I was astonished, when preparing to post this, to find few substantive reviews of dinners at Charlie Trotter’s. Indeed, this very thread dates to 2005. Amazing, in and of itself. Various posters eat here from time to time but for whatever reasons, few post much about it. (Yes, I know that opinions have been posted on various threads, but there are surprisingly few detailed reviews like Gary’s and so I decided to resurrect his estimable review by choosing this thread to add mine.)
I ate at Charlie Trotter’s once many years ago, probably in the early '90s. I recall little about that meal except (1) we had a great bottle of white (no, I don’t recall); (2) the service was too formal for me; and (3) the food was excellent but not memorable. The Lovely Dining Companion and I returned this past Saturday and so I have a chance to update my impressions. I had the wine accompaniment to the Grand Menu, leaving any potential comparison to an unremembered bottle impossible. The service this time, as explained below, was anything but formal. And the food was excellent and (I think) memorable.
We chose to dine at 5:30pm because that is what the hostess offered when I called for my desired date. As I pondered the early time on the telephone, she pointed out (quite correctly) that we’d be there for well over two hours in any event. As it happened, we were there for almost three, leaving us to get out and still have some of the evening free.
This is probably the place to make an initial observation about the women with whom I spoke when first dealing with the restaurant. In the course of speaking with the reservations staff four times (to make and then to cancel the original reservations and to make and then confirm the most recent reservation), I had occasion to speak with several different women (so far as I can tell). With the exception of the woman I spoke with last, I was put off by what I can only describe as an unfriendly attitude each time I called. Though nothing incorrect or out-of-place was said, each time I received the distinct impression that I was being granted a favor by being allowed to make a reservation (much less to cancel it more than 48 hours in advance). There was no warmth, no friendliness, just perfectly correct, perfectly scripted conversation.
Contrast this with the behavior of every single individual we came into contact with on Saturday evening. Things began auspiciously with the young man out front who opened the door. However—and, as we were to learn, this issue would continue throughout the evening—we had extreme difficulty understanding him. Even though his words were innocuous (“Welcome to Charlie Trotter’s” or something similar), and even though he was hard to understand, the sentiment was nonetheless genuine and warm—another, more positive, note that would be struck over and again that evening.
From the moment we walked in, everyone with whom we came into contact was friendly and eager to be of any possible assistance. I cannot help but contrast this with our first (and so far only) experience at Alinea. Although the meal there is perhaps the best meal I’ve ever been fortunate to enjoy, the staff serving us that night could profit from watching those who served us at Charlie Trotter’s. The Alinea staff was generally younger; the three women at the front desk that evening were (or seemed) particularly young and their friendliness seemed superficial compared to the genuine warmth we both felt at Trotter’s. The servers at Alinea were mostly young and varied enormously in ability and talent. One particularly young man seemed to be reciting a script (albeit eagerly) and another’s enthusiasm was so over-the-top that it was hard not to giggle. In addition, the sheer number of staff bodies at Alinea was so high that that they routinely got in each other’s way and, though quiet and careful about it, the traffic couldn’t but be noticed. There were simply too many people for the space. Finally, to my dismay, the sommelier that evening was not Craig Sindelar. Our luck was to draw someone who was so arrogant that every one of my several attempts to engage him in conversation failed miserably.
At Trotter’s, by contrast, an attitude that began with the young man out front continued through all the front of the house staff, to the waitstaff and everyone else. Everyone we met impressed us with their friendliness, eagerness to be of assistance, and genuine desire that we have a good time. Virtually every need or request we might have was anticipated, fulfilled before we could even say a word. (Example: my wife's hand was barely on her purse before someone was at the door to the restroom, holding it open for her.)
As a dining room, Charlie Trotter's with its vaguely Art Deco decor insists the place not distract from the plate. The tans, browns, creams, and maroons avoid the fantasies of French drawing rooms or post-modern architectural seductions. The only exceptions - and they are profound - are the stunning bouquets at the entrance and in the dining room, as powerful for their textures as for their shape and color: hortus in urbe.
Oh, that I were able to command such perceptive and evocative language! In a word, we agree. The flowers are stunning: in size, variety, texture, color…. It’s hard not to notice or be impressed by the flora on display. But it’s the only thing that calls attention to itself in an otherwise demure series of rooms. As Gary said, Trotter lets his food do the talking.
