Saturday, June 13, 2009

Charlie Trotter's - 05/20/2009

During my very first trip to Chicago, Charlie Trotter's was far and away the best meal of the entire outing and I lamented not getting the Kitchen Table menu. Fortunately I got a chance to correct that grievous error in judgement during my most recent visit to the Windy City.

From the outside, the restaurant looks like a cozy country home with an ivy covered brick facade and that feel extends to the interior. Just inside the restaurant is a small bar/waiting area. Beyond that is a hall and flight of stairs that lead to the upstairs dining room. Further in the restaurant is a simply appointed dining room with two rows of tables and a large floral centerpiece, perhaps a touch too simple for such a high-caliber restaurant.

Too rarely do restaurants give serious consideration to non-alcoholic beverage options and offering something other than Diet Coke or basic juices so I could hardly pass up this opportunity to enjoy a non-alcoholic pairing with my dinner. Besides after two consecutive nights hefty wine pairings and plenty of cocktails I felt it best to give my liver a break

Drink 1: Pineapple and Geranium
First up on the soft drink pairing was Pineapple and Geranium(?) juice. Basically your typical pineapple juice with a slightly salty twist which paired surprisingly well with the raw seafood of the amuses.

Amuse 01: Kumamoto Oyster - with Indian Celery
The oyster was a bit leaner than I would like with a slightly chewy texture and a more pungent brine though the stronger flavor was a very effective foil to the bitter Indian celery.

Bread 01: Whole Wheat Epi
Epi bread is an artisanal bread shaped like the flowering part of a wheat stalk. The shape makes it easy for diner to get pieces of bread without tearing apart the whole loaf. In this case the epi was miniaturized with bite sized pieces instead of whole rolls. The bread itself was reminiscent of a pretzel and dusted with a light coating of sugar to give it a hint of sweetness.

Amuse 02: Tempura of Tai - with Wasabi
Listed as a tempura this was more of a lightly fried tai, just barely cooked so the flesh remains moist but enough of a sear to give it a nice savoriness. A very well balanced preparation of the fish.

Amuse 03: Japanese Kindai - with Celery Root
This is my second experience with Kindai tuna, the other was at Tru, interestingly another Chicago restaurant. Kindai is a sustainable aquacultured tuna imported in tiny quantities from Japan. The fish tends to have an oilier softer texture and richer flavor than regular tuna though not quite to the level of toro. One of my favorite fishes and very enjoyable all on its own.

Amuse 04: Fava Beans - with Pickled Watermelon Radish
Not a huge fan of the beans even less of the chili sauce used to season them. The combination of sweet and salty didn't blend well in this case leaving this dish with no clear direction or focus.

01: Japanese Freshwater Eel - with Cilantro & Banana
Continuing on with popular sushi fish, next we have a freshwater eel. The eel felt a bit denser than normal and had an overt sweetness not only from the banana but the sauce the eel was glazed with as well. Freshwater eel is often served with a sweet sauce so this preparation was in keeping with that tradition but I would have liked more contrasting elements like the cilantro.

Drink 2: Rhubarb
I was expecting this to be mouth-puckeringly tart but it turned out to be mildly sweet on the palate with complimentary floral notes.

Bread 02: Ricotta and Leek
The second bread was a moist warm roll with ricotta and leek. I expected a burst of cheesiness but the bread was surprisingly light, with a hint of chewiness from the ricotta.

02: Spring Onion - with Indonesian Vanilla & Fiddlehead Ferns
A nice change of pace having onion as the centerpiece of a dish. The sweetness of the onions laced with fresh herbs made for a lush light salad truly representative of spring. The granita was a bit overwhelming for this dish with its jarring cold temperature and cloying flavor. A vanilla infused cream would have been a much more suitable pairing providing the distinct aroma of the vanilla but more appropriate to the intensity of the other ingredients.

03: Alaksan King Salmon Confit - with Black Tea & Rose
A very tender and flavorful preparations of salmon I have had in a long while. I am not sure what the salmon was immersed in but it seems to have drawn out the natural richness of the fish. The more robust fish stood up well to the paired ikura though I found the sweeter elements of this dish to be distracting.

Drink 3: Yuzu and Black Tea
I like to think of this as a Japanese Arnold Palmer, one of the most well designed drinks so far the complex citrus of the yuzu contrasts with the bitterness of the herbal tea quite nicely.

