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Chicago's Grande Dame? The Kitchen Table Menu at Charlie Trotter's

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If there's one restaurant in Chicago that deserves the moniker of iconic, then Charlie Trotter's would be it. I'd missed out on Trotter's during my last visit to Chicago, so I was determined to make it here this time. Since Trotter is largely a self-taught chef, I was especially curious to experience his cuisine, which relies on a progression of small courses, layered upon each other, and flavored with light, delicate vegetable- and herb-based sauces, stocks, and essences (an approach that seemingly recalls Jean-Georges Vongerichten's philosophy of "light intensity"). His end goal, thus, is balance, not only between the food, but also the wine, which Trotter views as integral to a meal.

Trotter attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and it was here that he developed his interest in cooking from his roommate (I wonder if he ever made his way over to L'Etoile). After graduating in 1982 with a degree in political science, Trotter traveled extensively, dining at the top establishments in the United States and Europe, experiencing what leading chefs could offer, and all the while, crafting the beginnings of his own style. Trotter then cooked professionally for several years, moving between Chicago, San Francisco (where he attended the California Culinary Academy, but never graduated), and Florida, before opening his eponymous eatery in 1987--yes, the place has been around for over two decades, and in the fast-paced world of fine dining, that's practically a lifetime.

Each night, the kitchen serves up a choice of three dégustations: the Grand Menu [$165], the Vegetable Menu [$135], and finally, the Kitchen Table Menu [$225]. We, of course, chose the most luxurious option, complemented with the optional wine pairing [$150].

Amuse Bouche 1: Kumamoto Oyster with Indian Celery
The meal started out with a quartet of amuse bouches. First up was this beautiful Kumamoto, topped with plum sauce and hot and sour Indian celery. The oyster had a sweet attack due to the plum sauce, while the finish was imbued with the mollusk's signature crisp brininess. The celery added some interesting notes to the midpalate, but could've been spicier.

Amuse Bouche 2: Japanese Kindai with Celery Root
Next up was a very special type of tuna: kindai, the world's first sustainably-raised bluefin. Kindai is produced by the Kinki University Fisheries Culture and Nursery Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, and is noted for its superior flavor and ecological friendliness. Each week, only a handful of pieces of tuna are shipped to the US, so kindai's a scare commodity. In addition to Trotter's, L2O also has it, as do Per Se, Le Bernardin, French Laundry, the Dining Room at the Ritz, and Manresa. In any case, getting back to the kindai here, it was quite strongly flavored for tuna, with distinctly briny finish and a texture that was chewier than I'm used to. The celery was instrumental in balancing it out.

Amuse Bouche 3: Japanese Tai
Number three was listed on the menu as a "tempura" but it clearly wasn't. It was, however, also a Japanese fish, a tai snapper. It had a great, dense, firm consistency and a sweet, delicate flavor, thanks in part to the accompanying miso-based sauce. The pairing of the root vegetable did wonders in terms of texture.

Amuse Bouche 4: Fava Beans with Pickled Watermelon Radish
Closing things out, we had a plate of fava beans, tarted up with Chinese chili sauce and watermelon radish. Those two elements added contrasting hot and acerbic components to the mild, tender beans. A simple course, but one that effectively set the stage for the main meal to begin.

1: Japanese Freshwater Eel with Cilantro & Banana
Our first proper course of the evening was Japanese unagi terrine with roasted banana, pickled cilantro, and togarashi (shichimi) spice. It was an interesting dish that recalled the essence of unagi kabayaki, or grilled eel coated with a sweet soy-based sauce. The resultant mishmash was cool, dense, and sweet, and the notes of banana were quite apparent, distracting even. These fruity flavors were balanced out somewhat by the togarashi (a blend of seven spices), which stood in for the pepper typically used as a condiment.

2: Spring Onion with Indonesian Vanilla & Fiddlehead Ferns
One of my favorite courses, this was a troika of onions (spring, cipollini, Spanish) paired with Indonesian vanilla granita and fennel. The onions were a joy to eat, displaying a great tangy-sweet flavor complex with a crisp, snappy consistency. The granita was a superb complement, with its sweet-savory flavor and cold temperature contrast.

