Monday, May 23, 2005

Gaffes and Genius

The insistent and obstinate question after last evening's visit to Charlie Trotter's is what errors should affect the reputation of a restaurant. This is a crucial question for reviewers, but one rarely discussed. Problems of conception, execution, service, and style are endemic - even in the writings of critics. Should my failures at spell checking or mistaken allegation that a wild plum was tame count against my hard-fought and fragile credibility? Find the 30 goofs in this text and win a prize.

I had last visited Charlie Trotter's in 1999, dining at the kitchen table. The meal was as close to being perfect as a can recall. (Were I Nick Hornby's emotionally stunted Rob in High Fidelity [I am], it would have nestled on my top five meals with twenty-four hours to live. "Hey, have a nice day").

That meal was, if anything, too superb. For years I hesitated to return because I recognized that any second visit could not hold up to the memory of the first. Sometimes at highly regarded restaurants I deceive myself that the meal was better than it was, if only desperately to convince myself that I had an EXPERIENCE. But a critic must flagellate himself, and, despite the bill, very few meals snuggle up to perfection.

I will be spending next year in New York City and plan to dine at Trotter's 2006 New York outpost (along with a few soggy New York establishments that wistfully strive for Chicago standards). A return was long-overdue.

It remains true that Charlie Trotter is a culinary genius. Today he is the most profoundly influential chef of his generation. The kitchen at 816 Armitage is a teaching hospital, and we are grateful for his training of a new generation. However, perfection and socialization do not always exist in comfortable harmony.

Chef Trotter has a preternatural sensibility of texture and taste. (He seems less interested in aroma, leaving a space for Grant Achatz's experiments). A tranquil and modest grandeur characterizes Trotter's cuisine. While his plates are often elegantly composed, they are less visually pyrotechnic than is often found. Trotter's greatness is as the broker of the transition between a classical cuisine and a cuisine that is unafraid of marrying foodstuffs from different lineages and with contrasting taste profiles. One can not fairly suggest that he fully belongs to the French nouvelle tradition with its boisterous joy of overturning expectations, but he brings a Japanese emotive sensibility to the gustatory experiments of the nouvelle tradition without ignoring classical limits. It is this profundity which provides a base from which chefs such as Cantu and Bowles can create their boisterous experiments.

As a dining room, 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.

Our plan was that I would order the Grand Menu ($135) and my wife would "take one for the team," ordering the Vegetable Menu ($115). On this late summer evening, the vegetable menu was heaven, while the Grand Menu inspired thoughts about error and taste.

What should it matter if a server forgets the butter? When our rolls arrived, our server forgot the butter. Servers at Trotters are known, properly, for combining efficiency and a cheery cordiality; our servers were not disappointing in this regard, answering my many questions. Yet, there was no butter. When I requested some, it was brought with alacrity. How should such an error count? All would agree that this is a mistake, but one so fleeting and so human that one can hardly pump oneself to take offense. The minor daily flubs we all commit would pale beside the crime of the truant butter. However, at a restaurant that strives for perfection, such a mistake is to be noted, not because even the harshest Captain Queeg can prevent such blunders, but to ignore such things is to dismiss the very standard that the restaurant demands.

We turn to the Amuse Gueule. Amuse Gueule? I trust that some solid rationale exists for an alternative terminology to the more common Amuse Bouche. Enquiring minds note that Rick Tramonto of Tru and interlocutor of Chef Trotter on the politics of foie gras has a well-publicized new book devoted to the Amuse Bouche. But shame on me for suspecting.

The Amuse Gueules started the meals off on different trajectories. The Vegetable Menu began with a delicate squash blossom stuffed with morels, and napped with a silky morel sauce. But morels in August? Surely not from a can? Trotter's takes May morels, preserving them in oil, so the opulence of the oil (presumably olive) adds another herbal dimension to the taste. Alinea's PB&J may be fun, but this is delight.

In sharp contrast was my own amuse. The Irish salmon on seaweed noodles married the soggy with the gummy. The two bites constituted the least appealing (and, in truth, the only unappealing) bites that I have had at Trotter's. If I don't know all of the trade tricks of the chef, I can tell sashimi grade fish. A small course, but big miss.

