Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day Two

On Day Two of Dining Out Week, we went to the wonderful, incomparable Charlie Trotter's.  Charlie Trotter's is located at 816 West Armitage and its website is

As I mentioned before, Charlie Trotter's holds a special place in my heart since it was the first place that I ever experienced a multi-course tasting menu.  I went there for my 22nd birthday, but, due to a long period of unforeseen joblessness and wanting to try other places, I haven't been back since.  However, once again, Chef Trotter blazes a new path in my life.  I am pleased and honored to write about Charlie Trotter's as my first post about a multi-course tasting menu.  As at Vie, I used my phone to take picutres as not to interrupt the other customers, so I apologize for the picture quality.  Just note that everything had extremely vibrant colors and you will be on the right path.

After getting distracted while driving to Charlie Trotter's, I got a little lost on the mean streets of Lincoln Park.  Apparently Armitage switches directions at some point, which made locating it a bit difficult.  After almost getting T-boned by a bus, we made it to the restaurant unscathed.  We walked into the beautiful townhouse on Armitage and began preparing for what was assuredly going to be an amazing meal.

I had checked the menu online earlier in the day, so I had prepared myself for that progression.  However, apparently, at some point, they had completely changed the menu.  Though I knew it was going to be good no matter what, I needed to get my bearings straight again with this new menu.  As per usual, we opted for the Grand Menu with the accompanying wine pairings.

Without messing around with too much of an intro (since this will probably be a long post), I'll just dive right in.  Our waiter/sommelier, Ryan, brought us the first course which was served in a bento box presentation.  I liked Ryan right away even though he was wearing a bow tie, so I decided to regale him with tons of crazy stories.  This ended up paying off for us in the end, which I will get to later.  In the box at the top of the picture was a fluke sashimi with an orange and onion marmalade (no, Pipes, not Swordfish Meatloaf), on the right of the picture was a Firefly Squid with Sisho, and to the left was an Effingham Oyster with watermelon granite and smoked fish roe.  Of these three elements, I thought the fluke was the best.  Raw fish with a simple fruit based sauce is always a nice way to start off these meals since it is nice and light and would probably get lost if it was served later in the meal.  My second favorite was the oyster.  It was ever so creamy and briney and the watermelon granite and roe added a sweet and smoky taste, respectively.  Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, was the firefly squid.  I think if I had been prepared for the taste, I would have liked them more (not that I didn't like them), but they did that thing where it pops when you bite into it, which was more than a little disconcerting.  All said, this was a solid first course even if I wasn't totally sold on the squid.  It was served, of course, with a champagne.  Not just any champagne though, it was a Chartogne-Taileet "Sainte-Anne" Brut.  While it says "Brut," it certainly was not as dry as most brut champagnes that I have had.  I love starting meals with champagne, even if it is not quite the quality of champagne that we had here.  This one paired particularly well with the oyster element since 1) oysters and champagne is a classic combination and 2) the sweetness of the champagne went nearly perfectly with the roe and watermelon.  I asked Ryan if there was a better way to pour champagne whereby it didn't foam up so much, he told me that the foam depended on the temperature and glass, but in essence, there was no way to stop it from foaming way up.

The next course was a grilled blue prawn with Manila clams, lemon, and salsify.  While the prawn was grilled to absolute perfection and the manila clam was good, I didn't particularly like the sauce that went with it.  Michelle, on the other hand, really liked this dish, even commenting at one point, "I really like this even though it has eyes!"  I concur.  This was served with a 2002 Riesling "Cuvee Fredrick Emile" Trimabach.  I expected, as I always do with rieslings, for it to be extremely sweet.  However, this riesling had very little sweetness to it, to the point that, if I hadn't seen the bottle, I would have sworn he poured us a chardonnay.  In any event, I'm glad it was not so cloyingly sweet because that wouldn't have gone well with the course.  As it stood, the gentle sweetness was amazing with the grilled prawn (which apparently had fallen over on the plate).  Ryan, you have done it again.  Good work!

