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adrober

Charlie Trotter's

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PREFACE

My name is Adam and I am an aspiring gourmet, limited in my pursuit by factors that include: a. budget; b. food knoweldge; and c. friends with limited pallettes.

No matter. Challenges are opportunities for us to shine: just ask Mary Lou Retton.

My trip to Chicago was a last-minute gesture, planned to celebrate my friend Alex's birthday. She moved to Chicago from Atlanta (where I live and go to school) to pursue a career in improv comedy. For many, this may seem a simple pipe dream, but Alex is already in The Second City conservatory group. She's 10 steps away from being the next John Belushi. Except, of course, skinnier, healthier, and prettier.

I had first heard about Charlie Trotter's on, of all places, The Food Network. My least favorite show, Food Finds (which is so bad they actually show it on Delta flights) had a segment featuring Charlie himself. Mark Silverstein (the host) (do you think he's Jewish?) told the camera that Charlie is known for his short temper and perfectionism. They showed a clip of Charlie looking angry and preparing a very sparse looking plate. If my life were a novel this be the foreshadowing.

The second source of my Charlie Trotter awareness (on the path to Charlie Trotter nirvana) was the cookbook section of Borders. His books were big, expensive, and incredibly impracticle. What stuck in my mind were the blurbs: (taking liberties, here): "Charlie Trotter is the most amazing chef in America. His restaurant scored 10 on the Michelin emissions test and 14 stars on the Mobil gas guide. One of the best restaurants in the world!"

Clearly, this was someone to reckon with. And since I was going to Chicago, I said to myself: "Self, why don't you call and try to make a reservation?"

So I found the number online and did just that. Well, it wasn't quite that easy. The snooty British woman seemed dubious at first and then put my name on a waiting list (this was a Monday). When she hadn't called by Thursday, I called back to check on my status. She put me on hold. She came back and said she had a table for two and that they would need my credit card number because if we cancelled they would charge us $200. This was serious business! I paused for a moment, reflecting on my life goals, dreams for the future, and whether or not my children (when I had them) would want to go to college. "Sir?" the woman snapped. "Yes, yes," I said and gave her my number.

[it should probably be stated here that despite my budget factor (see limiting factor a), this summer I saved some money working for a law firm in LA. And while my savings might impress a destitute wino or a bankrupt Ted Turner, they are by no means extensive. With that said, we now resume our previously scheduled review.]

PART ONE: THE ARRIVAL

Alex is of the socially conscious variety. For example, she insisted throughout my stay on taking this strange transporation device known as "The L." What is this L? I demanded. "It's the best public transportation in any city," she replied. I tended to disagree since my first experience on it involved a wild-eyed psychotic declaring that he was "learning to control his urge to kill." Alex rolled her eyes and we took a cab to Charlie Trotter's.

The outside entrance was surprising in that it looked like the outside entrance of any other generic city restaurant. A smiling outside host eyed us and said "Welcome!" pointing the way upstairs and probably thinking to himself "Who are these kids? Are they kidding?"

Once inside, I felt a sense of panic. Looking around, at the distinguished gray-haired couples on the couch, at a pair of diplomats (with strange headress) at the bar and the suspicious-looking host heading our way I thought to myself: "Oh shit. We're in over our head."

"Good evening," he said, his eyes asking: "Who the hell are you?"

"The name's *," I said, "we have a reservation."

"Oh yes, Mr. *," he said, pronouncing my asterick perfectly. "May I take the lady's coat or sweater or whatever that is?"

We all laughed as he took Alex's coat/sweater/whatever it was.

He showed us to the bar and presented us with a wine list. "You're both over 21, right?" he asked.

"Yes," we laughed. (I'm 24, she's 22).

Little did we know, this was the beginning of an aggressive campaign at Charlie Trotter's known as: THE SELL WINE CAMPAIGN.

When he came back we said we were fine for now and he seemed disappointed. This was a clever tactic--guilting the guests!--so I ordered us two bellinis. "Very good sir!" he said.

The bellinis were brought out (peach flavored), Alex and I clinked glasses, and the evening began.

Here's Alex with her bellini:

Image-06FB6DD80DB511D8.jpg-thumb_269_202.jpg

Before we had the chance to finish drinking them, though, the host announced our table was ready and we followed a woman carrying our bellinis on a tray up a very steep staircase.

