Wednesday, April 4, 2012

charlie trotter's - chicago, il

charlietrotters.com
816 west armitage
chicago, il 60614

it is by no accident that after numerous trips to chicago with fine dining as the focus that carrie and i have bypassed charlie trotter's eponymous restaurant time and time again. while it was always understood that we would make it to the brownstone on armitage eventually, there were just too many other choices that continued to lure us away. back in november, my parents, carrie, and i started kicking around the idea of a family trip in the spring with a meal at alinea as the centerpiece. however, once i heard the news via twitter that trotter's would be closing for good in august of 2012, i made the suggestion that we dine at both chicago's current and former best restaurant on back to back nights. deciding that it was logical to eat at trotter's on night one for several reasons, tables were booked and a trip was planned.

charlie trotter, a self taught chef, opened his restaurant in 1987, and there was a time when it was considered the best in the country. the list of chicago area chefs that have worked at trotter's over the years is staggering, and most notably includes the likes of grant achatz, micheal carlson, curtis duffy, graham elliot, homaro cantu, giuseppe tentori, bill kim, and many many others. while there is no doubt that trotter put chicago on the map as a culinary destination through his own restaurant and those he trained, he has experienced a bit of a fall from grace over the past few years. with failed restaurants closing in both las vegas and cabo as well as business being down an estimated 15 to 20 percent over the past few years at his flagship, things have been difficult for the chef as of late. when the michelin guide made its chicago debut in 2010, trotter's was awarded two stars along with ria and avenues while both alinea and l2o received the full three star rating. while a two star rating is certainly nothing to scoff at, i am sure the chef was stung by the guides determinations. 
following a hilarious cab ride where the driver compared his ex-girlfriend to the cubs (hates them both!), we arrived at the 100 year old lincoln park town house turned restaurant. after greetings with the doorman out front, we made our way inside almost twenty minutes early for our 9pm reservation. we were asked to have a seat at the bar located in the then empty entry way as our table was not yet ready. over the next twenty minutes or so, the bar area filled to capacity with other diners anticipating a great meal. once 9pm rolled around and we were still yet to be seated, a complimentary pour of champagne was offered. although unnecessary as we were eventually seated just five minutes past our scheduled time, this gesture was certainly appreciated.

our table was a four top along the left wall of the first floor dining room. smaller than i had pictured, the room is quite dated and clearly hasn't seen a style update in many years (if ever). two menus are offered nightly, a vegetable menu (though not vegetarian as stocks are used) and what is called the grand menu which features a variety of seafood and heavier meats. both menus are eight courses long with five savory courses and three desserts. without getting into exact pricing, it is worth noting that the restaurant raised the price of the grand menu by about fifteen percent shorty after the closing announcement was made, making only our meals at alinea, per se, and l2o's tatami room more expensive when only food is considered. after confirming that the entire table wanted the grand menu, i made the request for three bottles of wine (bubbly, white, red) to be paired with the meal at the discretion of the sommelier with the stipulation that the price per bottle did not exceed $XXX. this request was handled well as all three bottles were excellent and room was left within my stated budget so glasses of port were poured to go with the desserts.

unfortunately, we were not given our menus at the end of the meal (nor did i remember to ask for them), and my emails to the restaurant requesting a copy to be mailed to me have gone unanswered. with this noted along with the fact that i ended up consuming much more wine than typical throughout the course of the meal, this post will simply include pictures and very brief descriptions of each dish. i will state here that while as a whole the food was good and at times excellent, i was hoping for more given the restaurants reputation and price tag.
 confit of squid with peas
bread service at charlie trotter's consisted of a brioche roll, a multigrain bread, and a soft focaccia. arriving occasionally in between courses sans any sort of description, each offering was excellent as was the smooth and sweet butter.
tasmanian ocean trout with an unagi terrine, grapefruit, meyer lemon emulsion, and shaved duck heart. this is the course i remember the most vividly, with the clean flavors of the raw trout being nicely offset by the tart lemon emulsion. even better though was the eel terrine, which was packed with flavor, and was probably my favorite component of any dishes we were served.
halibut with iberico ham. well executed but not overly exciting.
this dish was rabbit loin along with two other rabbit parts i cannot recall.
espresso rubbed bison with a risotto made from oats
granny smith apple and greek yogurt sorbet with candied pistachio.
toffee glazed banana financier. 
criollo cake with parsnip sorbet and red wine. this was the strongest of the three dessert courses as the cake was fantastically rich and the parsnip sorbet was pretty awesome.
with the bill arriving along with a small plate of mignardises, my port was topped off when one of the food runners found out that i was the one picking up the tab (my parents covered alinea the following night), insinuating that i would need another drink before surveying the damage. it was then that we were offered a tour of the kitchen which we graciously accepted. although not as impressive as the kitchens i have seen at alinea or eleven madison park, it was cool to get to see the space that has brought the culinary visions of charlie trotter to life for the past twenty five years. along with the main kitchen, we also got to see studio kitchen where trotter's pbs show was shot.
making our way back to the front of the house, a cab was called for our family while i quickly ran across the street to snap a picture of the restaurant. all things considered i am glad to have gotten to eat at the storied restaurant, but i must say that the meal was somewhat disappointing. to me, the fact that even without a menu i am unable to really elaborate on any of the dishes is very telling. aside from the trout and eel dish, i was not surprised or overly excited about any of the flavors, and while nothing was unpleasant or questionably prepared by any stretch, at this price point i expect to be wowed. another let down was with the exception of the small mignardises tray at meals end, eight courses really meant eight courses with no amuse bouche or extras whatsoever. when considering ingredients, flavors, creativity, and sheer quantity of food, i can honestly say that i have never left a restaurant feeling like i got less for my money.

with regard to the service, everybody was certainly friendly and personable, but there were a few issues worth noting. first, the time between courses was particularly long, averaging about twenty minutes. i would say that during the time elapsed between the presentation of our first course and the very end of the meal that we spent much more time sitting without food than actually eating. maybe the drab setting made it seem worse than it was, but as someone who typically enjoys time in between courses, i found the pacing annoying. going along with this, one of the bottles of wine was actually presented and served in the middle of the halibut course. as i am trying to enjoy my fish, i have staff reaching around me with wine glasses and then have to put done my silverware and listen to the spiel about the wine. why this wasn't done during the lengthy break in between courses is baffling to me.

charlie trotter was recently quoted by the new york times stating, "on our worst day we are still in the top three restaurants in america." being that this meal doesn't even crack my top three so far in 2012 nor my top ten all time, i would be surprised if there is anyone in the dining world that actually agrees with the chef on this issue. while i am sure that at one point trotter's food was revolutionary and exciting, there are just too many more exciting options out there in this price range, and considering the incredible meals i have had so far this year for less money (corton, eleven madison park, blackbird, schwa) i can easily say that even if the restaurant was staying open, i would not return.
Charlie Trotter's on Urbanspoon

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