dish it followed, but the inclusion of this tooth-challenging mystery ingredient seemed odd enough that I had to wonder if there was some kind of mistake in its preparation.

Dominic Armato
Wagyu Strip Loin with Black Cardamom Mole

And then, lo, a third consecutive dish that, while distinct in plenty of ways, seemed very similar in spirit to the previous two. Tasty, yes. It was thoughtfully composed and beautifully executed. But when taken in context with the previous two dishes, it seemed like a missed opportunity to cover some range. Setting that aside, however, and judging it in a vacuum (a horrible joke that will shortly make itself known... wait for it), it was a delicious dish, if a little subtle. The sauce, as billed, had a certain restrained non-traditional mole flair that you might expect from black cardamom, the accompanying quinoa was a nice complement both in terms of flavor and texture, and the eggplant puree provided some necessary grounding. But while the foam was anything but gratuitous, I'm not certain that the use of Wagyu wasn't. It was a sous-vide beef, which is in keeping with Trotter's very restrained tendencies, but I'm not convinced that sous-vide is a good way to treat Wagyu. I'm hesitant to judge, since my experience with sous-vide beef is very limited and I'm uncertain how this dish would have differed were it made with another breed of cattle, but the beauty of Wagyu is in that incomparable fat, and if that astounding marbling was there in its raw form, I didn't get it here. This would seem counterintuitive, since sous-vide involves cooking the meat in a closed, vacuum-sealed environment (there it is) and I can't imagine where the fat would have gone, so perhaps it's a matter of perception on my part. But conventional wisdom has it that Wagyu needs a very quick, hot sear to coax out its full potential, and what I tasted here didn't do much to challenge that wisdom.

Dominic Armato
Coulommiers with Smoked Lardon,
Mache & Savory Fruit Cake

I prefer composed cheese dishes of this nature to the traditional "bits sliced off the hunk" service, but this wasn't nearly as exciting as the cheese course we had at The French Laundry back in March. This may have been largely a function of the cheese itself, which for whatever reason wasn't piquing my interest. But fine cheese isn't my realm of expertise, so this may have been a failing on the part of the taster. In general, though, this seemed more like a nice presentation than a really creative composition. Don't misunderstand, it was quite enjoyable, but it wasn't something that I could get excited about.

Dominic Armato
Brazilian Açaí with Heart of Palm & Watercress

I got a little excited about this one. Much like one of our desserts at Schwa, it took a very savory ingredient into a sweet context with great success. What's more, I appreciated that the dish was built around two very distinct elements of the same plant, and deliciously so. It was a lightly sweet sorbet that was seated atop slivers of heart of palm and an açaí puree. Açaí is a palm fruit with a really unique and unusual flavor that I'd never encountered before. It's a fruit that isn't overly sweet, but it has a natural chocolate flavor and spicy undertones that, while not exceptionally strong, certainly aren't subtle. This was a really unusual dish, and I enjoyed it far more than any of the more traditional desserts that followed...

Dominic Armato

...which isn't to say that the traditional desserts, served in a six compartment bento box, weren't very nice. At the top left is a block of Columbian chocolate with hazelnut ice cream and smoked bananas. Moving to the right is one of my two favorites, a duck egg crème brûlée with ginger and millet seed tuille. I'm fuzzy on the details of the next one over... it was some type of cake with a chocolate topping and some citrus. At the bottom left is a very nice peach puree along with diced peach and sesame cream. Bottom center is another of my favorites. I'm predisposed to enjoying fennel in any context, especially an unconventional one, and Michigan raspberries with ricotta and fennel qualifies. Lastly, some dark, intense Venezuelan chocolate with sour cherries and crème fraîche.

Dominic Armato
To round out the evening, we were served an assortment of mignardises, all working around an apricot theme. I rather enjoyed the thematic unity of those last little bites, and would love to see this done more often.

In the end, it was a rather enjoyable meal, but Charlie Trotter remains something of an enigma to me. I definitely came out of this visit more enthused than I was after my previous meal, but as much as I can see the creative process going on and as much as I admire it, for the second time I'm left feeling slightly let down. I've had a full month to try to put my finger on the reasons, and I think the answer is that Trotter's cuisine seems so carefully composed, so subtly balanced and so precisely executed that I find myself wishing he'd cut loose a little bit. It's clear that there's a creative genius at work, but that creativity seems so focused and controlled that many of his dishes fail to hit me on a visceral level. I admire chefs who know when to use restraint, but with Trotter I feel as though that card is constantly in play. After the first visit, I told friends that dinner at Trotter's is like listening to an incredibly creative, complex and beautiful symphony that's played at mezzo forte start to finish. It's a dumb analogy, but I hope it makes the point. This probably comes across as far more critical than I intend it to be. This was a really excellent meal. Trotter's creativity and talent are absolutely beyond reproach, and his dishes are incredibly sophisticated. I remember reading his cookbooks before I had the opportunity to visit the restaurant, and reading recipe after recipe that first inspired a furrowed brow, followed shortly by a smile... that's really unusual, but I see how it works! When it comes to dining at his restaurant, however, I think my consternation may simply be borne of philosophical differences. When I go for a creative fine dining experience, I want to think about the food, but even more importantly, I want to get lost in the food. It's a nebulous, intangible thing, but through two visits, it hasn't happened. The veal heart, celery soup and açaí dessert were headed in that direction, but I still felt as though they were dishes that were left just on the brink of busting out and becoming religious culinary experiences. When dining at Trotter's, I know, intellectually, that I'm eating some exquisitely composed dishes... but I don't feel that as much as I think I should, and as a consequence, my meals there have inspired more admiration than passion.


Great review, thank you for taking the time to write it. I too understood the complexity of the dishes but the flavors where too subtle maybe restrained is the right word.


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