Going into my meal at Charlie Trotter's I can honestly say I didn't know what to expect. As I was meeting a friend I hadn't seen in some time I certainly expected a good time, but despite Trotter being one of the most celebrated American Chefs of all time it seems as though many recent reviews have not been as wowed with the landmark restaurant in the same way as they are by Iconic restaurants like TFL or Jean-Georges, or even the local temples of Molecular Gastronomy like Alinea or Avenues. Additionally, after having the most fantastic meal of my life at Alex in Vegas earlier this year I certainly didn't want to go in with expectations too high and end up diappointed. Oh wait, did I say Alex was the most fantastic meal of my life.......make that second most fantastic....
Arriving prior to my friend I snapped a few pictures of the unmarked exterior and subsequently made my way into the festively decorated bar. Greeted immediately by a doorman and two hosts inside my coat was taken and I was offered a wine list (or should I say phonebook) to puruse while I waited. As I sat and chatted with the bartender for approximately 10 minutes I watched many well-heeled Chicagoans arrive and make their way through the vast expanse of the old brownstone to their tables - clearly the current economic downturn isn't effecting everyone the same - the place was booked solid. When my friend arrived we were immediately escorted upstairs to a wonderful booth overlooking the very bar I'd just been in and as we chatted we watched the snow begin to kick up outside. After a short discussion with our waitress about likes and dislikes (no beef for myself, no raw fish for my friend) a complimentary glass of champagne was poured, butter and the first bread course - a fantasticly crispy mini baguette - were served, and the somellier appeard to help us select an appropriate bottle of red to go with the meal. Throughout the meal the service was exquisite and without flaw - all questions answered, all requests granted, never an empty glass or crumb on the table....they even rush to open the bathroom door for you.
Course two of the evening consisted of Maine Day Boat Lobster with Beets, Chestnut, and Bull's Blood and although each dish that followed was spectacular, this was without a doubt my favorite of the savories. A perfectly butter poached lobster claw lied trisected on the plate interspersed with thinly sliced chestnuts, fine diced bulls blood beets, yellow beet juice, vanilla saffron cream, and heirloom red beet reduction. Somewhat salty, mostly sweet, light and fresh in every way - quite possibly the best lobster dish yet to grace my palate and certainly as good as the blue lobster at Alex and Ducasse's famous Lobster Au Curry....simply breathtaking.
Course three was another winner and possibly the most "complex" of the evening's dishes - Poached Pennsylvania Duck Egg with Perigord Black Truffle, Torpedo Onion, Parsley. A 14 hour poached Duck Egg was served next to a Vidalia Onion chip and literally covered with shaved Black Truffle and a reduction of torpedo onion with a drizzle of parsley broth. Multiple textures, multiple flavors, both potent and subtle with basenotes of taste from the onion and topnotes of aroma provided by the truffle - a true masterpiece of composition.
Course four was my least favorite of the savories, but a good dish none the less. Whole Roasted Squab Breast with Birch, Black Trumpet Mushroom, and Devil's Club was just a little too heavy for my liking and although the squab was perfectly cooked, the woodsy tone of the Birch and Devil's Club overwhelmed the bird while the hearty and earthy Trumpet Mushrooms stole the show with their flawless texture. Plated but unnamed was also a wonderful puree of brown butter and spices that paired nicely with the mushrooms, but less-so with the squab.
Course five was preceded by the best bread of the evening, a hearty rye absolutely stuffed with Vermont Maple Syrup and Berkshire Bacon. Soft, succulent, sweet and savory there is no doubt I would have eaten a basket of this marvelous bread had I not four (er, five) courses to go and dessert tasting restervations for later at Tru.
Course five was a substitution for myself and consisted of Roasted Free Range Bison with Date, Gingerbread, and Pomegranate - incredible, the best red meat I've had in years. Perfectly seared rare, the bison was expertly complimented by the sweetness of Date 'barbeque sauce" and gingerbread flash fried matsutake mushrooms provided a unique contrast of crispy spice while the pomegranate was served chilled as another bold contrast to the rest of the dish.
Honey Crisp Apples with Cider Granite and Ginger Jelly was an apple served in no less than 5 different ways - from flash fried over a sweetened semifreddo to an unadourned finely chopped slice over a spicey bread pudding, and finally a pairing of spicey icey cider granite and a ginger jelly compote - a true work of art and amongst the best desserts I've ever experienced....yet not even the best dessert of the meal....
Black Mission Figs with Shaved Fruit Cake, Marcona Almonds, Pedro Ximenez, Proscuitto, and Bacon Fat - possibly the single most impressive combination of unexpected flavors yet to grace my palate. Essentially the dish was a piece of nutty fruit cake topped with Raw Cows Milk Icecream, chopped almonds, fresh figs, and a slice of Proscuitto that was then topped tableside with a reduction of sherry and bacon fat. Sweet, savory, crunchy, spongey.....nearly indescribable.....possibly perfection.
After completing this phenomenal dish our server arrived to ask us if there was anything else they could do for us. Jokingly I suggested another half-dozen servings of the dessert and much to our surprise we were met with the response - "well, I think we could do another one." When I stated I was joking she quickly quipped "I'm not" and disappeared with a smile, returning less than 10 minutes later with another more substantial portion of the figs and fruit cake concoction. Along with this dish we were served a tray of 5 mignardises - a passionfruit jelly, a hazelnut "nutella cup," an "after eight" mint, a cranberry nut nougat, and an incredibly creamy caramel - and the bill.
With the bill settled we prepared for our departure and as a final treat were offered a tour of the kitchen, the display kitchen, and the wine cellar as well as complimentary copies of the menu as take home souvenirs. All throughout the tour the staff, from server to chef to dishwasher, was notably smiling and working in flawlessly clean and gorgeous surroundings. Nothing appeared overly stuffy, nothing extremely pretentious, everything simply gracious and wonderful.
Without overstating I can absolutely say that my trip to Charlie Trotter's on 12/30/08 was the best overall dining experience of my life and although not every dish was "perfect," the meal was as close to perfection as one should ever expect. Flawless service, immaculate presentation, progressive flavors and wonderful innovation.....when is Michelin coming to Chicago so Trotter can get the same respect as that lavished on Keller and others?