“On our worst day,” Chef Charlie Trotter has been wont to say, “we’re still in the top three restaurants in America.” Well, while I certainly appreciate his confidence, I’m afraid I’m going to have to gainsay that declaration, as I enjoyed dinners in four Chicago restaurants over three days, and Trotter’s wasn’t able to crack the top three in a considerably smaller set of competitors.
Starting my Chicago restaurant blitz with Charlie Trotter’s proved to be a prudent decision. It had been nearly three-and-a-half months since my last dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant, so my threshold for being impressed would be unusually low.
As an undergrad in the Bay Area, I worked for several Trotter alumni. And even though most of their stories centered on what a draconian boss Trotter could be, it was also clear that working in his restaurant profoundly affected them in terms of their respect for ingredients as well as in their belief that the customer or diner isn’t always right (before David Chang made it chic).
This was in 2010, and even then they expressed skepticism that the restaurant could last much longer due to financial strain. In the spring of that year, as I was mulling graduate programs, I considered making the trip out for the admit weekend at the University of Chicago as a roundabout way to dine at his eponymous restaurant but eventually suppressed the impulse.
Fast forward two years. Trotter had announced he’d be closing his flagship to go to graduate school in philosophy, and I would be traveling to Chicago for a conference, so in February I decided to book a reservation for what would be my first and only meal at the restaurant. My expectations weren’t high; indeed, they were probably epsilon away from zero.
Upon completing the near four-hour meal, I found that the food was generally quite good (save for a bland rabbit dish and forgettable desserts), at times even excellent, but it was the discommodious front of house, which discussion boards and yelp reviewers seem to extol, that left a lot to be desired.*
After being promptly seated in the dining room closest to the entrance, a captain named Julio came by, presented the menu and said, “The only choice you have this evening is whether to go with the menu on the left or the right [referring to either the grand menu or the vegetable menu],” and I would have to hear this routine recited verbatim a half-dozen more times before the evening was over.
But in my email and phone exchanges with the restaurant I had made it clear–and was told that it had been noted in my reservation–that I was interested in doing the kitchen table menu in the dining room. Notwithstanding Julio’s failure to take a look at my reservation before approaching my table, once I brought it to his attention he quickly consulted with Chef Trotter and confirmed that that was in fact what would be prepared.
That was merely the first of many front of house peccadilloes–on multiple occasions my empty water glass went unfilled for upwards of 15 minutes, stentorian servers seemed unable to learn the art of discreteness, tables were marked with silverware seconds after a course had arrived–though Julio wouldn’t be the culprit as he was largely AWOL after introductory niceties, and I would be seeing a lot more of Roberto, a runner, as well as a cavalcade of other staff.
As for the aforementioned bright spots regarding the food, much like Spago it was the early part of the meal that outshone later courses. The amuse, for example, presented in a large wooden box contained a ridiculously good melange of cuttlefish, slightly warmed uni with uni ice cream, clam with English pea purée, compressed eggplant with fava beans, crawfish with lotus root and togarashi, and a Kusshi oyster with a ginger granita. One after another, the punchy flavors jolted my palate, awakening it from its months-long hibernation.
And there were other resplendent compositions: a soft shell crab garlanded with grapefruit purée, potato strings and more togarashi; a nearly raw scallop atop sultana raisin purée and an amalgam of roasted nuts **; and one of the tastiest vegetable courses in memory composed of intenerated cardoon with a bacon-celeriac purée, an amaranth crisp, red wine-braised celery and crunchy black quinoa.
But more than a few dishes disappointed: watery stinging nettle-mint soup with a cippolini onion risotto that simply lacked the richness with which it is generally prepared; a rabbit loin inching dangerously close to going cold that was marked by an unpleasantly elastic texture, further encumbered by a muted ramp purée and woefully underseasoned–if seasoned at all–Burgundy snails; and just about all of the exotic and expensive meats, except for the goat shoulder, were overwhelmed by their accoutrements, thereby masking the proteins’ flavors.
Am I glad that I went? Yes, and I imagine avid gurgitators might pay the restaurant a visit in its remaining months to put a proverbial feather in the cap. But I think the more important question is, would I go back? And to that I would have to say, no, probably not.
* Honestly, Chef Trotter was actually the most charming part of service, with his sotto voce vivisections of academics each time he peregrinated past my table, especially as the number of political science-based confabs begin pullulating through the dining room over the course of the evening. And his wry humor only became more endearing during the kitchen tour.
** I’ve seen plenty of chefs strolling through the dining room fishing for compliments, but in this case on his way back to the kitchen, Chef Trotter noticed my plate languishing and approached the table and engaged me in conversation for a minute before clearing my plate.