On an innocuous street with mixed commercial and private residences, lies a restauraunt which various lists and opinions count as among the world's fifty best restaurants. Such lists are ultimately fairly arbitrary of course, but Charlie Trotter has built a name for himself, through his long-lived eponymous restaurants, through books, and through his culinary offspring who have ensured Chicago's place as one of the most interesting cities for food in America. Easily swayed by the right kind of propaganda, I made a reservation for my father and myself for the second of our two day expedition to the Windy City.
The restaurant is structured from a converted house, a high-ceilinged entryway with a modern feel giving way to a handful of smaller dining rooms on both the first and second floor. The tables weren't crowded, but close enough that it was easy enough to eavesdrop - or engage the next nearest table in conversation. We began upstairs, but the music from the atrium was too loud, so we were moved to a less airy space, but one where the music was all but inaudible. As our initial waiter said, they were happy to accomodate all needs, preferences, and allergies. Unless, of course, one wanted to order à la carte; this restaurant only served tasting menus.
Within the limitations of the daily tasting menus, the restaurant was very flexible. There were two different menus, a vegetable one, and one themed around meats. I replaced one meat with a tempting soup, but otherwise followed the meat menu. In retrospect, I think I might have interpolated a little bit more. In addition to the option of a coordinated flight of wines to accompany the meal, there was the option of a non-alcoholic beverage menu, a concept which surprised and delighted me. It included drinks such as a tomato basil juice, cucumber mint smoothie, and pinot noir juice. If I ever go back, I'd be quite tempted to try it. There was also an extensive wine list.
After we both choice the meat-themed tasting menu (with one substitution on my part), and the flight of wines (with all white substitutions for me), we settled into a truly wonderful meal. The bread, the first edible to arrive, was excellent, a ciabatta roll, and a whole wheat multigrain roll with pepita, farro, and black amaranth. (My memory isn't that good: our waiter diligently wrote down all my wines for me, gave us copies of the menu, and noted down the bread details when we asked as well.) Water was poured freely from plastic bottles, one of the few slightly odd notes to the presentation.
We began with one of my favorite dishes of the evening, an amuse gueule of raw tuna with lemongrass purée, accompanied by bubbly. I loved the smooth tenderness of the fish with the gentle tartness of the sparkling wine. Mine was a glass of delicate-tasting DuVal-Leroy Brut Champagne 1996, while my father had the default accompaniament of a red sparkling wine, Ruinart Brut Rose NV. We were both a little worried about balance of alcohol consumption when our flutes were filled full with drink, but every other course was served with a more feasible quantity of wine, easily drunk.
My father, for whom this was the first tasting menu experience, pronounced the terrine of guinea fowl with spring onion relish and kumquat vinaigrette to be the highest plate-to-food ratio he'd encountered. The plates were rather large, but decoratively rectangular, the plating of the food effective to keep the square of terrine from being lost in its expanse. The terrine was pleasant, mild, the relish tasty, but the kumquat vinaigrette was positively odd, tasting distinctly of liver. Still, it worked effectively with the J.J. Prum Spätlese (Graacher Himmelreich 2002) wine, the tart of the dish complemented by the soft sweetness of the wine. (The menu tells me that my father probably drank a Dr. Loosen "Uriger Wurzgarten" Riesling Spatlese, Mosel 2002; had the waiter not promised to take notes on our behalf, I might have recorded if we did indeed drink different Spatlesen.)
Next came my other favorite dish of the evening, my one replacement from the vegetable menu, carmelized Maui onion soup with pickled spring garlic and a Parmesan cheese crisp with a delicious little onion flan poised in the middle of the abstractly flamboyant bowl, served with a Josmeyer "Le Fromenteau" Pinto Gris (Alsace 1997). The wine must have worked well, since I have no memories to the contrary, but the joy of the soup has entirely eclipsed drink details in this case. (I think I called the soup a "hug in a bowl" in one enthusiastic moment) Meanwhile, my father had steamed Maine halibut with a suckling pig sauce, with horseradish and English peas, with Condrieu M. Chapoutier Viognier. He reported that the suckling pig sauce entirely overwhelmed the taste of the halibut, but it was still a good dish. Also, the viognier was far better than the other other instance of that grape I've drunk before, but nothing I'd go out of my way to drink on its own.
My father especially loved the roasted squab breast with maitake mushrooms and Anson Mills white corn grits, served with a budan blood sausage sauce and a bit of speck. I thought the tenderly-cooked squab good, but the mushrooms sublime. All the parts and pieces of the dish came together nicely. Drinkwise, I was on a Terra de Cruces "Terre Firme" Albarino (Rias Baixas, Spain, 2003), while my father drank Vision Cellars "Garys' Vineyard" Pinot Noir (Monterey 2002).