PART TWO: THE TABLE, THE WAITER

We were seated at a table in between two couples who were eating silently from large plates with food so sparse I figured they were being punished for not ordering wine.

The atmosphere, in my mind, was tense. It felt almost like a police state. At one point, a waiter knocked over a bottle of wine and Alex and I--perhaps justifiably--feared for his life. His look of masked terror seemed to anticipate an elaborate punishment ceremony, like the orgy scene in "Eyes Wide Shut," with Charlie whacking him over the head with the spilled bottle.

"Good evening!" our waiter said, appearing out of nowhere. "Welcome to Charlie Trotter's. Have you dined with us before?"

His manner was kind but forced, like someone wound up a metal dial on his back before he tottered out to our table.

"We offer two menus: a grand menu and a vegetable menu."

He elaborated further and then, not surprisingly, asked: "Would you like to see our wine list?"

"No thanks," I said, "we're fine with our bellinis and water for now."

"Very good, sir," he said, a hint of contempt in his voice.

He tottered away and Alex and I read our choices. When he came back, we informed him that Alex would be having the Vegetable Menu and that I would be having the Grand Menu.

"Excellent," he said, taking our menus away.

A fork scraped across a dish somewhere and Alex and I eyed each other nervously, worrying over the meal to come.

PART THREE: THE MEAL

Since Alex kept her menu and I kept mine, I can only go into detail over what I ate. The sad truth is that nothing on this menu really sparkles in my brain as a wonderful taste memory. It's all very vague. In fact, I remember the pasta tasting menu at Babbo (my last great meal, several months ago) more vividly than this meal I ate last week. In any case, here's the breakdown:

AMUSE GUEULE

Don't really remember what that was.

BUTTERMILK POACHED POUSSIN BREAST WITH GOLDEN & STRIPED BEETS & TERRINE OF CONFIT LEG & SCALLIONS

Hmmm. I think this was moussy and fishy and relatively good. Definitely not memorable, though.

NEWFOUNDLAND OCEAN TROUT WITH PRESSED PORK BELLY, BRAISED LEEKS & ELEPHANT GARLIC EMULSION

I remember really enjoying the pork belly. The trout was good, but nothing stellar. It even teetered on the ordinary.

EUROPEAN TURBOT WITH RED CABBAGE, FALL CHESTNUTS, OXTAIL & CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS

The mushrooms were delicious. The turbot blends with the trout in my brain.

SOUTH DAKOTA BISON TENDERLOIN WITH SALSIFY, ROASTED PORCINI MUSHROOMS, MINNESOTA WILD RICE & SAGE INFUSED VEAL REDUCTION

Image-06FB88E70DB511D8.jpg-thumb_269_202.jpg

Here was my "main entree." As you can see by the picture, there wasn't a whole lot there and we were still hungry! But the meat was incredibly tender and good. This was the best dish by far.

HAWAIIAN PINEAPPLE & PRESERVED GINGER SORBET WITH MANNI OLIVE OIL & THYME

Good. A nice, interesting combination of flavors.

BOSC PEAR CRISP WITH SPICED WALNUTS, BIRCH ICE CREAM & ROSEMARY EMULSION

This would have been good, but the server (not ours) who placed this down gave mine to Alex and hers to me. So I was stuck with a curry ice cream profitterole which, actually, was enjoyable. And, to CT's credit, they also served us a flourless chocolate cake and a coconut custard.

MIGNARDISES

If these were the little tiny things on the plate, they were brilliant. A lot of fun to eat and a good end to the meal.

PART FOUR: A LITTLE MORE ON THE WAITER

Alex would yell at me if I didn't elaborate more on the waiter. There are two notable stories:

1. THE BATHROOM

Alex had to go to the bathroom and she asked the waiter where it was.

"If the lady would follow me," he said.

He directed her to the first bathroom and said: "This bathroom is occupied. If the lady would follow me to the next bathroom, we may try that one."

He tugged at the door and opened it.

"Ah. This bathroom is available. If the lady desires, there are fresh towels for drying your hands when you are through. Please place them in the hamper."

I'm sure I'm getting the details wrong, but Alex loved to imitate him on the cab ride back.

