Given the planned August closing, my dinner this past Friday night was most likely my last visit ever to Charlie Trotter's. There has been so much discussion in recent times about the restaurant, whether it's still worthy of high acclaim, and what its closing means to the Chicago dining scene. I've dined at Charlie Trotter's several times over the past 25 years and while I don't believe that it's gone downhill at all, I think that's sometimes perceived to be the case, perhaps because the dining scene in Chicago has really been elevated over the restaurant's lifetime. This at least in part due to Charlie Trotter, his restaurant and the chefs he's trained.
And I suspect that many of the reasons Charlie Trotter's stood apart from other restaurants for years (emphasis on great and interesting ingredients, perfectly cooked food) no longer earns a restaurant the high acclaim it once did, not with so many talented chefs cooking in Chicago and sourcing equally great ingredients, perhaps having even used Trotter's as a road map. And while Charlie Trotter used many less commonly used techniques before other chefs ever heard of them, it now seems that they might be playing catch-up at Trotter's with some of the finer restaurants in town.
So while I will say that my dinner Friday was less than a great value, in a past-its-prime dining room, with service leaning a bit too formal for my liking, and with food that I very much enjoyed but did not love, I will say that the loss of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago is truly a sad day for our city, with another one of the most premier fine dining destinations in our city riding of into the sunset and a super talented chef no longer training some of the city's up and coming talent.
Yeah, this is not a contemporary dining room. It all appears to be stuck in the mid 1980s - carpeting, wallpaper, design. And while so many restaurants have focused on comfortable seating for lengthy tasting menus, the seating at Trotter's seems ready for a makeover. Yet in many ways, I appreciated the short trip in the wayback machine.
We both elected the grand menu at $195/person, plus wine pairings at $125/person.The Menu
- a little passé and cheesy if you ask me, but oh well
We were served five different breads throughout dinner, including sourdough, brioche, pretzel, focaccia and whole wheat I believe (shown in that order below). Also delivered was beautifully soft and creamy butter with chives and perhaps sea salt or seasoned salt. All of the breads were delicious with great texture, although I usually prefer a more buttery brioche, but that's a personal preference. Bread and butter service
Our first course was Geoduck Clams with Horseradish, Ramps and Preserved Celery. There was an unlisted element to the dish I can't recall. We were told these ramps were the first of the season, just picked that day. The dish was okay to start off the meal, but perhaps a bit too acidic a punch in awakening the palate.Geoduck Clams with Horseradish, Ramps and Preserved Celery
Our next course was an Unagi Terrine with Grapefruit, Red Curry and Kaffir Lime. This was very tasty - delicious unagi, the curry and kaffir lime flavors not at all dominating, and I really enjoyed the way the grapefruit played with the other flavors.Unagi Terrine with Grapefruit, Red Curry and Kaffir Lime
Coriander-Encrusted Bobwhite Quail with Black Sesame, Watercress and Pomegranate (and a liver sauce) was probably the most interesting dish presented this evening, and perhaps even my favorite. The quail was perfectly cooked, and the crust of the quail delivered a terrific crunch as well as some real spice, slightly confusing my taste buds and making them believe at times that I was tasting pastrami-like flavors and at other times, maybe even Asian flavors. On top of that, some freshness and peppery bite from the cress, a liver sauce underneath it all for a terrific richness, and some sweetness from the pomegranate which also helped cut some of the richness from the liver.
The only quail I've had at a fine dining restaurant in recent times was at Goosefoot, and while I enjoyed Goosefoot's quail, this really blew that dish away - just terrific.Coriander-Encrusted Bobwhite Quail with Black Sesame, Watercress and Pomegranate and Liver Sauce
It would have been nearly impossible for the next dish to upstage that beautiful quail, but they tried with Poached Day Boat Maine Lobster with Red Beet-Infused Spaetzle, Veal Sweetbreads, Fermented Black Garlic and Horseradish Vinaigrette. I thought the sweetbreads, lobster and spaetzle were all individually delicious, and it was all just perfectly cooked (certainly a theme of the evening). But as much as I love both lobster and sweetbreads, the sum of this course's parts was less impressive than its individual components. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed it, but I was in no way blown away, despite the inclusion of a couple of my favorite ingredients. Maybe there was a way to eat all of this in a way that would have resulted in an "I get it" moment, but I didn't find that path.Poached Day Boat Maine Lobster with Red Beet-Infused Spaetzle, Veal Sweetbreads, Fermented Black Garlic and Horseradish Vinaigrette
The Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Loin with Toasted Espresso, Crumbled Oats & Boudin Noir (also a Green Pea Sauce I believe) was probably my second favorite course of the evening. As you can see, the venison was a beautiful rare, the oats (and also a pork cracklin I believe) provided a nice crunch, and the flavors were pretty terrific. Looking at the picture of this dish I believe there were additional components that I just can't recall (and were not listed on the menu - sauces for example). But most of the components worked very harmoniously together and delivered big flavors. I will say that I didn't find the boudin noir to be as flavorful as expected and could even have been eliminated - perhaps appropriately, it's somewhat hidden in the picture below.Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Loin with Toasted Espresso, Crumbled Oats & Boudin Noir
We then moved on to dessert courses, which at essentially five desserts was in my opinion two too many. Although two of the desserts were plated together, and one course was mignardises, I would have preferred the meal if they had replaced one or two of the desserts with a savory item or two (and let it be known that I have a huge sweet tooth).