04: Soft-Shell Crab - with Strawberries & Arugula
A fairly pedestrian soft-shell crab, a bit too salty on its own. The dish also comes with pig's feet or "trotters" which exacerbated the problem. With the strawberry and arugula, the mix takes on a nutty complexion; a nice change though still too one dimensional.

Drink 4: Fenugreek and Lemongrass
I've only ever had fenugreek as a spice, typically mixed in curry. Apparently fenugreek leaves have a distinctive aroma and a bitter taste both found in spades in this drink. The flavor reminded me a greatly of an herbal medicine as adventurous as it was horrible.

Bread 03: French Baguette
A classic French baguette, pleasant but I would have liked something a bit more distinctive.

05: Steamed Halibut - with Spring Peas & Serrano Ham
Another strong fish preparation, the halibut was so soft I thought it might break apart on the fork. I originally believed the fish was prepared sous vide but our server said it was actually citrus steamed. The fish was served with clams, peas, and ham all contributing to a complex well-seasoned dish, probably my favorite of the night.

06: Marcona Almond Risotto - with Green Almonds & Red Wine
One of the few non-truffle vegetarian risottos I have had in the past. A very enjoyable multifaceted course despite ultimately being a humble combination of rice and nuts. The creamy risotto provides a base, grounding the smooth nutty flavor of the Marconas and the contrasting grassier flavor of the green almonds. The use of red wine deepens and enriches the preceding ingredients.

Drink 5: Mint Yogurt
When our server mentioned what this was I thought it was going to be like a mint raita or tzatziki but this turned out to have a more milky consistency and a slightly chalky flavor.

Bread 04: Maple Bacon
Ah bacon, "teacher, mother, secret lover." Seriously though this was a rich savory bread that served as a nice lead in to the richer meats that were forthcoming.

07: Roasted Suckling Pig - with Caramelized Endive & Chanterelle Mushrooms
A nice take on the traditional suckling pig, the bitter endives and wild earthy mushroom complimenting the straightforward flavor of the pork. The skin on my pig was stale and hard to the point of being painful to chew. Despite the quality of the meat, the unforgivably poor texture of the skin made this one of the weaker dishes for me.

08: Duck Breast - with Orange Zest, Napa Cabbage, & Organ Meat
Quintessentially rich duck breast, best on its own or taken with a bit of the orange zest. The organ meat was an interesting touch giving a bitter iron-laced flavor, quite unique but definitely something to use very sparingly.

09: Venison - with Thumbelina Carrots, Horseradish Emulsion, & Red Wine Essence
This venison exhibits none of the lean gamy flavor typically associated with deer instead the meat abounds with a sausage like richness. The flavor pairs nicely with the smoky read wine and haunting whisper of spice from the horseradish. The sweetness of the carrot gave the dish a rustic flavor but also tended to blunt the more nuanced flavors.

Drink 6: Walnut and Thyme
The drink exhibited some of the softer elements of the walnut, with an almost fruity sweetness deftly set off by a hint of thyme.

10: Bison - with Boudin Purée & Porcini Mushrooms
One consistent strong aspect of the night's food has been the texture of the meat. Like venison, bison tends to be a leaner, firmer meat but this rivaled a well prepared steak in terms of mouthfeel. The initial flavor gave me the impression of a preserved meat with a hint of game hidden in the salty smoky depths. The boudin provided a sweet Autumnal spice, quite apropos for the bison.

Intermezzo: Frozen Key Lime Meringue - with Cilantro & Green Peppercorn
The candied cilantro provides an alluring sweetness which is mimbly balanced against the bitter acidity of the meringue. Meanwhile the cold refreshes and uplifts the palate, preparing the diner for the last few courses.

Drink 7: Peach
There was something mixed in with the fruit but I cant remember what it was. Intensely sweet and fresh this was like biting into a perfectly ripened peach

11: Poached Quince - with Sesame Ice Cream & Rosemary Shortbread
The sesame ice cream immediately demands attention with its pure concentrated flavor. The quince retained some of its tartness though the cooking gave it something of a round sweetness that meshed well with the ice cream while the shortbread provided a dry textural counterpoint and some heft to the dish.

12: Meyer Lemon - with Toasted Brioche Ice Cream & Caraway Meringue
I question the wisdom of following up a frozen citrus meringue with another citrus and meringue pairing. The Meyer lemon was substantially different from the Key lime, with a soft sweetness that harmonized instead of contrasted with the accompaniments.