Both first courses were triumphs with the vegetables tinkling brighter. "Confit of leeks with organic fennel, nicoise olives and Sally Jackson farm sheep milk cheese" was an archetypal Trotter dish. It was not flashy - no sharp edges, no blazing colors - but what a palette of flavors! The fennel added a slightly bitter edge, the olives an acidic pungency, and the cheese a rich savoriness. The leeks, standing up to these challenges, held the center from which these alternative accents radiated. There was a classic purity to this dish that simultaneously seeming so contemporary.

My own opener, "Marinated Bluefin Tuna and Citrus Vinaigrette with Heirloom Tomato Water" (with an Annatto Rice Chip) was, in contrast to the amuse, superbly fresh matchsticks of tuna. While the dish is described as "tomato water" (a surprising turn of phrase), it had the texture of a puree. Citrus and tomato add the acid that cut the buttery richness of a fatty fish like tuna. I was fully satisfied, if still a little jealous.

Susan's favorite food (#1 on foods to consume on a deserted island) is hearts of palm (she would, of course, only settle on an island that could satisfy such needs). As a consequence, I missed my just share of "Roasted Hearts of Palm With Fava Beans & Summer Truffle" (which, if memory serves, also embraced some nubile young asparagi). This was another memorable dish, textured with careful gradients in taste. The slices of summer truffles were a loving touch, although I have never been enamored by God's Viagra. Chef Trotter, consider the army of amoral pigs brutally rooting in the forest duff for a bit of nasty: surely truffles are fungal foie gras.

Two minutes can be an eternity at the stove, and managed to upend my second course, so close to brilliant, "Japanese Hamachi with Indian Pickle, Thai Eggplant & Lemongrass Curry Emulsion." Hiding on the plate was pieces of satsuma orange and, majestically, bitter melon. The combination of tastes, patient and demanding of attention, were perfectly balanced. The unexpected bitter melon, like a hidden character left off the program in a murder mystery, proved that one does not need a chemistry set to knock out diners. And yet at the heart of this otherwise assured dish was a piece of hamachi (yellowtail or racing tuna) that had seen better minutes. Tuna is an unforgiving fish. Perhaps a cook was dreaming of a wayward lover, and my fish got the worse of unrequited love. The hamachi was not a wizened hunk and looked healthy, but died on the tongue. In retrospect, this was a moment for alerting the server, but my discretion was the worst part of valor. Someday I will have this dish in its perfection, and my unrequited love will be requited. Adding piquancy was that on my first visit the high point of the evening was a brilliant and blatantly undercooked duck breast, confronting those who muddle with medium.

Third course on the Vegetable Menu was "Vegetable Cannelloni with Farro, Kohlrabi & Red Wine Emulsion (read: foam)." The "pasta" was comprised of root vegetables - Atkins on Armitage. (Farro is, however, an antique grain). If this was not quite the bright combination of flavors of some other dishes, feeling more "vegetarian" than most, it was a witty and spare response to traditional Italian cuisine. The red wine foam added a complexity that otherwise was lacking.

Dish three on the Grand Menu, "Organic Berkshire Pork with Braised Salsify & Zucchini-Cumin Puree" (with forest mushrooms) was another dish that was a few ticks on the clock from glorious, although far less unfortunate that the lamented hamachi. The flavorings were grand. Pork and cumin are made for each other. Trotter cooked the pork in several forms, but the medallions suffered most. Just a hint of juice would have placed this dish in the collection of Trotter's best.

The final "entree" on the Vegetable Menu, "Taro Root Cake with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Braised Italian Kale & Orange Lentil Puree," was Chef Trotter's most architecturally ambitious creation of the evening. The brown and orange smears of sauce set off the greens, tans, and blacks of the main ingredients. If taro is not the most pungent of foodstuff, kale and lentil provided the energy. Trotter's dishes do not generally aspire to serve as visual works of art, but this dish surpassed the requirements of this approach to haute cuisine.

The Grand Menu climaxed with "Millbrook Venison Loin with Lobster Mushrooms, Savoy Cabbage & Sweetbreads." I came to realize that the chef's culinary palate was pointing towards fall: root vegetables, cabbage, lentils, kohlrabi, and 57 varieties of mushrooms. I have always thought of venison as autumnal and the cabbage and lobster mushrooms were just right with the venison lightened by the perfectly prepared sweetbreads. With the exception of the earlier heirloom tomato water (and the desserts) summer had set. If the venison loin was cooked just barely more than I would have chosen (the ball of veal cheeks was superb), its presentation was well within appropriate culinary standards, and the dish was superior.

