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Charlie Trotter's


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Wow, that bathroom thing sounds creepy.

"and if madam should require to wipe her derriere, the papier de toilette on le dispenser will suffice. Please be sure to flush it when you are done."

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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I'm all for cats in the temple -- so long as they're not MY cats -- and I get a little squirmy at the notion of being hand-delivered to the potty. But Tony, you've had the full-on geisha treatment, complete with hand-delivered morsels of natto. That combo -- theatrically obsequious women and gooey weird shit -- would make many first-time diners dash for the nearest Burger King. Should ultra-high-end Japanese restaurants rework their notion of correct service, rework their menus, to make them more accessible to neophytes?

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Jon - is the customer always right? Um - no.

The toilet escort thing - is it hard to find the toilets at CT's? I seriously ask because I've been in some restos where you practically need a GPS to get there and back.

As for working your way up to a place like Trotter's? Hell no! If you're interested - and you - or your parents or your sugar daddy - can afford it - then go. You may or may not like it - you really never know until you try it yourself. But then have the balls to accept the fact that it was your choice. I don't think anyone ever said CT's was a joint - it sounded like it pretty much was what it is.

Adam, I loved the pic of the bison! The plate - a little big?!

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I sense Adam's report of snooty and snotty treatment is either a product of his insecurity or a figment of his imagination as my view of CT is that of a third type of restaurant. It is what it is, but welcomes everyone to appreciate what it is and will bend over backwards to help any diner willing to meet them with an open mind.

A couple quick, random thoughts:

I sensed that same very thing with Adam's review of his experience.

Which, sorta, leads me to the bathroom segment of this entire episode. I've worked in two situations of fine dining, but nowhere near on par with CT. One a private club and another, a Ritz-C's first (or second--I forgot) street level access restaurant. Both promoted full, very formal service. Merely indicating by the physical act of pointing for the benefit of any guest was deemed coarse, rude and unacceptable treatment, so pointing to the loo was not an option for service staff. In fact, when asked for directions by a guest to any given thing, employees (service staff or not) escorted that guest to the satisfaction of their inquiry. Yes even to seek out an unoccupied, available restroom.

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In fact, it was a great disappointment to me that he never appreciated fine restaurants, although he often liked good food.

Bux, even though most of your posts here have had the attitude of a snob with a capital S, I think what you have written about your father comes close to correctly defining the situation.

There is good food and there is "fine" dining. I much prefer the former everytime.

Adam, keep it up. I thought your "review" was great.

Edited by Nick (log)
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In fact, it was a great disappointment to me that he never appreciated fine restaurants, although he often liked good food.

Bux, even though most of your posts here have had the attitude of a snob with a capital S, I think what you have written about your father comes close to correctly defining the situation.

There is good food and there is "fine" dining. I much prefer the former everytime.

Adam, keep it up. I thought your "review" was great.

I would call someone a snob if he felt it necessary to put down someone else's lifestyle. I'd find a person a snob if he couldn't for a few hours make himself at home in someone else's millieu. Just because one person doesn't enjoy something does not qualify them to gratuitously insult and make fun of those who do.

I don't know what kind of person would take that quote out of the context in which I posted it. Here's what I said.

My father would not have liked CT. He would not have liked Daniel. In fact, it was a great disappointment to me that he never appreciated fine restaurants, although he often liked good food. It was just something we couldn't share and as he left me with some money to have a few really fine meals, I'd have preferred to have had half as many, but to have had them with him. Whether my parents lack of appreciation for haute cuisine was genetic or cultural, it didn't get passed on to me.

Do you really begrudge anyone the right to enjoy haute cuisine or is it that you begrudge me the right to have had the opportunity to have shared something I love with someone I loved. Am I a snob to have wished my father was with me when I enjoyed some of the great meals of my life?

Do I gather you believe fine dining and good food are never one and the same?

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Okay, I'll weigh in with what I'm sure some (many?) will think is a snotty response: if you don't have sufficient experience with (insert whatever field/thing you wish here), then your opinion, at anything beyond a personal taste level on (that field/thing) must be taken with a grain of salt. What do I know about, oh, certain types of rugs? 19th century French economic philosophers? Early 20th century Russian composers? Nothing? So why should anyone take my opinion about those things very seriously? A "valid opinion", I've been taught, should have emphasis on the "valid" part...read: "informed". Is it snotty to ask that someone who expresses an opinion, especially a strong one, at least back it up with something that carries a bit more weight than "that's just how I feel"?