2. AME

After several attempts to sell us wine, the waiter had the gaul to come over a third time and say: "I am aware that neither of you desire wine this evening, but may I interest you in a glass of Ame? Ame is a refreshing herb-infused fruit beverage that comes in white, red, or rose?" Once again caving, I relented and ordered myself a glass. Alex said: "I'm fine with water."

PART FIVE: THE BILL AND ADAM'S ANGRY RANT

When the bill came, I was expecting it to be somewhere in the ballpark of $250. This, mind you, was infuriating anyway because of the lacklustre meal we'd experienced. It was fine, yes, nothing was unpleasant, but it was not in anyway sublime or earth-shattering or, even, lip-smacking good. There was not one dish that I craved any more of, or any dish that years from now I would harken back to with longing. (I still harken back to the pumpkin lune at Babbo).

The bill was $350. All that Ame added up, I suppose.

I felt a deep sense of shame as I read those numbers. This, to me, was embarassing. I wanted to show Alex--who was somewhat wary of the world of fine dining--that some meals were so otherworldly as to justify a great expense. Instead, what she got was a parody of fine dining. It was reminiscent of L.A. story--those little tiny carrots on those big white plates. And here, with the mud red carpet, the hoighty-toighty clientelle, the cartoonishly mechanical waiter was a confirmation of all that she suspected: in the us-them world of fine dining, she was still an us and this was the world of "them." I gave "them" my credit card and sighed.

PART SIX: CONCLUSION

It would be unfair to say that the evening was, in any way, a disaster. Upon leaving, a really kind host (different from the one before) took us on a tour of the kitchen and additional facilities. It was a nice touch and made us feel like we had experienced a cultural event: like we had dined somewhere important (which, I suppose, we had).

On our way out, I had him snap a picture of us on the steps outside:

Image-06FBAA1D0DB511D8.jpg-thumb_269_202.jpg

He called us a cab and held the door open as we got in. Before he closed it, he gave me a look. I reached into my wallet and pulled out $3.

"Thank you sir," he said, "goodnight."

An appropos ending to a long, twisted evening.

THE END

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Thanks adrober, and welcome to egullet. I'd always wondered about Charlie Trotter's so I enjoyed your review. So there were only two menu options for the evening? Man, I am so small town. I'm so used to going to restaurants with so many choices ("you want to supersize that whopper value meal?") $350 is a lot of money. From what I understand you could almost get the TDF menu at Trio for that much.

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As a former Chicagoan I had had the pleasure to dine at Trotter's dozens of times over the years - including many times before it became the icon it has become. Never in all those times have I ever seen any hint of condescension to anyone from the staff. They are always consummate professionals.

I am always amazed with the comment about not being full after eating at Trotter's. If you want to be stuffed there are plenty of other choices. Charlie wants people to experience the food - something hard to do if you are overstuffed. Every time I have eaten there I have had far more than my hunger satiated.

I am reminded of a 'foodie' friend of mine who loved Trotter's. Anxious to find a reason to use his expense account to support his Trotter's habit he invited a client to dinner there. This client was a contractor who had never been to a fine dining restaurant in his life. His client hated the restaurant. The problem was not Trotter's, but my friend's error in fitting the restaurant to the person. There was nothing in his clients life to prepare him for such a dining experience.

Your reference to Babbo (a restaurant that I have enjoyed in the past) is telling. The energetic whirl of people, noise and strongly flavored food is the opposite of a Trotter's experience. The environment of restaurants like Babbo is designed to give you the hard sell you before you even taste the food, while the environment of Trotter's is designed to focus all of your attention on the wine and food in front of you without distraction.

Like grand old wine, restaurants like Trotter's are not to everyone's taste. Nuance, balance and elegance are often acquired tastes in a culinary world that pushes power and hype over substance and creativity.

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My "meal" at Trotter's To Go was also less than stellar. Five Mobil Stars and there's not even a table to sit down at? Give me a break. I understand having diners serve themselves saves money, but it really detracts from the idea of a romantic evening. The wine selection was small, and the food was nothing more than upscale comfort food. On a positive note, I think they miscalculated my bill because I paid only a fraction of what adrober did. Thank heavens!

Much peace,

Ian Lowe

ballast/regime

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Well I think I enjoyed reading your account of the meal more than you actually enjoyed the meal itself. Although I take Craig's well made point, I do think that for $350 you have every right to expect to be blown away by a dining experience and disappointed if you are not. "Nuance, balance and elegance" should be givens at this level, as should flavours that will haunt you to your grave.