We were taken aback to be served a creation from the mixologist (their term) for the new restaurant in Las Vegas as the amuse
. He was in Chicago and created a gin and orange concoction. (I can’t be more precise both because I was so caught off-guard to be served a drink and because of difficulty understanding what he said—of which more below.) When we were initially asked whether we had any allergies or preferences, we answered honestly: none. It simply never occurred to us that the amuse
would be a cocktail. The LDC does not drink alcohol—a choice, not a necessity. Frankly, we were both so surprised that we didn’t say anything and, in that regard, that is our error, not that of the house. We don’t doubt that her drink would have been replaced; given everything else that happened that evening, we are certain of it. But we were so startled to be served alcohol that we lost whatever savoir faire
we might have had. We’re certainly not suggesting that the practice be discontinued—others no doubt welcome it; only that the staff be aware of the possibility of reactions like ours.
Language problems were an issue we never anticipated. Our server that evening was not a native speaker of English. His service was impeccable, he was personally warm and friendly, but both LDC and I had great difficulty understanding him. (Most courses were presented by one gentleman, although another brought one course and yet another the amuse
—all shared the same problem, though our primary server was the most difficult to comprehend.) Though it was evident that they were all taking extraordinary care to enunciate and be understood, we were often unable to understand them. We recognize that this is a sensitive issue and did nothing to address it while we were there. What could one possibly say? Were it not for the menus that we were given as souvenirs (and could thus consult throughout the meal), we would simply not have known what some of the components of a given course were. Perhaps the house staff’s familiarity with each other has accustomed them to everyone’s accents, but as customers who have never spoken with them before, much as we admired their professionalism and were grateful for their friendliness, we had undeniable difficulties.
I regret never learning the name of the gentleman who presented and poured my wines on Saturday because I cannot recall having enjoyed talking as much about the various offerings and winemaking in general. I was a bit apprehensive as he appeared to be young (late 20s; and yes, I realize my prejudice in this regard) but he was impressively knowledgeable, easy to talk with, and constantly observant. For example, we talked at length about a wine that was completely new to me, from Mendel Wines in Argentina, a bottle called Unus
. We talked about its composition (cabernet and malbec), its alcohol and tannin levels, its youth, and its appropriateness for the dish and so forth. I drank it carefully and contemplatively and, having finished it, he wordlessly provided another pour so I could ponder it a bit more.
Another example: the accompaniments included sake (interestingly enough, the identical sake I was served at Alinea—Fukucho Moon on the Water
Junmai Ginjo). It’s a fragrant, superbly smooth, beautifully rounded, sake. But I noticed that the wine menu that they had given us as a keepsake listed something different (Sato No Homare Pride of the Village
Junmai Ginjo). I inquired, in order to confirm that I was drinking Moon on the Water
. (I was.) A course or so later, he brought out the sake listed on the menu (but changed for the service). Completely different and, in my estimation, nowhere near the perfect match the Moon on the Water
had been. What an unexpected, generous gesture! (For those who are interested, I found the latter to be “ricier,” an adjective the sommelier gently corrected to note that it tasted more heavily of bran. And though it was “clean,” I didn’t find it as well-balanced or as nicely flavored as the Moon on the Water
.”) It allowed us to talk again—about the differences between the sakes, the pairing, and so forth.
One other note that I think aptly illustrates a number of things. Shortly after we sat down and had been handed the menus, I asked if the restaurant had a policy on the use of cameras and whether they would mind. With a big smile, I was told that cameras were welcome and that the staff would be happy to do anything they could to facilitate picture-taking. Sadly, the camera failed. Yet, at one point, before I had given up on fixing it, a server noticed the problems I was having and asked if I wanted him to look at the camera to see if he could assist!
All this by way of explaining that I have no pictures. I will offer only a relatively few comments on what we thought were the highlights (or otherwise). LDC had the Vegetable Menu and I had the Grand Menu. Though we didn’t enjoy every single course—and would never entirely expect to—we were constantly impressed by the care, thoughtfulness, presentation, and taste of everything we ate.
Standouts for LDC were a the squash and the sherbet courses. The latter course was maca which, for those who are unfamiliar with it (we’d never heard of it), is variously described as root, an herb, and a food from Peru. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of the first hits on Google report (with varying levels of excitement) its properties as an aphrodisiac. Maca is related to the radish, seems to be roasted ordinarily and can be used to make everything from pudding to soup. The sherbet was accompanied by a few pieces of maca (there is a long finger-like root projecting from a “squashed turnip”-like body), pickled date and quinoa (in keeping with the Peruvian theme). In three words, LDC described the sherbet as decadent and creamy. She also singled out the butternut squash (served with walnut, Perigord truffle, and toasted pepitas) as excellent, in part for its wonderful, unexpected combination of flavors.