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The toilet escort thing - is it hard to find the toilets at CT's? I seriously ask because I've been in some restos where you practically need a GPS to get there and back

I don't remember, but it is sort of a rambling place as I recall. In memory it was made all the more rambling perhaps because we seemed go through corridors upon arriving and were then offered a kitchen tour when we finished dinner. This lead us in a completely different route.

I can think of many restaurants where someone has gone out of their way to lead me partially to the rest room or, in one case, where I was escorted via an elelvator to another floor . There are levels of luxury I find unnecessary, but harmless. My overall impression of CT was one of an exceptional midwestern restaurant rather than one that was trying to emulate a European restaurant. It really seemed democratic to me (in a good way :biggrin: ) though not so democratic as a cafeteria where one carried one's own tray.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Do you really begrudge anyone the right to enjoy haute cuisine or is it that you begrudge me the right to have had the opportunity to have shared something I love with someone I loved. Am I a snob to have wished my father was with me when I enjoyed some of the great meals of my life?

Do I gather you believe fine dining and good food are never one and the same?

Bux, I do not begrudge you the right to enjoy haute cuisine, but I do take issue with the superior attitude you have displayed in reference to young Adam's visit to CT. Your writing (and that of some others) has been disgraceful and borders on the obnoxious. I thoroughly enjoyed his account and it's really too bad that you and others piled onto this young person with all your writing denouncing him. Good for him that he's had the balls to stand up to this in good spirit.

As to the rest, I'm sure that I would have enjoyed going out to eat with your father. He sounds much like mine who loved to cook and eat and I do miss him when I'm having a good meal - as well as at other times.

Fine dining and good food should go hand-in-hand. It's unfortunate that this isn't so much the case these days.

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Would someone in the know, be forthcoming with what the actual food cost of a meal of this caliber would be?

I'm not trying to bounce on CT, or his house, but If I were to spend $350 on a meal for two, I would be curious to hear how much of my dollar was spent on food, and how much was spent for a private guide to the men's room.

woodburner

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I would be curious to hear how much of my dollar was spent on food, and how much was spent for a private guide to the men's room.

For an accurate number, we would have to know how many bellinis and waters were actually consumed, in order to break out the food.

Assume that the food portion was $250, raw cost of ingredients was probably $75-100. That's being generous. As a former Chicago restaurateur, I bought product from many of the same vendors.

The cost of the food is rarely relateable in a restaurant like Trotter's. At CT the cost is in the army of staff he employs to produce those cute little plates, and the glasssware, and the china, and the linen, and the wine inventory, and the fresh flowers...ad nauseum.

wine is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy
Ted Cizma

www.cheftedcizma.com

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CT continues to use Riedel stemware while most of his competition (Daniel, for instance) has moved to Spiegelau, which is anywhere from 50% to 66% less expensive. They also use many sets of patterned china, like what you'd get for wedding presents from people like Rosenthal and Villeroy and Bosch, rather than exclusively using the plain, "commercial" white patterns, which are at least half the price of what CT lays out. Granted, you can't eat crystal and china so maybe some don't care about such stuff but they're all part of the experience there and they have to add to the bottom line.

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CT continues to use Riedel stemware while most of his competition (Daniel, for instance) has moved to Spiegelau, which is anywhere from 50% to 66% less expensive. They also use many sets of patterned china, like what you'd get for wedding presents from people like Rosenthal and Villeroy and Bosch, rather than exclusively using the plain, "commercial" white patterns, which are at least half the price of what CT lays out. Granted, you can't eat crystal and china so maybe some don't care about such stuff but they're all part of the experience there and they have to add to the bottom line.

Josh,

Riedel now has several lines of glasses that are quite inexpensive. I used Spiegelau in the past but have since switched to Schott-Zwiesel. I prefer durable glasses. They have some very attractive large wine glasses that are very reasonable priced. The restaurant I work in uses Bernardaud as the main china pattern. Not the hotel ware, but the porcelain. It is extremely expensive. Our tableclothes cost $80 each and must be ordered in large quantities. All this stuff adds up. Wine is the profit center in upper end restaurants.

Mark

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Would someone in the know, be forthcoming with what the actual food cost of a meal of this caliber would be?