3: Alaksan King Salmon Confit with Black Tea & Rose
This was a fascinating dish that looked like it could've come out of Alinea's kitchen: salmon confit, black tea gelée, dehydrated rose petals, ikura, saffron-sugar tuile. An intriguing study in seemingly disparate tastes, the black tea provided a subtle sweetness, but this was contrasted by the ikura, which gave the dish a briny, tangy finish accented by floral notes of rose. There was textural play as well, between the soft salmon, jelly-like gelée, and hard/sticky tuile. However, all this hoopla overpowered the salmon, rendering the fish's signature flavor too faint.

4: Soft-Shell Crab with Strawberries & Arugula
Next was a small fritter of soft-shelled crab, over arugula purée and strawberry, with pig's feet. Not usually a huge fan of soft-shelled crab, I was a bit skeptical at first, but it worked out quite well. The crab was very flavorful on its own, and together with the crunchy pig's trotter, formed an intensely savory duo that was nicely tempered by the sugariness of the strawberry and the delicately bitter rocket. The key here really was to eat everything together.

5: Steamed Halibut with Spring Peas
We have here steamed halibut and steamer clams, with spring pea purée and a shellfish emulsion. My dining companion was a fan of this dish, and even asked if it was prepared in a sous vide fashion; it wasn't, but apparently it was marinated in a Cryovac package. It really did have a great texture--tender, but not mushy--and a delicate, briny flavor that was accentuated in the citrus steaming process. The pea purée added a lovely tanginess to the fish, and the clams proved to be a fantastic textural contrast. Overall, this was a very balanced dish.

6: Marcona Almond Risotto with Green Almonds & Red Wine
This was a rich risotto, accented by a red wine emulsion. The use of marcona almonds gave the dish a sweet nuttiness and a lingering almond finish, which was balanced by the vegetal flavors of the green almonds and sorrel. Simple but effective, it was the best risotto I've had in a while.

7: Roasted Suckling Pig with Caramelized Endive
Pork usually leaves me unimpressed, but this was a superb preparation. The meat itself was tender and delicious, but the best part was the skin, which had a fantastic crunch and powerful flavor. The weight of the pork was deftly balanced by the tartish bitterness of the included endive.

8: Muscovy Duck with Kumquat
A lovely presentation of Muscovy duck here--it had a rich duck flavor with a bit of spiciness to it. The tender flesh was perked up by the application of a sourish kumquat sauce; and furthermore, the dish was also served with the duck's strongly flavored, slightly crunchy napa cabbage-wrapped gizzard, which provided a nice counterpoint to the meat.

9: Veal with Horseradish and Red Wine
I've been disappointed with veal many times before, so this dish was a pleasant surprise. It was done up with a horseradish emulsion, red wine essence, and Thumbelina carrot. The veal was a joy to eat alone, with its soft, tender flesh and lovely herbal notes. The meat's accoutrements added layers of flavor, with the carrot providing a pointed sweetness that was especially noticeable.

10: Grilled Bison with Porcini Mushrooms
Our last savory course. I don't get to try bison or buffalo too often, so I relish every chance I get to taste it. The meat was grilled conventionally here, and served with a boudin (a type of sausage) purée and porcini. It was not what I expected. The bison had a slightly gamy flavor that was mitigated by bean-y, grassy notes and the earthiness of the mushrooms. The dish finished with a slightly smoky aftertaste from the sauce.

11: Frozen Key Lime Meringue with Cilantro & Green Peppercorn
Our parade of desserts started off with a bang. I don't think I've ever had a frozen meringue before, so it was nice to experience its biting, acetous, minty flavor, which was expertly tempered by the sharpness of the candied cilantro, leading to a lingering cilantro finish. You could say that this was like a palate cleanser.

12: Poached Quince with Sesame Ice Cream & Rosemary Shortbread
The sesame ice cream with halva (sesame candy) were fantastic together, really capturing the essence of sesame and imbuing my senses with its nuttiness, a nuttiness that was superbly foiled by the tartness of the quince. In addition, the use of halva and shortbread provided a great temperature and texture contrast to the dish.