The grilled prawn was followed up by a Diver Sea Scallop with Preserved Shallots, Fingerling Potatoes, and Parsley foam.  I have wanted to try a Charlie Trotter scallop ever since I read his chapter on scallops in the first cookbook I ever purchased.  This definitely didn't disappoint.  The scallop was huge, nearly the size of a small beef filet.  It had the best crust on a scallop that I have ever seen.  The scallop was so sweet and perfectly salty.  I love scallops to begin with and this only raised my idea of what a scallop could be.  This was served with a Godello, which is a grape from northern Spain.  I had never heard of it before even though I was in northern Spain last summer.  I also found out that Mugaritz, the restaurant I ate at in Spain, had burned down.  I think this is where I really hooked Ryan on talking to us.  I also told Ryan about Cuvee Cellars, and he seemed interested.  He even gave me his direct e-mail, so I'll have to send him some more information about it.  He also is going to teach a wine class, which I hope to attend.  Anyway, the Godello, I think, was served too cold to begin with and I didn't know what to think.  When it warmed up a bit, it ws probably my favorite white wine of the night.  It had some interesting tropical notes and was just a little bit sweet.  This was my favorite of the seafood courses.

On to the meat courses!  The course that I was most excited about at the outset was the Honey Glazed Duck with Spring Garlic, Lavender, and Thyme.  That dish was now upon us, and it ended up being undoubtedly the most complex course of the evening.  I expected it to be more of a whole piece of duck breast, but it ended up being sliced into thin strips, but that is really no big deal and probably made me not wolf it down so quickly.  Anyway, it was served in a bowl with something like a honey stock and also glazed with honey.  the garlic was whipped into a thyme cream, and the lavender was made into jellies.  It all went together so perfectly even though the ingredients are quite disparate sounding.  Again, I wish I could cook duck as good as some of these restaurants do it, but in any event, I'll thoroughly enjoy such perfectly cooked duck.  It was served with a Nemea from Greece from vines that Homer (not Simpson) wrote about, so they are pretty old.  It had an oddly strong alcohol smell too it, but either it dissapated with time or it somehow melted back into the wine because it was incredibly smooth with almost no alcohol taste to it.  If it were super-alcohol-y, it would have been terrible with the duck, but the smoothness ended up making it light enough to go with the duck.  Also, I've never had a Grecian wine before.  Ryan informed me that many Grecian wines are absolutely terrible, so you need to be pretty careful to find a good one.  This was a good one.
At some point around now, Michelle put on an acting performance for the ages.  She was rubbing her shoulders, shivering, she tried building a small fire using the candle, and she huddled around it for warmth.  The attentive staff noticed her not-so-subtle clues and brought her out a pashmina (pretty much a shawl).  I was pretty sure that Michelle was going to try to sneak off with it.

Anyway, the next course was the course that Michelle was most looking forward to, Salt-Crusted Veal Loin with Toasted Brioche, Burnt Oak, Creme Fraiche, and Veal Sweetbreads.  The veal, like the duck, was cut into thin slices.  I'm not really sure where the burnt oak was, but the creme fraiche was gelled into a cake-like thing and topped with brioche.  Again, the veal was nicely salted and savory.  Creme fraiche is generally pretty sour, but whatever they did to it (baking or gelling) took away much of the sharpness and transformed it into something almost savory.  The veal was served with a 2008 Jaffurs "Thompson Vineyard" Petite Syrah from Santa Barbara.  I was a bit concerned because syrahs are generally pretty wound up in general, and the fact that this was a 2008 made me figure that this would be even more tannic.  In 2009 went to a Pax Syrah tasting, and the 2004s were still so tannic that they were nearly undrinkable, so I figured this would be like that.  However, apparently this one did not start with such strong tannins, so it was beautifully smooth to go along with the delicate veal.  It had a bit of smokiness as many syrahs do that went nicely with the grilled meat.  This was probably my favorite wine of the night.
I thought we were moving on to the desserts now since that is what the menu instructed, but instead, Ryan brought out another meat course.  I asked him if this one was on the menu (knowing it wasn't) and Ryan told me "the Chef likes your style."  Well, that certainly is a feather in my cap.  You know what, Chef Trotter, I like your style too.  Maybe we can hang out some time....  Sorry, and back from fantasy land. 