Our palette cleansers were a pair of sorbets: Cantaloupe with Yuzu and Watercress (with bits of lardon) on the Grand Menu and Cucumber Sorbet with Cucamelon & Cilantro. Cucamelon, who knew? Cucumber and melon; chocolate and peanut butter? What a world. Neither were quite palate "cleansers;" each was a palate intensifier. No dish is too modest to challenge our assumptions.

The dessert on the Vegetable Menu qualifies as the best dessert that I have eaten (shared, sadly) since the last time at Trotter's when I was presented with a platonic plate of Japanese inspired and flavored petit fours. "Red Haven Peaches with Thyme & Olive Oil Ice Cream" [and, surprise!, apricots too] was dessert to a higher power. Red Haven peaches are a Michigan varietal, but these fruits have a honeyed southern accent. The herbal ice cream cuts the sweetness of the peaches, and creates a dish that avoids a dessert sugar fix.

"Michigan Raspberries with Anise Hyssop & Raw Vanilla Ban Ice Cream" was the curtain call on the Grand Menu. The raspberries, not as large as some varieties, were more flavorful than most, and as with the peaches the touch of anise cut the sweetness. A most excellent close to what had been a brilliantly conceived, if imperfectly executed, menu.

I haven't mentioned the wines. I decided to try the "beverage tasting menu." I was glad of that choice since my intent was to see the kitchen at work, but I would not again. These elegant drinks could not match the complexity of wine. The selections: "Granny Smith Apple, Cucumber and Celery," "Lemongrass, Green tea and Asian Pear," "Pineapple, Orange and Picked Galangal (ginger's cousin)," "Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Juice," "Porcini Mushroom, Dandelion Miso Tea," and "Watermelon & Yuzu" were straight-forward, and each was dominated by a simple taste: celery, green tea, pineapple, porcini, and watermelon. The pineapple and watermelon were particularly refreshing. As juices, who could complain, but they were far from the flinty hills of Burgundy.

This meal reconfirmed my belief that Charlie Trotter's is a rare four-star restaurant, that Charlie Trotter is not only among the greatest chef creators of his generation but the singular animating force who has created Chicago dining as American haute cuisine, and that this is a restaurant that demands routine patronage. However, while the Vegetable Menu was a four star meal, the Grand Menu rates three stars for execution. Perhaps the overcooking is a sign that the restaurant is becoming cautious in attempting to please a more conventional clientele or perhaps it means that I suffered the doleful effects of a cook in love.

Critic's Note

When asked, I informed the server that some of the dishes, particularly the hamachi, were overcooked, and she told me that she would share my wisdom (although she did not describe it so) with the kitchen. This is, of course, something that no critic with a shred of self-esteem should do.

When our meal was complete Chef Trotter stopped me: "I just wanted to let you know that we terminated the cook who prepared your hamachi." Fool me once . . . . Diners have heard stories of this youthful chef's commitment to perfection. He soon added, "that doesn't mean that we fired him, we terminated him" (with extreme prejudice). I was upended. This from a man who might serve Rick Tramonto's bloated liver, but still manages to retains Richie Daley's charm. Bravo.

In the interest of full disclosure, we were also provided a bag of gifts, which although it violated my critic's code, I accepted with a mixture of chagrin and glee. As I shall soon have a website, I have learned that the code of ethics for us bloggers is a four letter word: MORE.

Charlie Trotter's
816 Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614


A dinner at Alinea is to be reminded of how Charlie Trotter has, like Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, transformed American cuisine. The impact of a chef is, like a teacher, not only in his/her creations, but in influence. As little Waters spread over the American landscape preaching the doctrine of the local and the pure, as little Baylesses covered the landscape reminding us that ethnic ingredients can be as haute as any, Trotter's students - whether directly trained by him or not - proclaim that gastronomy is, after all, a branch of philosophy. A chef as Cu.D., doctor of cuisine. Unlike the great French chefs, often working class men trained through harsh apprenticeship, creating amazing robust explosions of flavor, the new American chef is an aspiring intellectual. While we do not (yet) require cooks to receive a Masters of Culinary Arts (a fearsome and faux MFA), can that be far away? Our new chefs wish to amaze us with the idea of dining: robust hunks of meat are out, deconstruction is in.

