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


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