When the next main course arrived, I was starting to get full; my father was too, enough to make sure that this was going to be the last main dish before eating it. It was, and perhaps I shouldn't have eaten the last few bites, but it was good, and the extra didn't seem to harm me. Slowly cooked Crawford lamb loin with porcini mushrooms and red-pepper and black cardamon purée, as well as a Chinese eggplant purée, was crowned with a translucent wave of crisply fried-or-baked Chinese eggplant. A tasty, complex, interesting dish which held its own against the tastiest wine I drank all evening, Ramey "Hudson Vineyard" Chardonnay (Carneros, 2002), a wine with intriguingly complex floral notes. I'd go out of my way to hunt down a bottle of this to try again someday. On the red wine side of the table was Bodegas y Vinedos Maurodos "San Roman" (Toro 2001).
We took comfort in the refreshment of a sorbet course, rhubarb sorbet with sweet fennel and chervil and gooseberries. The rhubarb was understated, the gooseberries bright and fresh. The sweet fennel and chervil were part of the sorbet's flavor set, leading me to incorrectly guess what herbs were infused with the taste and finely-chopped pieces of rhubarb which comprised the ice.
Up until this part of the meal, the dishes arrived smoothly and elegantly, the service informed, discreet, prompt, and extremely well-informed. But dessert... We'd been told at the beginning of the meal that "We like to mix it up a bit when it comes to dessert." And they did. The menu promised one dessert, and we were brought four different ones to sample between the two of us. And at the same time we were brought our final two wines, our tea/coffee, and our mignardises. The table was full, we were rather inelegantly attempting to share the dishes, and any sequence or coordination of drinks with dessert was rendered uncertain, with three drinks each and six dishes on the table.
The desserts: - three cubes of soft creaminess with New Zealand passion fruit sauce and a truly wonderful buffalo milk sorbet
- a softy, creamy panna cotta with Bing cherry compote - my father's favorite dessert
- a delicious soft Jamaican bitter chocolate cake with white pepper ice cream (If I remember correctly)
- candied kumquat "baba" with satsuma, sauternes, and extra virgin olive oil ice cream (all around the least memorable dessert)
The mignardises: Such niftiness! There were three kinds of macarons, and two kinds of delicately thin tuile each. There was an intriguing chocolate-rosemary tuile and an almond one. The macarons were cherry, lemon, and a more herbal one (I'm blanking on the flavor just now.) The mignardises were all delicate, cute, precise, and ever-so-tasty, a definite highlight in a generally fabulous meal.
The final wines: We both had a very nice glass of Tokaji-Aszu "5 Puttonyos" Oremus 1999, possibly my first botrytized wine. I've been wanting to try a Tokay of some sort ever since reading The Golden Compass. Mmmm. My last was S.A. "Le Haut-Lieu" Vouvray (1997). I would have appreciated it more had it been served under more tranquil and organized circumstances. My father finished with a port, Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port 2001.
Lastly, among the maze of finishes, my father's espresso was quite good, my mint tea fresh and smooth, but otherwise not overly distinctive.
I felt rushed by the final flurry of food, for all the accompanying adeptness of service. And to some extent, that may have been intentional. For all the quality of the venue, they do try for two sittings a night, and I was warned when I made the reservation that we wouldn't have the table for more than three hours. My father, having forgotten this, wasn't nearly as thrown by all the desserts arriving at once; instead, he thought it would have been far more elegant of them to give each of us four smaller dessert portions, rather than have the two of us dealing with the awkwardness of sharing plates - especially when there was so much ice cream busy melting while we tried other dishes.
Service was excellent, accomodating, and well-informed, Because the rooms weren't overly large, and the restaurant quite well-staffed, it was easy to find attention at a moment's notice. Plates came and went, and would have done so almost entirely unnoticed if our waiter hadn't told us what our newest dish was - and we really did want to know. After all, much of the fun of a tasting menu is in exploring and discussing foods.
Overall, my quibbles were generally minor ones - plastic water bottles, the occasional less-memorable dish. Only the dessert throng really threw me out of my food-induced reverie and distracted me from an otherwise pleasant and well-organized experience. And the food really was excellent, particular the work with herbs, incorporated in unexpected and entirely effective ways throughout the meal. The wines were beautifully coordinated, every one of them. The tuna with lemongrass, onion soup, and buffalo milk ice cream in particular involved flavors and textures which will stay with me for a long time to come.