This trend, if trend it be, is all to the good, until it becomes old. The more ideas of how to cook, serve, and eat, the better is a diners lot. And for a cuisine of amazement - Cuisine Agape - Chicago is Ground Zero. With Homero Cantu's science experiments at Moto, and Graham Bowles subversively straining at the constraints of hotel dining at Avenues, Chicago is what San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York once were. (As on contemporary Broadway, most of the important restaurants are imports from beyond the Hudson). In what is the most widely awaited, significant restaurant opening of the year, Grant Achatz has given us Alinea. Bowles, Cantu, and Achatz were all influenced by Trotter, directly or indirectly, and it shows. Even if some of the impulse derives from Ferran Adria at El Bulli (I haven't eaten there, so cannot speculate), much of the inspiration comes from Lincoln Park. These chefs confront the modern diner's ennui and attempt to shake, rattle, and roll. Dishes, unlike any other, breaking conventions, destroying paradigms are the order of the night.

The place of the chef is evident in the centrality of the pre fixe menu. The control that diners once held over the kitchen in selected those dishes that appealed to them as clients (even asking that chefs, like portrait painters, fix the imagined errors) is transformed so that now the chef is in charge. At Alinea, this is evident from the moment of arrival in which supplicants at the alter of cuisine find no signage (not even a cross of knife and fork) as if to suggest that this restaurant will either sell itself or sell itself out. The entrance to Alinea ("Yellow Truffle" has provide astonishing photos on eGullet) is a remarkable, if somewhat frightening space, in which the scalloped gray passage seems ever narrowing and the ceiling apparently lowering, ending, it seemed, in an impossible walkway: the door can only be seen as one reaches it. The customer is put in his place at the outset.

After inquiring about food allergies, the customer becomes the chef's audience, not the chef's master. At Alinea, one is provided only that flatware that Chef Achatz feels is required. (One of my strongest responses to my first meal at Moto was similarly how Chef Cantu controlled my experience of dining by doling out only those utensils that he wished for me to use). The serving pieces, too, reveal the chef's control over the experience. The crisp prosciutto sandwiches with passion fruit cream is served on a bed of mint - a "plate" in which the micromint is still growing. One imagines a wearhouse of mint in the outer reaches of the Gold Coast. The little pedestals on which Chef Achatz placed his Hearts of Palm in Five Sections, with no forks allowed, meant that, unlike Burger King, he had it his way.

While Alinea began with a twenty-eight course menu, the grand tasting menu, after three weeks, it has been trimmed to a comparatively svelte twenty-five (twenty-four listed and one extra). And in 330 minutes, we never felt full, just filled.

Those chefs who prepare two dozen dishes expect to fail occasionally, and should wish to. Diners are experimental subjects. At each of temples of agape, I have been served dishes that I would not wish to have again (such as a foolish foie gras sucker at Avenues or a nasty oatmeal stout with chocolate at Moto). At Alinea, the Hazelnut Puree with a capsule of savory granola was the memorable failure. Aside from the wit of breaking open a baked capsule (a trick of Cantu as well), seeing curried granola tumble down, one was treated to a somewhat sodden, if exotic, breakfast. I'll stick with Trader Joe's. Yet, these failures revealing the workings of the chef's mind. I also wasn't very fond of the too, too precious deconstructed beef with A-1 on a potato carpet - my wife pronounced it excellent - or the impossible to eat strawberries with lemon verbena and argan (a type of nut). The strawberries, successful as to taste, were inserted in a glass tube that required more suction than I was capable of providing at that time of night.

This, of course, still leaves us with nearly two dozen other dishes. Each had its measure of amazement as we were constantly reminded of the possibilities of food. Food at Alinea depends on four of the senses (sound is left to Moto). Achatz is more attuned to the variations of subtle tastes than either Bowles or Cantu, but very much reminiscent of a dinner at Trotters. Outstanding examples included the seasonal and woodsy frog legs with morels and paprika and a spectacularly indulgent Dungeness crab with parsnip, young coconut, and cashews. Each bite (and, of course, there were only a few of them) promised something different and produced it. The melon with gelled rose water and horseradish was another triumph in which quite unexpected tastes, from different corners of the taste pyramid, combined with an unexpected synergy.

