Friday, May 4, 2012
Paris, Paris, Chicago, Chicago, Charlie Trotter's
Lunch at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago
Happily jet-lagged and stunned by the sudden heat—about 30 C, meaning in the 80s Fahrenheit—we made our bumbling way across The Windy City to what our hosts, Chicago Gourmets calls “one of the finest restaurants in the world.”
The occasion: 15 years of gourmet adventures organized by Chicago Gourmets, 25 years (almost) for Charlie Trotter’s (he’s about to unhang the shingle), and the unexpected success of the little book that could: the so-far unstoppable Paris, Paris… Plus Alison’s photo show in Chicago.
What Charlie and company did not know and still do not know, given the torrents of words that were spoken (not by us): 2012 is also our big 25th year (mine and Alison’s). That was our “private” reason for celebrating.
Back to Chicago Gourmets and their intro to the luncheon (a bigger word than mere “lunch”): “For over 24 years, the restaurant [Charlie Trotter’s] has dedicated itself to excellence in the culinary arts. Charlie Trotter's Restaurant is innovative and progressive in the world of food and wine and has been instrumental in establishing new standards for fine dining worldwide. Charlie Trotter’s will continue dinner service until August 2012.”
“Innovative and progressive” means many things to many people. The surrealists thought they were innovative and progressive (and maybe they were, who knows?). The modernists did too. Chef Trotter (as his staff prefer to call him—oui chef!) is, it seems to this humble, long-traveled palate, both a modernist and surrealist (and an eclectic, in the New World tradition, which is an odd concept, isn’t it? “Tradition,” “new” and “eclecticism” all in the same sentence? That reminds me of the celebrated “institutionalized avant-garde” of yore, and some of the descriptions of the food we experienced at the luncheon).
But I am straying from the extremely luxurious premises, and the premise of this post, which is, you would like to know what we ate and drank, whether it or they were good (or more than good), what the service was like, whether Chef Trotter smiled or chaffed at the bit, or bit us, threw us out on our ears, etc…
All of the above and none occurred: it may well be that Chef Trotter did not notice we were there. As guests of honor, this was a unique experience: invisibility! Gladly the cheerful and generous and thoroughly professional Don Newcomb, Jim Price et al (there’s “Al” again!) of Chicago Gourmets coddled and toasted us, not that we deserved it… The staff were exemplary, a cross between an English butler and a French maître d’, with a sprinkling of pure Chicago kindness.
Not known to be a man to shy from crowds Chef Trotter was certainly a presence, and we were delighted to have been allowed into his handsome, comfortable and atmospheric establishment. Unlike the food deliveries, we actually entered the front door, were welcomed, and provided with perfect service throughout a 3-hour extravaganza. It reminded me of the Dionysian fetes of old—meaning our days in France and Italy as correspondent and photographer for the glossy magazines of old. Before Internet gutted the “old paradigm” like a fresh tuna…
Which brings me at long last to the menu: First on the multipartite list was charred skipjack—that’s a kind of tuna—with ponzu & fresh fava beans. (Unlikely, surprising, delicious). Reportedly the slivers of the holy tuna we received were carved off a large fish. Some of the jumbo Chicagoans wondered about this, but their remarks were good natured. This was a fine way to stimulate the appetite, as a Parisian guest might say. Bien, très bien.
The vinous match: Cava "L'Hereu-Reserva" Raventos Blanc 2008. Swarming with micro bubbles, light, a good choice (but you’d expect that, given it was chosen by the World’s Best Sommelier, Larry Stone, who was a constant, garrulous and charming companion to all).
Next up: unagi terrine with grapefruit, red curry & Kaffir Lime. The vinous match: Riesling Kabinett "Zeltinger Sonnenuhr" Selbach-Oster, Mosel 2010. I will admit to being taken aback by the exquisite flavor of this seemingly impossible marriage of ingredients (I loathe grapefruit, by the way), and the wine was exceptional. It was as robust as a Riesling can be, without the cloying qualities of some, and the dangers of many.
Part Three: steamed halibut with green almonds, acorn-fed Iberian ham & lemon balm. The halibut was also reportedly a large specimen, though seen through my lens (I zoomed) it must’ve been distorted by the laws of perspective. However, so scrumptious and unexpected were the combinations of flavor, savor, aroma and texture that the tiniest morsel was enough to satisfy us. (Several such morsels would’ve satisfied us too, editor’s note). The nectar: DeLille Cellars "Charleur Estate" Columbia Valley 2009. I remember liking this, very much, but if I were to describe here my description would be mere invention. Somehow the several centimeters of liquid in my glass evaporated before I could form an opinion.
The meat course: Broken Arrow Ranch antelope with toasted espresso, crumbled oats & boudin noir. As all of you know, boudin noir is a black blood sausage, made from pig’s blood. As we jokingly said at the time, the antelope bounded off our plates (one diner observed that gazelles bound, antelopes lope but whether that’s true or not I can’t say). The Rioja "El Puntido" Vinedos de Paganos 2006 was, I can confidently say, a perfect match to the toasted espresso and boudin noir, a true antelope or gazelle of a Spanish red.
Dessert was bipartite: Granny Smith Apple & Greek Yogurt with Pistachio & Tarragon Toffee-Glazed Banana Financier with Candied Hazelnuts, Date Jam & Frothed Pineapple followed by Criollo Cake with Parsnip, Red Wine & Candied Vanilla. This time I’ve left in the Capitals as per the menu.
Again, utterly unexpected, the size of commemorative postage stamps and remarkably successful in a modernist-surrealist vein, both desserts were to die for (though I had no desire to unhang the shingle in that moment).
To accompany these delicacies, whose titles alone make the head swim: Samos "Anthemis" 1999, a sweet Greek wine about which our fearless sommelier told us much… By then this reporter-guest-of-honor was blissfully wandering in a surrealist landscape dotted with modernist constructions, which recalled the surreal, modernist, bizarre cityscape of the Windy City, a great city peopled by startlingly friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic people, most of whom are 7 feet tall. But that’s for another post. Merci Chef Trotter et al, thank you Chicago Gourmets! For more photos: visit my Facebook page and check out the Charlie Trotter album