Two of my courses, back-to-back as life would have it, were just about perfect. When I saw the roasted squab breast on the menu, I was curious (apprehensive might be a better word) about how it would work with the cocoa nibs. (The presentation also included hazelnuts and pearl onions.) I needed to simply trust Charlie Trotter. I know I have never had a better piece of squab in my life. The flavors complemented beautifully and the tender meat was cooked to perfection. I was depressed to think that the rest of the menu couldn’t possibly live up to the level of that course. But then I moved to the venison. Golly, I thought. Actually, “this may be the best venison I’ve ever had” would be closer to the mark. The portion was generous to a fault. Served with black trumpet mushrooms and a black cardamom carrot puree (the latter of which I found somewhat less successful), the venison was unctuous in the best possible sense of the word: absolutely perfectly cooked, juices slowly oozing, rich, and…well, frankly, virtually beyond compare.
Not everything worked. LDC didn’t care for the salsify course and I simply couldn’t find it in my palate to like the Nigorizake sorbet (with pear and jasmine rice). Sake as sorbet was an offbeat taste (I can see how it might sound intriguing) and it not only didn’t cleanse my palate but I found that it left a rather off-putting taste. Fortunately for me it was followed by a toasted milk ice cream served in a small pool of organic buttermilk with white pepper and nutmeg. The pepper and nutmeg were added in just the right amounts, highlighting without intruding. And the ice cream was delectable. Absolutely delicious.
LDC made a couple other observations that I hadn’t noticed but, on reflection, made great sense to me. The first was prompted by my conversations about the restaurant’s philosophy behind the wine selections. Given the clear effort (in the wine accompaniment) to present a variety of dishes, flavors, textures, and sensations, it surprised her that two of her first four courses were mushroom-based. Different mushrooms, different preparations and tastes to be sure—but two mushroom dishes nonetheless. She was also surprised that, with the exception of the saffron risotto, all of her dishes were “purely” vegetables—no pasta, no grains. As it happens, her observation is slightly incorrect: one course included a small piece of brioche and the maca sherbet, as noted above, included a bit of quinoa. These aren’t complaints but observations and I offer them merely to share our thoughts. We don’t presume to know all of the considerations that go into deciding what items will constitute any given menu, but LDC was struck enough to comment and I thought her comments were quite apt.
One last note on the wine accompaniment (and its server). The last wine to be served is the Alvear “Solera 1927" Pedro Ximenez
. Since I had recently finished the same bottle at home, I asked if something could be substituted. The request was honored without the least hesitation (and, in fact, an offer was made at the very beginning that if any courses or ingredients presented issues of any sort that they would be very happy to accommodate a substitution request. Although we didn’t take them up on the offer for the meals, we were grateful for their raising the issue so gracefully and generously.) And so I found my dinner ended with Warre’s 1977 Port (in lieu of the PX). I am not ordinarily much of a port aficionado but this was a revelation: powerful, exceptionally well-rounded and flavorful, intense…a wonderful way to finish.
As to general matters, the pacing was nearly perfect, presentations magnificent. We were constantly impressed at the finesse and quality of the service. No one ever hovered and no one was ever far away. Virtually anyone who had anything to do with our evening was attentive to the point where it is hard to imagine that they could have done a better job. From refilling water glasses (often enough without being every time we took a sip) to providing new and intriguing breads, all warm from the oven (not reheated so far as we could tell), everyone was present when they needed to be. Everyone was friendly, everyone was eager that we have a great time.
(Yet, though it seems almost churlish to complain, I’ll note one “failure” that surprised us given the ease with which it might have been accomplished: although the menu included a “Happy Birthday” greeting to my wife, not a single person mentioned it. Was that necessary? Of course not, but given the extraordinary detail and attention otherwise lavished on us, it seemed slightly odd to us. We didn’t expect (or ask for) any special dessert “recognition” and didn’t receive any. But the simplest of all things, a spoken comment when we entered, was absent. Perhaps we were more sensitive to it, too, because at least two tables near us received such greetings while in the dining room.)
We had an extraordinary evening. I made a brief comment earlier about the superiority of Trotter’s staff to Alinea’s. I will note in passing that this observation is based on only one visit to each restaurant. The service unquestionably affects the experience but, service issues notwithstanding, we had extraordinary dinners at both places. We enjoyed them both for different reasons and consider ourselves fortunate simply to be able to afford them. Indeed, we wish we could afford to return more often. And yet, given the remarkable evening that we had at both places, we know that we will be back to both.