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Well I think I enjoyed reading your account of the meal more than you actually enjoyed the meal itself. Although I take Craig's well made point, I do think that for $350 you have every right to expect to be blown away by a dining experience and disappointed if you are not. "Nuance, balance and elegance" should be givens at this level, as should flavours that will haunt you to your grave.

I could not agree more Andy - except your mind and your palate have to be ready and open to finding those haunting flavors.

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your mind and your palate have to be ready and open to finding those haunting flavors.

I like to think of my self as an enthusiastic and open-minded diner, but sometimes the food at what are generaly to be considered to be the best places just doesn't register with me in the way I would like and expect it to. And that makes me wonder sometimes if my palate is not as highly refined as it ought to be.

But it also makes me wonder if the food I am eating has not been seasoned correctly, or is not of the finest possible quality, or if the dish is simply mis-concieved or has been poorly executed, all of which are sadly plausible explanation in even the very best restaurants in my experience.

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Also agreed. However this account sounds more like an emotional response to the environment than the food itself. If you are uncomfortable in a certain type of environment it is hard to enjoy things.

As far as the price goes: nothing could be simpler than anticipating your costs at Trotter's - 3 choices fixed pricing. The only variable was the wine which in this case they did not order.

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I was going to check the prices on the website, but they are no longer listed!

I was in my mid-twenties when I first started eating out "seriously". My wife and I were usually the youngest in the room by some margin, a fact that I quite enjoyed. It made me feel as though I had discovered something my peers had not, which at the time was partly true. I did intially feel a little uncomfortable on first entering seriously expensive restaurants, but a glass of wine or beer at the bar soon did the trick and I quickly relaxed into the experience. But I can empathise with adrober's "in over our heads" comment.

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My first trip to Charlie Trotter's was when I was less than your age. My situation was similar in respect to the fact I was a budding gourmet and approached the meal with quizzical anticipation. I choose the route of putting my self in the hands of the capable staff. I explained to the barman that this was my first time at CT's and I had come to Chicago mainly to visit the restaurant. I asked for suggestions, advice, and descriptions throughout the meal. I felt that the staff really enjoyed the opportunity to showcase why Charlie Trotter's is such a great restaurant. We enjoyed champagne at the bar, excellent wine pairings (I had discussed my approx wine budget with the sommelier), some extra courses, and a really eye-opening experience overall. What was really nice was that some of the extra courses and paired wines were on the house (a very generous gesture for a couple of young out-of-towners) What you may describe as tense, I considered calm - what you may have considered forced or snooty, I considered the quiet dignity that all good servers possess. Maybe you just weren't ready for CT’s; restaurants of this caliber are in a class by themselves. Just my 2 cents

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I believe they add a 20% service charge at the end, which is why it was 350. You would have had to leave a tip anyway.

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Wow, I hardly expected so many replies in such a short period of time.

Here are my thoughts:

I am very willing to concede that the problem was not necessarily Trotter's, but my own inexperience and lack of a "nuanced" pallette. I simply think it was a matter of choosing the wrong restaurant for the wrong time in my life. Kind of like reading "Ulysses" before you've read, say, "To Kill A Mockingbird."

I also apologize for suggesting that the service was cold or snooty. The best word I can think of to describe it is "alien." They just seemed slightly Martian, which isn't always a bad thing. I prefer, though, waiters with a sense of humor who are shrewd enough to understand their audience: our waiter would be perfect for, say, Eleanor Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover. But with two nervous looking kids who needed guidance, he could have been slightly sharper.

I suppose I anticipated that the bill might break the $300 mark even though Alex's meal was $100 and mine was $125. The shock probably had more to do with frustration than genuine surprise.

Thanks,

Adrober

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Once we almost enjoyed a dinner at Charlie Trotter's. What we ate was delicious, but into the second or third course, we both became ill. My friend Richard Pawlak said, "oh no, you got the trots at Charlie Trotter's?!" They were very kind and as Adam described it, when I needed the bathroom [to be sick], the waiter offered, "If the lady would follow me." They did not charge us, and next time we're in Chicago, we will go back.

I, too, enjoyed reading your account of the dining experience, Adam. Thanks!