The surprise meat course was a Cypress Wood Roasted Bison Tenderloin with Boudin Noir sauce and Huckleberries and Miatake Mushrooms.  The plate in itself was absolutely stunning with streaks of the sauce across the plate, swirled around the meat.  The meat itself was cooked on a skewer with petrified cypress wood (which burns at something like 2000 degrees).  The wood made it taste like it was cooked around a campfire, which was awesome.  The sauce was creamy and delicious, and the huckleberries added some explosions of tartness to round it out.  Had this surprise course not come out, the duck would have been my favorite, but as it stood, the bison took the top spot for the evening.  It was served with a 1999 Rioja "Reserva II" Roda made from Tempranillo.  This wine was awesome too, though I still think I enjoyed the syrah more.  Since it was 11 years old now, it was awesomely smooth and fruity.  It had a little pepper flavor that many Spanish wines have.  Overall, I loved this dish and its accompanying wine.  The picture makes it look like its a little bit of a mess, but I assure you that it made sense in person.
Ok, finally, we were on dessert...or so we thought.  Ryan came up and asked us if he could interest us in some cheese (another perk of talking to him).  I said that I would eat pretty much anything, but as a cheese hater, Michelle said she would only eat cheddar.  I thought he was going to laugh and bring her a bag of shredded Kraft cheese, but he retreated to the kitchen assuring us that he would come up with something.  Minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with a plate and a bowl in hand.  The bowl was full of a 15 year aged Cabot Cheddar from Vermont for Michelle and on the plate was an unpasturized cow's milk cheese served with Goji berry.  Her cheddar was amazing.  Apparently when cheddar ages it loses its color and gets more sharp and forms crystals on the inside.  Hers was extremely sharp and nutty and a bit salty.  If everyone had cheddar that good, we would never think about eating shredded Kraft cheese.  Mine was similarly delightful.  The cheese was more creamy than sharp, in contrast to Michelle's.  The goji berry sauce was kind of meaty and strange, but good.  I'll definitely have to keep my eye open for these to see what I can do with it (Ryan told me Whole Foods has it sometimes).  Michelle's was served with an apple-pear brandy, but it was way too strong for her to drink.  Of course, I ended up drinking it because I don't care.  I ended up getting a lightly botrytised Chenin Blanc which was positively delicious and tasted almost riesling-like in its sweetness.

Ok, so seriously, now it's time for dessert.  For my first dessert, they brought me a Grapefruit Sorbet with Compressed Celery and Creamed Olive Oil.  This ended up being mostly a palate cleanser for the actual desserts.  I love grapefruit, so this was right up my alley.  I don't really know where the compressed celery was, but overall it was tasty for a palate cleanser.  Michelle ended up with a lemon sorbet with a black sesame sauce, which was also nice.

For the next course, I got a Warm Date Pudding with Yogurt and Pecans.  This, simply, may have been the best dessert I've ever had.  The date pudding was almost more like shredded dates than a pudding, but they were flavored with something, and it was amazing.  The yogurt added a hint of tartness to cut through the sweet, caramel-y dates.  It was simple but pretty much perfect.  Michelle on the other hand got some sort of honey cream dessert with a tuile and clementine oranges.  She said it tasted too licorice-y even though it didn't have any licorice in it.  Being so nice, I traded her since I still thought hers was pretty good and she, of course, really enjoyed mine.  These were served with a 2000 Felsina "Borardenga" Vin Santo Chianti.  I don't particularly recall this wine which leads me to believe it wasn't terribly special. 

Our final course was a dessert version utilizing Indian flavors.  I had a gingersnap ice cream with a chocolate coffee sauce and a coffee tuile.  I was a little skeptical about the flavors of India in dessert form, but the ginger, coffee, and chocolate all went together in an oddly satisfying way.  Michelle had a Milk Chocolate-Praline Semifreddo with Pistachios and Mint.  The milk chocolate was almost like a mousse and pistachios are always delicious.  Hers was definitely better even though I really enjoyed mine.  Both were served with a Bodegas Dios Bacos "Cream" Sherry Jerez.  Michelle hates sherry, so like all things she doesn't like, I ended up drinking it.  This was probably the best sherry I have had.  It was nutty as is classic of sherry, but it wasn't terribly alcohol-y like some sherries can tend to be.  It was also a bit sweeter than some of the dry sherries that I have had.  I thought it went better with the Indian dessert than the chocolate one.  Yet another perk of talking to Ryan so much was that he brought the pastry chef, Chris Gomez, out to talk to us about the desserts.  He was a pretty cool guy, even though he was kind of coy about how to make the date pudding.  Apparently we can get it at Trotters To Go, so perhaps I will pick some up and try to reverse engineer it out.

So, that was the end of our dinner, but certainly not the end of our adventure for I had requested a tour of their wine cellar.  I was simply stunned by their cellar, and I would have slept in it if they let me.  I got to touch a bottle of 1870 Lafite-Rothschild that cost $35,000.  I promised Ryan that one day I would return to buy it, he seemed pleased.  I also saw that they had Scarecrow wine, which I am semi-obsessed with and my have ordered if I had known it as there.  I'll have to look into it next time! 

Once again, Charlie Trotter, you are a trailblazer in my culinary life, so I'm glad to have you on-board as undoubtedly the longest post I've put up on here.

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