I'm not trying to bounce on CT, or his house, but If I were to spend $350 on a meal for two, I would be curious to hear how much of my dollar was spent on food, and how much was spent for a private guide to the men's room.

woodburner

When you dine at some place in the upper .01% percent of restaurants, you are paying for a whole experience, not just food. Ingredient costs are higher to a degree as items are rapidly shipped from producers who sometimes produce exclusively for that restaurant. Items are also chosen with extreme care and some restaurants (Chez Panisse orginated this) have dedicated 'foragers' whose job is to find the best .01% of ingredients. Also on the food, there are larger labor costs. Certain preps are labor intensive and will have a dedicated person for that job alone. Other items may take two or more days to prepare.

It is true that a lot of the expense goes to things like the flatware, the china, the linens and other element of the decor. The idea is to create an environment that removes the diner completely from the mundane and places them in a world of nothing but the dining experience for 3.5 hours or more. The job of the staff is the same and there is an abundance of staff to ensure that no single thing is overlooked. This staff is also very well-paid, vis-a-vis restaurant averages and places like Trotters have nice benefit packages to ensure loyalty and reduce the turnover rate.

When you go to a place like this, you are buying more than nourishment. Evidently for a lot of people, it is not worth it. That's fine -don't go, don't slag it.

OTOH, you can look it another way - if you appreciate fine things like high-thread count linens or beautiful china and you can't afford it (and its maintenance) in your household, the price of dinners at these restaurant can be within your reach.

A.

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Hey, Mark...At the risk of agitating people who don't care about the frills, bells and whistles, CT uses Riedel Vinum for the basics, even for water glasses (at one time they had some Ouverture but I believe they dropped it) and then moves up, in many cases to the Sommelier line - those things are breathtakingly expensive. Kind of interesting that CT has stuck with Riedel but he does have an advertising deal with them so I'm sure there's a pretty healthy break for the restaurant as a result. They use Frette linens, as I'm guessing Citronelle does as well. There's lots of Bernardaud porcelain at CT as well. I think they use Sambonnet for place settings...maybe Christofle or Degrenne as well? Anyway, diners at CT are usually sitting in front of up to $700 worth of gear a head at each course, counting the linens. I, for one, get a kick out of it. Doesn't happen that often at home, unfortunately!

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As a side note about food costs, I was out in San Diego a few weeks ago (pre-wildfire) and Chino's Farm (big supplier to west coast high-end places, nice article in Saveur a while back) is about 10 minutes from my relatives. Went by to get vegetables for a dinner; no prices, just lots of gorgeous, photo-worthy produce. Got various eggplants, tomatoes, Japenese sweet potatoes, sunchokes, some herbs, nothing outrageous or in great quantity/weight. $48! Scary...but they tasted great and my in-laws got a quick lesson in what that stuff they ate at Patina must have cost in the raw state.

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Bux, I do not begrudge you the right to enjoy haute cuisine, but I do take issue with the superior attitude you have displayed in reference to young Adam's visit to CT. Your writing (and that of some others) has been disgraceful and borders on the obnoxious. I thoroughly enjoyed his account and it's really too bad that you and others piled onto this young person with all your writing denouncing him. Good for him that he's had the balls to stand up to this in good spirit.

As to the rest, I'm sure that I would have enjoyed going out to eat with your father. He sounds much like mine who loved to cook and eat and I do miss him when I'm having a good meal - as well as at other times.

Fine dining and good food should go hand-in-hand. It's unfortunate that this isn't so much the case these days.

I doubt that is Bux's intent to be "superior," and it seems more like your personal spin being attributed to his posts.

I'm not sure I'm getting this strongly inferred "shame on you" attitude and your openly subjective assertions of "disgraceful" and "obnoxious." When in fact you utilised the value-packed, judmental words that IMHO brinks upon offensive and disrespectful of another's point of view. In fact, it appears as rather "scolding" in tone.

Someone, Adam, saw a restaurant recommendation from Food Network, went to the restaurant and was not prepared for the experience of something so highly unique as Charlie Trotter. Okay, but then Adam furthered it by making a parody of the entire event, no less but on a large food message board forum filled with experienced, sophisticated diners.

As simple as I can state it, I remember some sort of similar discussion, and it was tommy, I believe, said something to the effect that while he's not a die hard fan of Springsteen, he would not go to a music message board forum and post messages to rip on the guy.