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Wow, I hardly expected so many replies in such a short period of time.

Here are my thoughts:

I am very willing to concede that the problem was not necessarily Trotter's, but my own inexperience and lack of a "nuanced" pallette.  I simply think it was a matter of choosing the wrong restaurant for the wrong time in my life.  Kind of like reading "Ulysses" before you've read, say, "To Kill A Mockingbird." 

I also apologize for suggesting that the service was cold or snooty.  The best word I can think of to describe it is "alien."  They just seemed slightly Martian, which isn't always a bad thing.  I prefer, though, waiters with a sense of humor who are shrewd enough to understand their audience: our waiter would be perfect for, say, Eleanor Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover.  But with two nervous looking kids who needed guidance, he could have been slightly sharper.

I suppose I anticipated that the bill might break the $300 mark even though Alex's meal was $100 and mine was $125.  The shock probably had more to do with frustration than genuine surprise.

Thanks,

Adrober

Charlie has a 'hot property' and you can always be sure to get many comments.

You should know that the comments on this thread are more generally philosophical and certainly not meant as a critique of your post.

We thank you for such a detailed post and for starting such a interesting thread.

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I suppose I anticipated that the bill might break the $300 mark even though Alex's meal was $100 and mine was $125.  The shock probably had more to do with frustration than genuine surprise.

$125 for bellinis, water, Ame, coffee (?) and service. I'd be shocked.

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Having been both a waiter at what was probably one of the best restaurants in the country at the time, and certainly one of the most expensive (DC's Le Pavillon), and been a younger diner at some very swank spots, I'd suggest that a lot of the angst adrober experienced is just the result of bad chemistry, springing from inexperience on his part and a common, if not praiseworthy, distrust of younger diners on behalf of the waiter.

Young couple comes in, and is immediately intimidated. They're unfamiliar with the customs, food and atmosphere of the place, worried about money, and already feeling pressured to buy a wine.

Waiters smell "rookie" like dogs smell fear. They're thinking nickle-and-dime spenders, irritating questions, and low tip. In an ideal world, none of this would matter, and I'm certain that most waiters do their best to get over this first impression. Nonetheless, they can't, unless some kind of bond is established that overcomes both the young couple's fear facters and the waiter's first impression.

Unfortunately, this is hard to accomplish when both parties feel awkward with one another. It's like dancing, when neither partner knows how to lead. Unless your favorite song comes on an breaks the initial awkwardness, you just kind of cling to one another until, thank goodness, the dance is finally over.

I remember lunch once at the old Bouley, where my wife and I broke the ice by refusing to give up the wine list after selecting a wonderful Chablis because "we haven't picked the red wine yet." Surrounded by models and brokers lunching on salad and mineral water, we suddenly became the big spenders of the day -- that waiter became or best friend fast -- extra desserts, extra wine, the full monty.

More practically, though, GordonCook's strategy for overcoming angst in an upscale place -- admitting your inexperience and asking for their guidance - almost always works. Waiters in a fine restaurant are constantly ordered about and condescended to by people who know much, much less about food and wine than they do. Like everyone else, they enjoy getting respect for their knowledge and giving advice based on it. And, like almost everyone else, they will go out of their way to be kind to strangers.

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I suppose I anticipated that the bill might break the $300 mark even though Alex's meal was $100 and mine was $125.  The shock probably had more to do with frustration than genuine surprise.

$125 for bellinis, water, Ame, coffee (?) and service. I'd be shocked.

A tasting menu, drinks, tip for less than 150.00 a head ? for a premier restaurant ? You're joking, right ?

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Ok, I just figured out what I would expect to pay in the UK at the equivilent level and I came out with a figure of almost exactly $350.00 based on an 18% tip as per the website. It soon adds up doesn't it?

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I rather enjoyed your post and had a strange kind of sympathy for you as it was clear to me from the original post that you were out of your element. I think your followup should clear the air in regard to the Craig 'n' Andy debate. I think it was a question of the wrong diner in the right restaurant at the wrong time in his life, or the right diner in the wrong restaurant or whatever.

