Midway into the third course of my vegetarian tasting menu ($135) at Charlie Trotter’s eponymous restaurant, I had a sinking feeling. I was in the midst of catching up with a colleague from Toronto – a publisher of a local food magazine – who had struck out trying to get reservations at Alinea and Next on this particular visit.
“Why don’t you join me at Trotter’s?” he had asked a week or two earlier. “I’ve never been.”
Normally, I would have hesitated, and probably recommended a visit to The Publican or Schwa. But The Tribune’s Phil Vettel had just bestowed another four stars on Trotter, and I figured, well, why not?
Which is why, a solid hour-and-a-half into our dinner there last week, I began to feel regret.
As I nibbled on my terrine of heirloom tomatoes the size of a postage stamp, my friend was polishing off his North Atlantic squid with couscous and bok choy from the Grand Menu ($165); we both looked up from our plates almost simultaneously, and gave each other the same look.
“How is it?” he asked, sheepishly.
“Fine, I guess,” I replied, still thinking about my first course of miso soup. I was hoping he was enjoying his meal more than I was.
“Yeah, it’s just not as spectacular as I thought it was going to be,” he offered. “Everything seems muted, restrained,” an obvious reference to his first course, which featured big eye tuna and apples.
And on it went. Through just five savory courses and three desserts (I opted to pass on my final course – a milk chocolate semifreddo with candied hazelnuts that I’ve had a thousand times) we experienced a series of lackluster, been-there-before, 1990s-inspired plates that never delivered the imagination of an Alinea, the textural complexities of a Schwa or frankly, the sheer deliciousness and depth of flavor you’d find at Avec or Topolobampo.
Much has been made in the press of Trotter’s influence on Chicago’s food scene – clearly, the man was ahead of his time when he set up shop 25 years ago on Armitage Avenue, and he’s spawned a succession of talented chefs that have contributed mightily to Chicago’s burgeoning food scene: Grant Achatz, Curtis Duffy, Michael Carlson, Bill Kim and Giuseppe Tentori represent a “Murderer’s Row” of all-star talent. But last year, the restaurant received only two Michelin stars, while the highly-coveted three stars went to L.20 and Alinea. Perhaps just as stinging, the restaurant hasn’t placed in San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best” list the past two years, after a few years of ranking in the upper echelon (full disclosure: I’m the Academy Chair who oversees the 31 judges for the Canada and the Mid-USA region, of which Trotter’s would fall under). All the more reason, I thought, to see for myself what Vettel had so enthusiastically experienced in recent weeks. My anticipation heightened, after spotting a glimpse of the man himself holding court in the kitchen, as we made our way to the upstairs dining room.
“One of our great curses,” Trotter told Vettel, “is that we’ve been around so long we get taken for granted. And I respect that; people want something new, they like to see things evolve. But our story is still extremely vibrant and valid.”
I was particularly curious about Trotter’s reputation for never duplicating a menu item twice. Vettel referred to this in his review, saying the kitchen “begins each day with the market’s bounty and a blank sheet of paper. What eventually becomes that evening’s menu will only vaguely resemble the previous night’s offerings, and tomorrow’s menu will change yet again.”
He goes on to describe a “squash blossom beignet next to strips of grilled zucchini, pea puree and Australian black truffle” that sounded – and looked – awfully similar to my second course, as the menu indicated “Squash Blossom Beignet with Zucchini, Black Truffle & Carmellini Beans.” My problem wasn’t so much the fact the menus were similar, it was simply an issue of, “is this food delicious, and do I want to eat more of it?” It’s a standard I find myself asking more frequently these days as I decide where to spend my (and other people’s) money.
One would have thought, especially after coming off a recent four-star review, that the kitchen would be almost giddy, sending out a little amuse bouche to get the meal off to an exciting start, or perhaps offer a little bubbly to wake up the palate, like they do at Guy Savoy in Paris and Las Vegas. But excitement is not a part of the experience at Trotter’s. There is no soundtrack, only the din of Asian businessmen chuckling over their trophy wines and couples on a “special occasion” night out; the young pair next to us included a woman taking pictures of each of her courses with a giant 35 mm camera, while the gentleman gamely opened his birthday gift.
