Note November 5, 2013: I wrote this in 2007 before I started my blog, but remembered it after Charlie Trotter’s death so am giving it a home here now. It’s a little embarrassing to look back now at what must have been my first foray into what you would call “food writing” — I was so earnest in my descriptions. And fine dining was an all new world to me (look! cloth hand towels in the restroom!). It’s also funny to realize how much more I can eat and drink now that I eat professionally :)
I was thrilled to land reservations at Charlie Trotters in Chicago for a dinner to celebrate 10 years since the day I met my husband, Brian. We wanted to really splash out and eat somewhere spectacular. Wine Spectator named Charlie Trotters ‘The Best Restaurant in the World for Wine & Food’ (1998) and ‘ America ‘s Best Restaurant’ (2000). It is one of only 14 restaurants in the US and Canada rated five stars by Mobil — equivalent to three Michelin stars in Europe. I’ve dreamed of eating at a place like this for a long time, so it fit the bill for a spectacular night out.
Our reservation was 9:30 so we went for a drink first at Tru, another top Chicago restaurant – I thought while we were dressed up we should make the most of it. I had a glass of 2001 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut Sonoma County-Green Valley.
When it was time to grab a cab to Charlie Trotters we asked one of the staff about getting a taxi. When he returned with our bill he said a car was ready whenever we were. We stepped into the entryway, a dramatic room draped all in black velvet, where the hostess gave us macarons “for in the morning” and told us Tru’s Towncar was waiting to take us wherever we’d like. Brian and I looked stealthily at each other and tried not to show our surprise. We were definitely in another world tonight.
We arrived at Charlie Trotters about 15 minutes early and joined the dozen or so people waiting in the small bar/entryway. People were quiet but there was an undercurrent of excitement – or maybe that was just me. I decided to peruse the wine list – it would have taken all night to do it justice, as they have approximately 25,000 bottles of wine on offer. They ranged from a $9.00 glass to bottles costing thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. I decided to forego a second pre-dinner drink and the bartender read my mind and suggested water. “A little pre-game hydration,” she said, smiling, as she poured a bottled Fiji into a wine glass.
Several other couples were seated and the bartender returned with champagne flutes. “We appreciate your patience,” she said and poured us each a glass of Iron Horse “Vrais Amis” Sonoma Country Green Valley Brut 1997 champagne. She noticed a spot on Brian’s glass and whisked it away to return with champagne in a clean glass.
I was giddy with anticipation of the dining experience ahead but tried maintain a cool and sophisticated air as I sipped my champagne. I observed the other diners waiting, wondering which of them were used to this life, and which of them, like me, dreamed all night the night before about what the experience would be like (in my dream, Charlie Trotter invited Brian to cook!). Then the hostess arrived and invited us to our table. We walked through the first dining room, from which we could see directly into the kitchen – a stainless steel dream where the white-clad chefs went about the business of serious cuisine. We climbed the stairs and entered another dining salon that contained maybe 15 tables, with an island in the middle bearing wine and water.
We were seated at a white linen-draped table for two and our server, a smiling young woman, presented us with our menus. I was charmed to see they were personalized with “Happy 10th Anniversary Brian and Dana ~ July 22, 2006.” There were two options – the Grand Menu and the Vegetable Menu. I was naturally intrigued by the vegetable menu which was:
Spring Onions with Ramps, White Asparagus, Summer Truffle & La Quercia Prosciutto
Fried Globe Artichokes with Pine Nut Butter, Water Mint & White Anchovy Vinaigrette
Oregon Porcini Mushrooms with Elephant Garlic, Russian Fingerling Potatoes & Black Mission Fig Sauce
Stinging Nettles Risotto with Bluefoot Mushrooms, Baby Turnips & Sage Infused Red Wine Essence
Lychee Sorbet with Cucumber & Basil
Organic Michigan Raspberries with Ricotta & Fennel
Our server also presented us with the wine accompaniment list which contained a selection of wines to complement the numerous courses. It included a champagne, two whites, two reds and two dessert wines. Brian and I had decided that rather than try to choose a bottle that would go with the many flavors in the dinner we would do the wine accompaniment.
I asked the server about the prosciutto on the vegetable menu, explaining that I don’t eat most meat. “That’s perfectly fine,” she responded immediately. She questioned me thoroughly to see what I do and do not eat (fish/crustaceans ok, milk/dairy/eggs ok, red meat, pork, poultry, game not ok). She explained that many items on the menu were prepared with meat stock but because the dinner is prepared “a’la minute” that any or all of it could be modified to fit my needs and tastes. I was happy to learn this because I indeed wanted exactly what was on offer, so I ordered the vegetable menu made especially with no meat stock. She had suggested a seafood menu to me which Brian immediately decided to have. With our orders placed, a wine steward appeared with our first drink – a flute of Hebrart “Premier Cru” Brut NV. The bread appeared shortly after – warm and smelling divine – as well as a small bowl of soft and slightly warmed butter. I was hesitant to eat much bread for I knew I had eight courses ahead of me but couldn’t resist a bite of the crusty hot goodness bathed in the creamy butter.
Our first course, the “amuse geuele,” arrived within a few minutes. The server (one of many at our table throughout the evening) presented first mine, (“for the lady”) and then Brian’s (“for the gentleman”). He quietly explained the dish, noting the sauces which I unfortunately cannot remember. My large white plate contained an artistic arrangement of fava beans and pickled radish. I had plate envy for Brian’s Maine Yellowfin tuna – not quite sushi, but not really cooked either. He very generously (I have an awesome husband) traded me a bite of the beautiful red sliver of tuna for a fava bean. Yes, I know Charlie Trotter’s opinion of the supremacy of vegetables, but that tuna was exquisite.