Adam did not "review" CT. He posted his experience, with an attempt to throw in humour so as to make a mockery of haute cuisine.

Re your:

Fine dining and good food should go hand-in-hand.  It's unfortunate that this isn't so much the case these days.

Where are you eating? :wink:

typos :rolleyes:

Edited by beans (log)
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Where are you eating?   :wink:

Beans, I was writing to Bux. We have our little go-arounds from time to time and this is one of them. I'll stand by what I wrote and if Bux disagrees (or agrees) maybe I'll write back. You're riding a pretty high horse for bein' a bartender.

What I eat? Right now beans, goat, poultry, greens, etc. Pretty much gave up eating out except where food comes before "the dining experience."

Edit: Got to add to what I'm eating; ...and pretty much what I'll be eating all winter: squash, carrots, potatoes, onions, turnips, apples, and deer meat - as well as fish.

Edited by Nick (log)
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You're riding a pretty high horse for bein' a bartender.

Nick with your post count, you are well aware that personal does not fly here.

What does being a bartender have to do with expressing opinions about fine dining? Does it mean that I don't experience or eat fine dining? Does it limit what amount of education one may or may not have? Does earning a living (a damn good one at that) as a bartender equate I do not have a valid opinion or experience to express?

Aw come on Nick, don't go that route. It only demonstrates how little you know of me to be so bold to assert something that ridiculous.

Just a thought, but if your post was intended as a conversation exclusively with Bux, while you did drag down nameless others that concurred with his opinion(s), well perhaps PM would have been the more appropriate route?

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Beans, I was writing to Bux. We have our little go-arounds from time to time and this is one of them. I'll stand by what I wrote and if Bux disagrees (or agrees) maybe I'll write back. You're riding a pretty high horse for bein' a bartender.

If I may step in here and offer a few words of moderation, I am not sure it is productive to impugn another's profession in making one's points. One would also hope that any "go-arounds" would stick to the topic under discussion and avoid such pejoratives as "disgraceful" and "obnoxious" when referring to another's points of debate or writing style.

All of which is to suggest that we all confine our remarks to the subject at hand and leave any name calling aside.

--

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I would like to make two points:

1. I disagree that one has to be expert for their views to be valid. I think any carefully written account of an experience, regardless of how lofty the subject matter, can be worthwhile. True, there are critics who proselytize and seek to elevate with didactic prose, but the better ones, in my opinion, are reactionaries. If a non-Springsteen fan went to a Springsteen concert and wrote a thoughtful critique of it on a Springsteen fan board, that would probably be more helpful to Springsteen fans than someone simply writing "Springsteen rocks!" And, call me crazy, but I would rather read a Bux review of dinner at TGI Friday's than Bux's praise of dinner at Le Bernadain because it would be more honest. Similarly, even if my dinner review wasn't expert (Poussain is a sexless chicken? How weird!) it was genuine. And I'd rather be an unsophisticated truth-teller than a pretentious poser who would moan with pleasure if duck feces were presented elegantly before him.

2. I reread my piece in search of mockery and found it only in one place: my description of the waiter. I can only say, in my defense, that sometimes mockery is warranted. George W. Bush says "nuc-u-lar" and brings upon himself the countless imitations and parodies. Our waiter was a robot. If I had a video camera that night and later played his performance for roomfuls of unbiased specatators, they would howl with laughter at his ridiculousness.

I am not even arguing that he was a dying relic of a withered cultural institution: he was actually quite young. All I am saying is that he--as an individual--was overly mannered, completely out of tune with his audience and disturbingly intense in an already tense atmosphere. If that's great service, then count me out.

The Amateur Gourmet

www.amateurgourmet.com

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I didn't say or mean to imply that one needs to be an "expert" to have a valid opinion about a subject...I did say that I measure the weight of somebody's opinion against their experience with that subject. I'm in the wine trade, I show a Cote-Rotie (a syrah from the northern Rhone) to someone and they say "whoah, this is funky/wild/meaty/gamy!". If I don't know them or their palate/preferences, I'll probably ask (to get an understanding of where they're coming from) how much experience they have with northern Rhones or syrah, the grape. Usually he ones with the strongest negative reaction are trying one of these for the first time. Maybe they just don't "get it/like it" but, hopefully, they won't say that the wine is a "superdud" simply because they're trying something that isn't their personal cup of tea, yet, or maybe it never will be. The fact that one loves something doesn't make it "great" and the fact that someone doesn't like the same thing doesn't make it "suck".