Where Achatz was perhaps most successful was in playing with smell. The single strongest and most memorable dish of the evening was his stunning turbot with geoduck clams, dried water chestnuts in an eggless custard. In its own terms it would have been a spectacular dish of textures and flavors. The bowl in which the turbot was served was placed in a larger bowl filled with hyacinth flowers. The server poured steaming water on the buds and the aroma of spring was gloriously overpowering; we were close to sensory overload. The dish, otherwise first-rate, became transcendent as taste, sight, texture (the water chestnuts), and a distinct and external smell merged into a Platonic experience. Something similar might be said of the finger limes in a eucalyptus tea or the one-bite burnt orange, olive, and avocado, this latter one of the most agressively flavored dishes of the evening. The broccoli stem with grapefruit (!) and caviar was similarly a remarkable combination of sensory experiences as was the bison with beet salad with a "smoking cinnamon" bowl. The smell of the cinnamon transformed the bison to the strongest of Achatz's meat dishes.

No discussion of Achatz's cuisine would be complete with mention of the culinary references of several dishes - this is a referential cuisine. The signature dish (although not in itself the most outstanding) is the opening amuse bouche: PB&J. Achatz (well, his staff) peels a grape, nestles it in peanut butter, surrounds it in a brioche pastry, and places it in a metal holder. The dinner picks up the amuse from the grape stem and in a jiffy mouths it, grinning with astonishment. What is amazing is not so much the taste of the dish, but the way that our humble memories of childhood afternoons have been transformed and made haute. Similarly Achatz's "hanging bacon" takes another humble food of childhood memories (Who eats bacon today?), and creates it anew with butterscotch, apple and thyme, hanging it out to dry. It is another one-bite triumph. Finally there is a homage to Escoffier, the subtly fried artichoke heart, "fonds d'artichauts cussy #3970" (the number refers to Escoffier's recipe). It was a brilliant tribute, made more clever in that it was served in what our waiter described as an "anti-plate" - a ceramic ring on which the spoon which held the artichoke was placed, again reminding us of the chef's control of our experience.

I could continue praising many of the dishes (at least twenty were very successful), but by the end I was slightly troubled. A diner who wants to be smothered with wonder will find much in which to wrap one's memory. And, yet many great meals have a logic to them. When one goes to Charlie Trotters and order his degustation menu, one is not merely served a collection of astonishing dishes, but one is served a meal - a set of dishes with a "culinary logic," a totality. After two dozen dishes, I struggled to make sense of the evening. Perhaps dining, like much rock music, should stop making sense, but I admit some philosophical pretenses. Take evening lying in bed (and after two dozen courses and a dozen glasses of wine how could one sleep?) I hoped to find the chef's hidden theme. Perhaps an Agape Cuisine should suffice by providing Barnum-like miracles, but I wished a meaningful sequencing. I wished for a sense of what Achatz considered his unique philosophy of dining (a sense that one does get, strongly, at Moto). Of course, shorter menus may provide more of what a chef considers his most important work. But the competing strands and loose ends force us to recognize that Achatz is still a chef in process whose control of dishes is stronger than his control of the meal.

Our party ordered the wine tasting menu. The wines were designed to match the dishes, and most did so quite successfully. I particularly enjoyed the opening nutty Madeira (which, oddly, was billed separately from the wine flight, even thought it wasn't ordered separately). In contrast to the brilliant selected wines that Matthew McCammon offers at Moto or that Aaron Elliott chooses at Avenues, at Alinea wines are more modest affairs. There was not a single wine, adequate as all were (we were not served vinegar on this visit!), that I would select for my own cellar.

The service was extraordinarily attentive as one might expect at a restaurant of this caliber. However, there were almost too many people (a dozen?) serving us throughout the evening. I prefer establishing a temporary, if intense, tie with a few men and women who I can come to know, question, josh with, and rely upon, but at Alinea just as each course was different, it appeared as if each dish was served by a different person (not true, but close). Like the meal, the service was both excellent and somewhat disjointed. I must note that our check was improperly figured, which they caught (the original bill had been in our favor, but we were too blissed out to notice and to decide how far our ethical sensibility would stretch). This is something that if common demands correction.

The bill: approximately $400/person - the grand tasting menu, the flight of wines, coffee, tax and tip. Was it worth it? Surely. Would I try the long menu again?: Probably not. Would I return?: Tomorrow. The meal was not flawless and is in progress, but Alinea is a four-star restaurant and unlike such fine Chicago establishments as Everest, Ambria, or Tru, Alinea is a restaurant with a national reputation. Grant Achatz's experiments matter for all Americans who care about how high a chef can fly. We should be astonished when a chef soars towards the heavens, and be moved when the downdrafts send him hurtling to rocky shoals, trusting the wind of imagination will send him still higher.

(Based on dinner, May 21, 2005)