Restaurant Reviews --> Charlie Trotter's
A Visit to Perfection!
We have wanted to try Charlie Trotter's in Chicago for years, but have just never made the effort to plan far enough in advance to make the reservation. So, when associate Wine Guy Tom Landshof told me that Charlie was going to be open on Monday during the recent Food Marketing Institute Convention and Fancy Food Show, I said go for it. Tom had been there three times and insisted that all true "Foodies" have to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes. It is a little like Mecca for Muslims, except it probably costs more, and they serve wine at Charlie's.
I am not even going to attempt to "review" Charlie Trotter's, but only try and give those of you who may not have been there a sense of it. The restaurant itself is well-decorated, but conservative, with a practical granite topped preparation and serving table running lengthwise down the center of the room we occupied. The experience itself was remarkable. In fact, on the cab ride back, I asked Tom, Suzanne and Linda if anyone could find a single flaw in the food or service and was met with silence. The very attentive black jacketed wait staff seemed to consist of waiters, assistant waiters and assistant assistants who moved within a precise pecking order. They were professional and precise to the point that at times I felt more like I was dealing with bankers at a closing, rather than servers.
There were two pre-fix menus, offering six courses, one vegetable oriented and one very meat intensive. We were invited to mix and match between them. The wine list was incredibly extensive, filled with collectable jewels and remarkably fairly priced. In fact his margins were all at or below twice retail and more fairly priced that most of Indianapolis' better restaurants. They also offer a wine pairings selection of seven wines that we opted for that I can only describe as very, very well chosen.
First, Schramsberg "Blanc de Blanc" was poured all around, followed by a Skol Blosser Pinot Gris for the first course. Then, a sushi sized slice of cold smoked Sturgeon served over a dollop of mashed purple Peruvian potato accompanied by a swirl of chervil and citrus creme fraiche all topped with a perfect layer of glistening warm black sturgeon roe. Not a fingerprint on the plate, not an egg out of place. It looked like a cover shot from Gourmet magazine.
After the first course, I had my epiphany. This is not dining. It's performance art with food! But I do have to admit, you need to be ready for food this exotic. With the FMI show in town, I kept wondering how the grocery executive, whose favorite restaurant is Ruth's Chris, reacts when the Kraft or Pepsi Execs treat him to dinner at Charlie's? I don't think Ruth's serves warm sturgeon roe... it was delicious, as were all the other courses and the wines that accompanied them.
For those of you interested in details they included: Poached Day Boat Lobster with Boushot Mussels, Japonica rice and sweet pea sauce accompanied by Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fume.
Breast of Squab with Braised Squab Leg, turnip confit, chanterelle mushrooms, carrots and peas along with a Sanford "La Rinconada" Pinot Noir.
Texas Axix Venison Loin with rice beans, cumin infused roasted eggplant, sage and Moccagatta Barbaresco so perfect that we requested a second pour.
A rhubarb sorbet with spring onion marmalade and Manni olive oil And finally, a Cara Cara Sauternes Gratin with Pistachio Praline, Kumquat Sherbet and two dessert wines - a Dow's "Quinta do Bofim" Port and a Paul Jaboulet Muscat.
We had been warned to expect small portions, but the cumulative effect of six courses and seven wines still leaves you more than pleasantly full - not to mention almost numbed by the variety of flavors and elegant presentations. It is truly performance art, perhaps the best, most interesting meal I have ever eaten. Would we want to repeat it? It's kind of like visiting an important art museum. We visited the Louvre several years ago. Perhaps next year would be as soon as I would want to see it again. Besides this was our first visit, and Tom's first "non expense account visit." You know... $1,200 just doesn't seem to go as far at dinner as it used to.
From Culinary Heaven to the"All You Can Eat" Nightmare
We put a bookend on our best culinary experience the following Sunday with a Mother's Day visit to see Linda's mom Erma in Rochester, Indiana. Somehow the juxtaposition of our recent experience at Charlie's gave us a fascinating perspective on the crowds snaking out the door and around the building at the local "all you can eat buffet" as we pulled into the parking lot. The scene was repeated inside, where another line wove through the the entire restaurant waiting to attack the buffet . It weaved between tables that teemed with large families, small children and tottering blue haired grandmothers decked out with large carnations.
The plates could be heaped with fried chicken, mashed potatoes from a box, canned gravy, sliced ham that could be found floating in tray of oily water, or noodles with dried brown chunks that may once have been beef. The entrees were accompanied any number of salads that involved peas and lots of Miracle Whip, and then dessert topped off the meal with cherry cobbler or even vanilla pudding topped with cherry cobbler.
By the time we reached our table for nine, the ice in the tea had melted and I had been sternly admonished by Linda for loudly pointing out the lack of a sneeze guard at the buffet and commenting that "this is why we have immune systems." Luckily, the lunch was mercifully short since the crowds at the door were searching the room for abandoned tables like hungry coyotes.
At one point I remember thinking that chef / owner in the greasy apron who kept reappearing with bowls of fried chicken might be Charlie Trotter's alter ego, or perhaps even his evil twin. In any case we survived. And, the fried chicken really wasn't too bad. Besides I did the math and shuddered at the prospect that you could dine there 143 times for what we had spent at Charlie's the previous Monday. It's all relative...
816 West Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614