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My boyfriend Chris and I went to Trotters on January 14, 2002, I was 23 and he was 24. But I guess that it had all started about a year before in brisk Chicago mid-winter weather, at “Trotter’s to Go.”

That January, Chris and I had just gotten back to Chicago from France. He was applying to various restaurants for cook jobs, and had finally decided to apply to Trotter’s. Chris did not really expect to get the job, but he spent days crafting the cover letter and finding the perfect paper for his resume.

As a reward for putting his cover letter and resume in an appropriately stamped envelope, Chris and I decided that we should treat ourselves to dinner from To Go. We were going to mail the letter on the way to the deli, but for some unknown reason, all of the mailboxes seemed to be on the other side of the street.

And so we arrived, still in possession of the letter.

Imagine our surprise, when we walked in: the staff was in a frenzy. The usually quiet, restrained bunch was feverishly pitching. In addition, as though to swell to general hysteria, there was Chef Trotter, standing by the door, offering Toro tastes to people as they entered. As he pushed the tuna on us, he challenged, “If this is not the best thing you’ve had to eat in the last three months, dinner’s on me.”

Did I mention that we are both shy? Very, very shy. Knowing that Chris had his resume, carefully addressed to Chef Trotter, did not help. We tried the fish—and said nothing. But the truth was, it wasn’t the best thing we had eaten in the last three months. We had just gotten back from France, where we had eaten at some pretty incredible restaurants like Jamin and Jean Bardet. Trotter’s Toro à la plastic plate really did not match up. Moreover, Chris had just been home to visit his parents (where we now live, in Honolulu). It was most certainly not the best fish he had had. Nonetheless, we said nothing. I admit it—we are wimps.

I think it was months before we got the nerve up to back to To Go. The whole situation had been just a little bit too much for us. I dreaded running into Trotter again, partially because I was somewhat ashamed of myself for not having said anything in the first place.

In June, Chris landed a job elsewhere and in October, I finally decided that it was time to assuage my fears and bitterness. I wrote the man an email.

I wrote this simple email, explaining what the situation had been, and why we felt unable to speak. And then I wrote that his challenge had failed because it was not the best thing that we had eaten in the last three months. I wrote a bit about our time in France, and where Chris is from. I did not insult his food, but I did deny his Toro the title he had given it. I did not expect a reply. I wrote the email for me. However, I got a reply less than an hour later. It read:

Dear Emily,

Thanks for the toughtful (sic) note. Regrettably you entirely missed the point of my offer. My steadfast intention was to treat the two of you to dinner.....alas, perhaps I'll run into you again at To Go. In which case, I'll offer up something of considerably greater significance.

Best,

Charlie

P.S. On a side note for the past 10 years I've lived for the part of the year on Maui..... It's quite nice there!

Imagine my shock, surprise, and further fear. I could not help but be frightened by the idea of Charlie Trotter offering up something of considerably greater significance. I could think of no response. So I wrote nothing.

Two months later, I decided to get my mom a Charlie Trotter Meat & Game cookbook for Christmas. She had been rather amused at my recounting of the email exchange, and it seemed like a cute gift. I started working up the courage to approach Chef Trotter at the a local book signings so that my mother could have it personally inscribed. He arrived late, breezing in with his little entourage of chefs and assistants. He took the podium and gave a rather interesting talk on excellence. And then, I stood in line, and tried to figure out what in the world I would say when actually faced with him.

I introduced myself. I think I shook his hand. The scary part? He remembered my email. It had been nearly three months earlier and he remembered it. The scarier part? He remembered it wrong. He took it as an insult. He remembered it as me saying his food was not good—he did not take it in its context. He ignored the point, the part that said his food was great but in the framework of our previous three months, it had not been the best thing. We had had incredible fine dining experiences, and his deli had not beaten them. This should not have been a surprise, but this crazy man appeared to have been hurt by the implication.

So, I emailed him again a few weeks later and re-explained. I wrote that his food was fine, great even. I wrote that I was worried by his interpretation of my words, and that I wanted to re-assure him of the caliber of his own food. I expected no response, and I did not get one.