Rarely do I make a point about portion sizes, and in a multi-course tasting, I would expect, and welcome, smaller bites. But considering our menus offered just five savories, the Lilliputian dishes seemed more appropriate for my 14 year-old, rather than for an adult. My friend’s final savory course – a 72-hour braised short rib done sous vide, with a smear of tamarind and some bits of pickled kohlrabi – was barely large enough for two bites; same for my heirloom tomato course.
But more disappointing – and surprising, given the chef’s penchant for ingredient combinations from nearly 100 purveyors – was the utter lack of complexity. Words like “muted,” “restrained,” “safe” and “monotextural” kept creeping into our discussion at the table, as I picked apart a pretty, albeit boring “lasagna” of caramelized cauliflower and beets, or nabbed a piece of my companion’s Berkshire pork tenderloin with Oregon matsutake mushrooms. Earthy? Yes. Creative? No question. But sadly, one-note.
In his review, Vettel referred to Trotter’s reputation for service, noting the chef “has said he values his service awards more than his chef awards, and he demands near-clairvoyance of his front-room staff.” Our server was pleasant and more than competent when it came to recommending wine and describing the food. We passed on the $100 pairing, and decided on a $45 bottle of grüner veltliner; my friend also ordered a glass of pinot to go with his final two courses ($22). When I asked if the black truffle on my second course was courtesy of Frank Brunacci, the former Chef of Sixteen at the Trump Hotel who is now importing Perigord black truffles from Western Australia, her eyes lit up in recognition and surprise that I knew their provenance. And yet she was unfortunately remiss in one of the most elemental aspects of service: not once during our meal were we asked how anything was.
At first, I figured it was an oversight, but then I decided to wait and see if anyone here actually cared what we thought of the food. Rather than offer up my unsolicited opinion, I held my tongue, almost more as a social experiment. Had we been asked, I would have repeated our earlier concerns about the meal’s lack of complexity, both from a textural standpoint as well as a lack of depth. I would have also informed them that diners, even at this level, no longer enjoy paying for water, and it might be more responsible (and economical) to invest in a filtration system like Perennial Virant or Province does, which offers the same water for free. Since our only options at the outset were “still” or “sparkling,” and Mr. Trotter quite possibly still maintains his relationship with Fiji, the practice of servers hurriedly refilling our glasses resulted in a $16 charge at the end of the meal.
Vettel ended his review with a line about how “some things never change, even though they may evolve.” What I find annoying about Trotter’s in 2011 is that not only has nothing changed, but evolving doesn’t even seem to be on the agenda. The sleepy townhouse, the knowing swagger (“I trust dinner was a success?” the man behind the bar quipped on my way out the door; I assured him it was not) even those lifeless strawberries flown in from San Francisco for a dessert course seemed as dated as the foam – excuse me, espuma – on top of the cucumber sorbet. It’s like that big, oversized framed menu from 1995 I saw in the upstairs men’s room from Norman’s in Coral Gables: a time capsule that preserves the spirit of a decade long since past. Times have changed, and if I’m going to spend $500 (or ask someone else to spend that kind of money), I’d like to be coddled, surprised, and yes, even treated to something I can’t get or haven’t seen before. Shouldn’t dining at the highest levels be fun?
As we stepped outside into a fine mist of rain, not fully satisfied and yet not willing to turn in just yet, I convinced my friend to try one more place with me. I knew it would offer conviviality, a fair portion and a relaxed atmosphere where every dish would offer the promise of complexity, a depth of flavor and most of all, deliciousness. By 11:45 p.m. on that rainy Tuesday night, we were already digging into those heavenly bacon-wrapped medjool dates and taleggio focaccia at Avec.