At the head of the table
Jim Gaby looked as pleased as a canary-catching cat at Charlie Trotter's last December. The software designer from Washington, D.C., had brought 12 bottles of great wines from the 1989 vintage to accompany a dinner that was scheduled to include 30 courses.
"I sat down at six this evening," Gaby said. "I expect to finish around two in the morning." He listened intently as one of Trotter's chefs presented and described a small but elaborate morsel of food. "I estimate I've had about 300 dishes here this year. Charlie has never served me the same thing twice."
Gaby's devotion to the restaurant is impressive, but hardly unique. Wine collectors, traveling chefs and food lovers from around the world all come here to experience the archetypal contemporary meal. They know that anyone who wants to understand American cuisine as it enters the 21st century must eat at Charlie Trotter's.
Trotter, 40, never formally studied cooking; he found his passion while working in a restaurant during a break from college. After training with Bradley Ogden and Norman Van Aken, he opened his eponymous restaurant in 1987. And, except for a brief detour to Las Vegas in 1994, he has remained faithful to his hometown kitchen, working with tremendous drive and discipline to create a restaurant that never compromises in its quest for perfect self-expression.
Trotter's cuisine is a distinctive, imaginative blend of French techniques, American inventiveness and international ingredients. Its signature is the marriage of delicacy and intensity and an ability to blend boldly contrasting flavors in each harmonious dish. Sometimes the food seems more provocative than satisfying. But as the progression of flavors, colors and textures builds through many courses on the "grand degustation" menu (Trotter no longer offers dishes la carte), the dining experience fills all the senses and leaves no hunger unsatisfied.
As befits the $110 price tag, dinner generally includes luxury ingredients such as truffles and foie gras. But at heart, Trotter is an ascetic, admiring purity more than decadence. He rarely uses dairy products as enriching agents, preferring the clean flavors of infused oils, vegetable juices and stock reductions. He insists on organic products wherever possible; he loves vegetables; he lives and dies by the quality of his ingredients.
Few chefs can juxtapose them in such striking and successful ways. Beets and truffles carved into roses are set in black truffle jelly; the intensely sweet and earthy flavors amplify each other. Squab breast with foie gras and black truffles could be classically French -- except for the startling yet satisfying sausage made of lobster and pig's feet. A cardamom-infused date preserve adds haunting Moroccan notes to the hearty flavors of venison and hedgehog mushrooms.
As one surprising, artful plate after another arrives at the table, it's easy to bow your head and lose yourself in the flavors. But sit back for a moment, and it becomes clear how unified the entire dining experience actually is. The dining rooms are small, but artful design and gentle lighting compose a mood of uncluttered elegance. Every detail, from variegated china to Riedel stemware, supports the drive towards culinary perfection. Servers are technically impeccable, yet remain congenial and unpretentious.
The extraordinary wine list will match any flavor Trotter can devise. The restaurant won a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1993 with a cellar that roamed the whole world, putting special emphasis on Burgundy, the Rhne and the hot new wineries of California. Trotter has continued to build the list, which now offers more than 1,500 selections. Currently, Robert Houde is the able sommelier.
The restaurant isn't perfect yet. The small bar can get uncomfortably crowded with people waiting for tables. The beautifully crafted desserts sometimes lack panache. But these small flaws only put the chef's larger achievement into perspective: No restaurant in America comes closer to delivering a flawless total dining experience.
And Charlie's not done yet. This year he plans to build on to the wine cellars (only recently expanded) and the kitchen -- without adding a single table. With that kind of dedication backing his talent, Charlie Trotter will continue to lead the way for dining in America.
Address 816 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago 60614
Telephone (773) 248-6228
Fax (773) 248-6088
Web site www.charlietrotters.com
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover
Wine Spectator Award Grand Award since 1993