I hope something was learned here just from the experience and I hope our members can add to the lesson, although no doubt, it will never become a lesson worth the price. Learning the hard way is no fun. Suffering criticism when you need sympathy is no fun, but you're likely to get more of the first than the latter. For starters it's "palate" as in the roof of your mouth or sense of taste. I'm determined your next post on food will sound more educated whether you become a connoisseur of the food I love or go on to a career of putting down haute cuisine like many reporters in America.

Granted, my initial urge is to assume everyone has the same experience I had at CT but it's possible that had I had your meal, my opinion of the restaurant would be different than it was from my meal there. I'm from NY and was just visiting relatives elsewhere in Illinois. By the way, I'd be house bound, if not comatose if I allowed raving lunatics to drive me from public transportation.

Mary Lew Retton trained long and hard. She didn't just walk into a gym and excel. Your challenge was to learn about haute cuisine of this sort, not to walk into CT and get a great meal. Your comments about the guide books are amusing, but they are also a clue, you didn't have any fluency in reading them.

From the moment you enter the restaurant I sense your "projection"more than anything else. You felt you were out of your element and suspected they could tell and you imagined how they would treat you. I understand all that. Dining well is neither a spectator sport nor passive activity. Bellinis are not a wise start if budget is a concern. Bellinis in lieu of wine with dinner is not going to be seen as a sophisticated move nor clue the staff that you are her for the enjoyment of the food. Lots of sophisticated connoisseurs order cocktails and Bellinis, but it you want to send a signal to the waitstaff, and indirectly to the kitchen, that you are there not for a night out, but for the food, order wine with dinner, not a cocktail. The Bellinis were a signal that money was not an issue. Cocktails raise the tab and don't contribute to the enjoyment of haute cuisine the way wine does. Following cocktails with a disinterest in wine sends the signal that your interest in food is minimal, at worst, or that you're unknowledgeable, at best. Nevertheless, I think you projected a far worse attitude than just acting like a couple of kids with a bit of money to burn that evening and that you never gave them or the food a chance.

Better luck next time. I mean that sincerely. I don't like people to have bad restaurant experiences. It's not good for restaurants or the people that enjoy them. I'd say that luck should have much less to do with happiness in a restaurant than it did in your case and my advice is to choose your restaurants more wisely with your interests and budget in mind and to learn slowly about food that intrigues you, but which you don't understand. Had you been to an Ethiopian or Indian restaurant and the host or waiter behaved in some manner you found peculiar, I'll bet you might not have been so eager to make fun of him behind his back. Your use of the word "alien" was probably good. The two of you had an experience in an alien environment.

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Ok, I just figured out what I would expect to pay in the UK at the equivilent level and I came out with a figure of almost exactly $350.00 based on an 18% tip as per the website. It soon adds up doesn't it?

Is that per person, or is London so much less expensive than Paris. Let me tell you that it adds up a lot faster when they drop flag at 600 euros for two tasting menus at Arpege. At those prices it hardly pays to be married. :biggrin:

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Is that per person

No, for two! I reckoned on about £9.00 X 2 for the bellinis, £5.00 x 2 for the water, £5.00 for the Ame and £5.00 x 2 for the coffee, which converted to $72.00. Add that to the $225.00 and add 18% service charge and you've got your $350.

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I believe they add a 20% service charge at the end, which is why it was 350. You would have had to leave a tip anyway.

They add a 20% service charge and then have the gaul to ask for a tip? Is it that they can't figure out how to include their costs in the meal itself or are they trying to avoid sticker shock?

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I believe they add a 20% service charge at the end, which is why it was 350. You would have had to leave a tip anyway.

They add a 20% service charge and then have the gaul to ask for a tip? Is it that they can't figure out how to include their costs in the meal itself or are they trying to avoid sticker shock?

no, they don't do that. if you leave extra they'll say "you know that the service charge is included?" i was trying to say that if there wan't a service charge, he would have had to add a tip.

there's also a 9% sales tax included.

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Welcome to eGullet Adam, and thanks for such a terrific second post. I haven't seen 24 for, um, awhile but I do remember feeling very intimidated at your age when I made my first forays into the fine dining scene. You captured it perfectly, and you are very, very funny.

I've yet to eat at Trotter's but many Chicago eGulls have, and I've rearely heard a discouraging word about the quality of the food. Craig, Bux and Andy have all given excellent advice, but I sympathize with you. It stinks to spend that much money and not feel 1)excited 2)full!

But please.....take the El!

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