13: Meyer Lemon with Toasted Brioche Ice Cream & Caraway Meringue
The ice cream was superb, effectively stealing the show here, with a taste that was simultaneously sweet, rich, and bready, really capturing the essence of brioche. The sour lemon and pungent caraway did a nice job in pairing with the ice cream, which easily could've been eaten alone.

14: Arbequina Olive Oil-Chocolate Chip Parfait with Dried Cherries
Is it just me, or does this resemble a butterfly? The olive oil and chocolate combination formed a pleasing savory-sweet-bitter interplay, which was accented to great effect by the tartness of the cherries. The accompanying salty tuiles, meanwhile, added a great textural element and gave the dish a lingering savory finish.

15: Oloroso Sherry-Raisin Ice Cream with Chocolate Cotton Cake & Dried Plums
Oloroso is sherry that's been subjected to oxidative aging. This results in a sweet, nutty flavor that was uniquely presented in the ice cream here, while the addition of raisins into the mix provided some nice sour notes. The raisins linked up nicely with the plums and also the cake, which seemed absolutely saturated; there were even bitter elements to the dessert that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Overall, a complex, multifaceted dessert that paired nicely with the wine.

I admit that I had this image of Charlie Trotter's as somewhat of a grande dame of Chicago dining. I sort of expected it to be staid, solid, a bit conventional--I'm glad I was wrong. Despite the advent of avant garde eateries such as Alinea in Chicago, Trotter's has held its own, not standing still, but constantly evolving, constantly improving. The restaurant hasn't veered down the molecular path, but has found a way to remain fresh, to remain relevant within the confines of Trotter's culinary philosophy. Heck, the kitchen even prides itself on never serving the same dish twice. Put simply, there's a reason that Charlie Trotter's has been around, thriving in fact, for 20 years--I sure hope he sticks around for another score.

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/05/char...

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  1. Bravo again, Kevin. I swear, you take the best food pictures I've seen. What type of camera do you use?

    1 Reply
    1. re: pastry634

      Thanks! I use a Sony A-300 DSLR. However, it's not so much the camera, but the lens that's critical. I just got a Sigma 28mm f/1.8 macro not too long ago, and it's allowed me to improve considerably. The f/1.8 means that I can cope with low lighting levels, and the macro means that I can get in close for maximum flexibility in setting up my shots.

    2. One of my few regrets was rejecting a meal at Trotter's kitchen (I was working at an awful restaurant at the time--since closed--and the last thing I wanted was to see another kitchen for my birthday).

      Great review!

      -----
      Charlie Trotter's
      816 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60614

      2 Replies
      1. re: Caralien

        Turning down free Trotter's?--heresy! It's not too late to go back, maybe for your next birthday. ;)

        1. re: kevin h

          I've moved on since then (thankfully), and to both coasts. One of these days I'll head back to Chicago to dine at Trotter's. :)

      2. great review! love your descriptions and beautiful pictures!

        i'm going to trotter's for the first time in two weeks. i've been reading some negative reviews on some other foodies' blogs. it's nice to read something positive before my trip! (yours and uhockey's).

        1 Reply
        1. re: mountsac

          Thanks Rich, I hope you have a stellar time. Please be sure to report back to us!

        2. Hi Kevin,

          Love your blog. Someday I hope to get to all the places you've been, but for now I'm content with just looking at the pictures.

          I'll be in Chicago in the near future and will hopefully make it out to Charlie Trotter's. How would you compare it with the other fine dining establishments you've visited in Chicago (L20, Alinea, Tru, etc.)?

          2 Replies
          1. re: withaph

            Thanks! If you can only go to one restaurant, I'd say try Alinea. Trotter's would probably be number two however. It is really an icon of the city, and showcases the depth of modern American cuisine without veering off into the realm of molecular.

            1. re: kevin h

              I actually had the opportunity to do the tasting menu at Alinea back in April and it was absolutely wonderful. Your pictures brought a lot of that experience, especially the rhubarb course, which has become one of my best taste memories. I look forward to trying Charlie Trotter's.

          2. Kevin - Great report! I have always enjoyed your write ups especially Spago & Cut.
            Keep up the good reviews and fabulous photos! a hui hou!