Drink 8: Gevurztraminer Grape Juice
The drink pairing ended with a simple grape juice made by Navarro Vineyards. The juice exhibited hints of stone fruit, and lychee in addition to the simple sweetness, this is definitely not your typical Welsh's grape juice.

13: Arbequina Olive Oil-Chocolate Chip Parfait - with Dried Cherries
The olive oil added a nice verdant tinge to the dark chocolate but the two disparate elements muted one another and the resulting amalgam lacked the depth of flavor and complexity of the previous desserts.

14: Oloroso Sherry-Raisin Ice Cream - with Chocolate Cotton Cake & Dried Plums
A lot more going on in this course though a bit disjointed, the nutty cake and the smoky alcholic heat of the sherry didn't quite work for me. Perhaps being served this in conjunction with the above dessert made it difficult to appreciate either individually.

Mignardises - Pineapple Gelée, Chocolate Darjé, Curry Caramel, and Chocolate with Angelica
Our server made a game of the mignardises, asking us to guess what each of the pieces was. We ended up getting 2 out of 4 missing both of the chocolates.

During my first visit I was impressed at the masterful control of the kitchen, harmony was the watchword and superbly balanced flavor the result. The kitchen table menu seemed to draw from a much wider range of ingredients, and exhibited a surprisingly heavy Japanese influence at the start of the meal. The courses were more complex this time around but the laser-like focus on flavor is less apparent, sacrificed in the name of innovation.

Perhaps hoping to recreate the extraordinary experience of my first visit was doomed to fail. Still the Kitchen Table is an excellent meal and reinforces Charlie Trotter's place in the upper echelon of Chicago fine dining.


jumpcut said...

I guess if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. But it would have been great to see a photo of the bill...that's always my favorite part of your reviews.

Tangbro1 said...

Hey jumpcut,

I just forgot to post the receipt. Thanks for reminding me.

burumun said...

Do you think your palate has also changed (become more refined, perhaps?) since your first visit there?

I'll have time for 2 dinners in Chicago ... Alinea is a must, but still debating btw Moto, Schwa, or this ...

Tangbro1 said...

I think the palate has to do with it, hard to say how much though. To be fair the textural aspects were still superb, I just didn't think the flavor pairings made as much sense. Looking back on the other review they seemed to use more straightforward ingredients then.

Hard choice between the three, I think Moto would be a fun and apt comparison, Trotter's might be a very good change of pace and such a culinary icon. When we were there the staff at every restaurant seemed to say Schwa was the place to go. I look forward to reading your reviews.

Food, she thought. said...

Beautiful review. Considering Restaurant Charlie's when in Vegas this week.

Tangbro1 said...

Kevin recently dined at Bar Charlie in Vegas and was pleasantly surprised. Maybe you should look into that as well if you have enough time.

Rich said...

great review! recently discovered your blog. i'm a chicagoan, and i feel the same way about charlie trotter's. some of the asian ingredients were just not very well executed. many french / contemporary american chefs are into yuzu, shiso, and other hip-sounding asian ingredients, and many can do the fusion quite well. but i don't think trotter is one of them.

Tangbro1 said...

Hey Rich,

Glad you liked the review. Trotter seems to be really enamored with Japanese techniques, his Bar Charlie in Vegas even has a Kaiseki menu.

Anonymous said...

You come off very pretentious the way you criticize food that chefs with decades of hard working kitchen experience have created. And you add to that by posting a picture of your receipt at the end of each blog. If your blog is truly about the food, I would say the receipt pictures are a little unnecessary.

Epicuryan said...

Your argument assumes that chefs who have worked for decades are somehow inherently superior than the diners they serve. My previous experience at Trotters continues to be one of my top 10 dining experiences. I simply didn't care for the food at my second visit.

As for the receipts I post those since most people like having an idea of how much the meal costs in case they are interested in trying it themselves.

Jeffrey said...

I have to say, I ate at the chef's table at Trotter's and then Arun the next night. I enjoyed Arun much much more. One of the courses at Trotter's was Olive Oil Ice Cream. Ok, so, yeah it tasted like olive oil, but why? I found myself asking that a lot.

Epicuryan said...

Hey Jeffrey,

I've heard very good things about Arun's but never been myself. As for whats the reason behind the olive oil ice cream, if it was served with other food, it could have been a textural or temperature element.

Anonymous said...

if your gratuity is the "service charge" listed on the receipt at 119.98 (18% of your f&B subtotal), Trotter's appears to have taxed your tip

Epicuryan said...

Good catch... I'll have to ask about that next time I go to Trotters