The first of the dessert courses was referred to as a palate cleanser, but seemed to me to be a full fledged dessert. It was Granny Smith Apple and Greek Yogurt Sorbet with Meyer Lemon, Tarragon and Candied Pistachio. The cake was a delicious and moist pistachio cake and I really enjoyed the way the nutty pistachio worked with the tartness from the yogurt and apple and the herbal and licorice notes of the tarragon.Granny Smith Apple and Greek Yogurt Sorbet with Meyer Lemon, Tarragon and Candied Pistachio
The next two desserts were plated together, Toffee-Glazed Banana Financier with Candied Hazelnuts, Date Jam and Frothed Pineapple, and a Criollo Chocolate Cake with Parsnip, Red Wine & Candied Vanilla. The banana financier was certainly tasty, but I can't say that it was particularly memorable and I found it to be very sweet. Toffee-Glazed Banana Financier with Candied Hazelnuts, Date Jam and Frothed Pineapple
Although the Criollo chocolate cake was served liquidy in the middle, it was not served warm (and not sure if it was supposed to have been, although I would have preferred it warm). But it was very good. I appreciated the red wine (the gels atop the cake), but the parsnip ice cream did nothing for me, even if it properly cut the richness of this dish.Criollo Chocolate Cake with Parsnip, Red Wine & Candied Vanilla
Although I had already had more than enough dessert at this point, that did not stop me from enjoying the Guava Mousse (also a Guava Sorbet if I recall correctly) with Caramelized White Chocolate and Passionfruit, a dessert that is actually listed on only the vegetable menu. I'm a sucker for tropical flavors and love passionfruit, and the white chocolate nicely cut the tartness of the passionfruit. This and the chocolate cake were my favorite of the desserts - I would have preferred to have eliminated the banana financier and I would have preferred a small palate cleanser in place of the first dessert (which was termed a palate cleanser).Guava Mousse with Caramelized White Chocolate and Passionfruit
Finally, mignardises - clockwise from left in the picture below (portions removed pre-photo by my dining companion), mint meltaway, pate de fruit (blackberry?), bacon caramel and a nut nougat (peanut?). All were good but the nougat was my favorite. I must say that I've never been a big fan of bacon in my sweets so while the caramel had a great texture, I didn't love it.Mignardises
Overall, I thought it was a very good meal (and I left quite full), and I might say that the food was even better than very good. Absolutely everything was perfectly cooked (although I would have preferred the chocolate cake served warm). That being said, only one of the savory dishes is one that really sticks out in my mind as very memorable - the quail - even though most everything was delicious. The presentation of the food also was not particularly innovative or interesting, both in terms of plating and service pieces. And unfortunately, the excess of dessert courses just seemed so odd and bothered me - breads, 5 savories and 5 sweets. And value-wise, I think some of the other fine dining spots in town are delivering a better value, although I think our only error was in going for the wine pairings at $125/person.
Service was excellent, but perhaps a bit too formal for my liking (talk to me as a server as you would talk to me outside the restaurant). But the quality of food and service would never give you any inclination that the restaurant is closing. The meal ended with a tour of the kitchen which was great and very fascinating. The kitchen was every bit the restaurant Charlie Trotter's, a mix of new and old - copper pots and a wood burning stove meet a cotton candy machine (there's a chamomile cotton candy on the vegetable menu) and an immersion circulator. The Copper PotsThe Wood Burning StoveThe Immersion Circulator
, apparently used at least for making 72-hour wagyu short ribsThe Cotton Candy Machine
- from Bed, Bath and Beyond?!?Precision
As Charlie Trotter's gets closer to both its 25th anniversary and closing date, I will fondly recall this as a very good meal, but one that I might have appreciated more 20 years ago, before the dining scene in Chicago really exploded, before plating, grass fed and organic became major concepts, and before the tremendous explosion of major culinary talent in the Chicago. But I believe it would be a huge mistake to look at the closing of Charlie Trotter's as merely a footnote in Chicago dining history. Rather, the impact Charlie Trotter has had on the Chicago dining scene has been tremendous and I suspect we reap the benefits every day without fully realizing it.