Charlie Trotter's is located west of Lincoln park (or at least, that's about all of the directions I can give). It's about a $10 cab ride from the loop area. The restaurant is located in a converted house, and there is almost no indication from the outside that food exists within.
The style is high-end new-French, with a touch of Asian influence. In general, dishes are lighter than one would expect, with a large abundance of fresh ingredients.
They have a web site, reservations are basically required. They suggest suit and tie, and it matches their mood. I was comfortable in a jacket rather than suit, and did see some people come in dressed pretty far down. Eating in the kitchen appears to be an option if you like that kind of thing (I do, but not on my first visit).
Food is a tasting menu, no options. Fixed price of $85 per person. There is
also a vegatarian tasting menu. However, if you have particular food alergies or
dislikes, they will accomidate you, and they do ask before the food service
Fancy-classy. Two small (30 people) dining rooms, one on the first floor, one on the second. Quiet, reserved. Small orchids on the table, real silver, Ridel glasses ($30 each, talk about breakage!). No music that I could detect. However, it was friendly feeling and not stuffy.
Our room was about half full when we arrived, and slowly filled as we ate. Behavior of the other guests was pretty awful (in my opinion). One table of two businessmen were reading the paper. Another was talking in loud voices about wines (and poorly, I might add). Another seemed obsessed with the plates and not the food. Another seemed like a husband taking his wife out because the place was expensive, not because they liked to eat. Gee, isn't anyone here but me at a restaurant for the food? None of these behaviors would be bad at many other places, but they really clashed with what they are trying to go for at CTs.
Some of the behaviors and methods edge slightly towards the snobbish (the
decanting of the wine, the tome-like wine list) and I'm writing this up to it
being a different kind of town than San Francisco.
There appears to be on the order of 1 staff person for every two diners. Coordinating this can be tricky, but they do pull it off. Our room had a single combination waiter-wine person who served all tables. He was helpful, friendly without being pushy, and knowledgable about the wine. As is traditional at tasting menu places, they tell you a bit about the food as they serve it to you.
I would say that the service was *slightly* rushed. The meal was on the order
of two and a half hours, with 9 "rounds" of food. I felt slightly
hurried at the begining of the meal. This is a nit-pick at best, and I'm sure
that if I mentioned it to the waiter, it would be corrected in short order. My
suspicion is that they are catering to the type people who come there most often,
and as mentioned above, those there didn't seem as "foodie" as I am.
Meal began with amuse geulles that consisted of baby skate wings over braised celery, and crayfish over a small salad. The skate was excellent, and paired nicely with the butter in the celery. Seasonings for these dishes was light. It was a nice way to begin and transition away from the outside world.
The plates were whisked away to be replaced by the true first course. Three fish dishes were plated together. Rare tuna slice placed over a very smooth creamy oyster, topped with a wasabi sauce. Lobster salad with a mix of vegatables in a light cream sauce, with shredded dry seaweed (nobi?). Lightly smoked salmon in a tarrine bound with taragon butter. All very different, light and complimentary -- this trio evoked the most discussion, as we tried hard to pick a favorite. For me, it was the tuna -- the oyster almost formed a sauce beneath it.
Fish course was Halibut over roasted tomatoes with ramps (a kind of wild onion). The flavor was very subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but awoke with a wash in our mouths each time we took another bite. Very different than the appetizers, more "deep" and "wintery" feeling.
First meat course was a two dish presentation. Rabbit loin was presented over a compote of morel mushrooms, and glazed with a red-wine fois gras sauce. A second plate contained a HUGE slab of fois gras over cabbage and baby shitake mushrooms. On top of this was a mince of sweet and sour coliflower florettes. This pairing was less than 100% sucessful. Each dish was sublime in its own way, however the rich meatiness of the rabbit was a very low note, while the acid of the fois gras quite high. This made it difficult to alternate between them without losing flavor. We ended up consuming the rabbit first, and then the fois gras. Done this way, it was like having two whole courses on their own. I used my spoon to get every bit of the sauces from these.
Second meat course was quite different. Lamb slices on a bed of beans, surrounded by meat juices and a pureed rutabaga sauce. Hidden underneath was a slice of veal sweetbreads. This was a surprise, as their policy is not to announce things not visible on the plate. The red runner beans were rich and creamy, and the counterpoint between the lamb and the sweetbreads was very plesant. This dish was a major shift from those before -- more traditional than inventive. It felt like a true center to the meal.
As the end of the main courses reared its head, the waiter noticed that we had red wine left. He asked if we would like a complimentary cheese course to go with it. Beh oui! 5 small slices of cheese (all excellent, mourbie, chevre, and munster are the only 3 I knew), a thin sliced and fanned pear, and a pile of crisp cranberry walnet toasts. I got bonus points with the waiter and my companion by knowing more about mourbie (sp?) than the waiter did. :-)
Next up was a "cream/custard" course. An almond cream with fruit, and a Meyer Lemon custard. Each of us was given one and we shared. This was a nice way to do this -- neither of us is a huge fan of this type of dish, but being able to have a little of each kept us interested. Both were, I must say, as well executed as something like this can be.
First desert was a trio of sorbets (vanilla, mango, and a melon I couldn't place) in a kafir lime soup. This was a very nice break from the heavier foods that came before -- including the cheese and custard. It sort of relaxed and cooled us down for the end.
Desert was three dishes, shared by the table. A chocolate souflee cake. A
beggars purse of macadamia nuts and peaches with ice cream. And, oh boy, one I
can't remember. Plates were passed and shared as above. All three were
excellent, but by this point our senses and mouths were pretty much reeling from
the rest of the meal. A small plate of truffles and other candies was placed in
the middle, and we sipped our dessert wine and coffee and sat back and chatted.
The wine list here is amazing. Very long and deep. Prices ranging from $20/bottle up to over $3000. About 12 splits available, which is very nice. We had a Caymus Special Select, 1991 (which I had never had before). $113. For white, I asked the waiter for help and receive a split of a very astere Chablis ($25). For desert, glasses of Tokai (sp?), which is a Hungarian wine. $13 each.
The waiter was very helpful, and I must say that the white he helped us choose really did compliment the fish courses quite well. Our red selection was decanted (a wine of this age is maybe creeping towards needing it, so it was only partially for show -- plus the air exposure really helps open the wine up) I did notice that thankfully they do NOT decant every single red. I hate places that do stuff like this -- too snobby. The red was really outstanding, really super packed with fruit and intense spicy flavors. The tannin/acid balance suggest that it may not hold for super long, or that it may go out of whack with extended aging.
My one quibble with the whole wine process is that a list of this depth is
really crying for better organization. Grouping wines and years better would
make the list less daunting. I suppose that there are lots of people who WANT
the waiter to pick something for them, but for those of us who care to look, its
really a shame when the list makes it more difficult than need be.
Okay, it had to happen. I had to pay for all of the above somehow.
$545 for two, with a $90 tip.
Was it worth it? You bet. Would I go again? You bet.
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