The service with that course set the pace for the evening. Quiet and unobtrusive – impeccably polite and respectful, but not stiff. They presented each dish and each wine with reverence. Each visit to the restroom (where thick white cotton hand towels were provided for hand-drying) was concluded with staff waiting to pull out my chair to seat me, and a clean new napkin at my place setting.
My next course was Spring Onions with Ramps, White Asparagus and Summer Truffle (that’s what the menu said anyway – I didn’t detect the distinctive taste or aroma of truffle). There was also a soft, mild white cheese and of course a light sauce. I began to worry about making sound effects as I ate – it was so lovely. It was painstakingly presented in a horizontal line across my large white plate (the large white plates seemed to be the theme of my china that night).
For this course Brian had Japanese Hamachi with Roasted Bell Pepper, Kalamata Olive Sorbet, Spanish Paprika & Basil Oil.
My third course was Fried Globe Artichokes with Pine Nut Butter, Water Mint & White Anchovy Vinaigrette. This was resting atop a little bite of honeycomb, my server earnestly informed me. This dish was my favorite of the night. The black pepper in the perfectly fried crispy artichoke mingled with the melting honeycomb in perfect harmony, causing me to close my eyes the better to savor it. My favorite wine of the night accompanied this course — a Domaine Bott-Geyl “Beblenheim” Pinot Gris, Alsace 2002. Brian had Hawaiian Escolar with Chives, Dungeness Crab & American Sturgeon Roe.
I was no longer afraid I’d leave hungry – an impression I’d gotten fro some reviews I’d read online. I limited my bread consumption (there were three breads of different varieties through the meal) to a nibble or two between courses.
My fourth course was disappointing. It was Oregon Porcini Mushrooms with Elephant Garlic, Russian Fingerling Potatoes & Black Mission Fig Sauce. The potatoes were creamy perfection, but with less than a tablespoon, they didn’t satisfy. The rest of the dish contained mushrooms. It was my own fault for not telling the server that I can’t eat very many bites of mushroom (I have some sort of odd mushroom intolerance in that more than two or three bites will make me ill) because I thought there would only be slivers when I saw it on the menu. However, in contrast to the potatoes, there were generous portions of mushrooms, which I gave to Brian in exchange for a nibble of his current seafood offering. I’m afraid I don’t know what his was because his meal departed from the Grand Menu for the next few courses so I don’t have a cheat sheet.
My next course contained a surprise – in addition to the Stinging Nettles Risotto with Bluefoot Mushrooms, Baby Turnips & Sage Infused Red Wine Essence, my plate contained a bit of fish. Unfortunately in the medley of foods and flavors we experienced, I don’t remember what it was. The risotto was a rich green, and was the largest portion size I’d seen all night. I can’t understand how they got such perfect tiny turnips – far smaller than my pinkie!
We moved on to pre-dessert of sorts with a sweet and savory Lychee Sorbet with Cucumber & Basil for me and a Frozen Cantaloupe with Preserved Melon Rind & (unfortunately) Lavender Cured Pork Belly for Brian. He wasn’t going to say anything, but in a restaurant with standards like this I thought they should be permitted to make it right. The “bacon” as I naively called it was not present when they returned with a fresh plate. My sorbet was extraordinarily good and the sauce was bliss. I must confess to literally turning my bowl sideways in order to scrape out the vestiges.
Real dessert came next, at the same time as the Mignardises (a selection of tasty little candies and chocolate morsels). My gorgeous dessert was Organic Michigan Raspberries with Ricotta & Fennel – an almost unbearably delicious combination. Brian had Poached Rhubarb with Jasmine Semifreddo & Celery. Although terribly sad to do so, I had to leave food remaining. I had reached the point that I would be in misery if I ate one more bite. So although one more creamy and slighty crystallized caramel and a good deal of ultra rich chocolate remained, I was forced to lie down my heavy elegant silverware and call it a night. I couldn’t drink the bonus serving of port the generous wine steward brought either, as I was feeling the effects of two pre-dinner champagnes and seven “tasting portions” of wine. I was also yawning prodigiously – though I didn’t have on a watch I knew we’d been there two or three hours and I still wanted to tour the kitchen.
We were amused by the nice couple at the table next to us. They had refrained from eating the crispy-fried veal brain during their meal, and were now stunned at the bill. Though there were no prices on the menu, I had Googled the restaurant and knew full well to expect it to cost about what it would to drive my husband’s Ford Excursion to Las Vegas. My eating-out budget is now nil for the next six months, so I could sympathize.
Was it worth it? Throughout the evening the Gnarles Barkley song “Crazy” kept running through my mind . “I think you’re crazy.” I can’t justify the cost. The food was exquisite, but I had expected the taste to be elevated far beyond anything I’d ever tasted. This was bad news and good news. I was disappointed that it didn’t completely blow me away. However in recognizing that I have had food that tasted as good or better at (relatively speaking) more humble establishments throughout Europe, I know now that one needn’t be a multi-millionaire to enjoy incredible-tasting food. It *was* crazy, I will never be able to justify the cost, but I will never forget the magic of dining there. Along with my husband I’ve been sort of a foodie and fascinated by excellence in food for some time, so it was a momentous event to me to share a meal here with my husband.
After dinner we were given a tour of the kitchen where they were scrubbing what already looked like an immaculate work area. It was remarkable to think of the quantity and quality of food prepared in this fairly small area. It was my turn to feel reverent as this is where astonishingly talented and skilled artists make magic every night. I didn’t want to leave – I wasn’t ready for the experience to be over, but I couldn’t find a reason to linger. We stepped out into the late Chicago night and returned to our normal life.