And this leads me to that night, January 14, 2002. I made the reservation about six weeks before. It was one of three Mondays that they were going to be open in 2002, and with the rumors about Trotter retiring, quitting, moving on, Chris and I thought it was time. We were alternatively nervous, anxious, and excited as we watched the date approach. I had to have a friend call and pretend to be my secretary to confirm the reservation because neither Chris nor I felt able to drop the line “And you are aware that Chris Sy is cook?” I underlined the accent points, wrote a bullet point list of topics to cover, and stood in my friend’s office as she bonded with Marjorie, the reservationist. The friend did the whole thing on speakerphone. I had to clasp my hands over my mouth to keep from laughing aloud.

It was difficult the day before to focus on anything else. I practically ran home to meet Chris, even though our reservation was not until 9 PM. We looked at print outs of the menus (Grand Menu, Vegetable Menu and Kitchen Table Menu) and tried to figure out what we were going to chose. We debated whether or not we could swing the glass of champagne that Chris really wanted on top of the meal. We found no answers. A friend of ours ended up dropping us off at the restaurant. The valet opened the car doors and we were on the sidewalk. He escorted us to the stairs. We held our breath and entered.

In the moment between the feeling of my hand on the door and actually arriving on the inside, the world was a blur. That was the moment I had been so scared by—the moment between outside and inside. I know what 816 W. Armitage looks like on the outside. I can picture it when I close my eyes. I even know were a copy of the menu is posted beneath the ivy. But I had never in my life been inside the building, and had no idea what to expect.

As soon as we were inside though, all of the unknown vanished. Every scathing review filled with cries of pretension seemed misplaced. We were greeted warmly. Nothing was intimidated. We waited for our table in the bar area, looking over a letter concerning a fundraiser with Alain Ducasse. As another couple came in after us, a woman who turned out to be the sommelier, Belinda Chang, invited us to our table. The room was nothing that I expected. It was not too much; it did not make me wonder what in the world we were doing there. There were a few tables on either side with a large marble counter-type thing in the middle scattered with decanters and bottles of wine. It just was not scary. The anxiety melted as the sommelier again approached our table.

She said, “I understand that there is a professional at the table tonight.” I smiled and pointed at Chris, who was starting to blush a little. But only a little. “Ah, the guilty party,” she said with a bit of a laugh. And then she said, “Chef Trotter would like to create a spontaneous menu for you tonight if you don’t mind forgoing the formality of a printed menu.” We nodded and she left the wine list. How in the world can you turn down Chef Trotter offering to cook for you? We certainly could not.

We ordered a glass of champagne each to start. We got a glass of the Pol Roger “Cuvee Winston Churchill” Brut 1990 and a glass of the Jose Dhondt “Mes Vieilles Vignes-Blanc de Blancs” Brut NV and shared them. The Pol Roger—-he glass that Chris had really wanted—was incredible and entirely worth it. And then, mid-sipping, out came the first course with usual flair of a wonderful restaurant: perfectly timed wait-staff bearing plates and presenting them simultaneously with some explanation.

The first course was Trotter’s “Bento Box”, with European Turbot with Braised Daikon and Spicy Shad Roe, Gratin of Steller Bay Oysters with Miso and in Chris’s case pearl onion, Salad of Crispy Lotus Root and Hearts of Palm and some other fish that I cannot quite remember. The box, with its faux-Asian touches and slightly unstable construction was cleared and the sommelier returned.

She asked us if we had any questions about the list, which we both knew was one of the most incredible wine lists in the country (if not the most incredible list). Of course, we had questions, but Chris made a brilliant move. He asked her to pair tasting for each of the courses. Problem solved. We were placed in the hands of a great sommelier. She left and returned with white wine glasses and poured two glasses of Pouilly-Fume “En Chaillous” Didier Dagueneau 1999. She offered us her comments on the wine, and we resisted the urge to tell her that we had in fact met in the Loire Valley in the first place. Nonetheless, it was amazing. Shortly the wait-staff returned to present a duo of terrines, roasted eggplant with arugula and braised tiny beets served with goat cheese ice cream. Both were interesting colors and texture. In advance of eating them I was enchanted. The eggplant was smooth and almost creamy while the beet was careful thin slices of white and pink layered together.

Those plates disappeared, more wine glasses appeared and the sommelier poured Gaja “Gaia & Rey” Chardonnay, Langhe 1999 which she declared to be the best Chardonnay if not the best bottle of white wine she had ever had. Then, out came these wacky plates that from a distance looked a bit like an octopus. The bottom portion looked almost like a sheet on a clothesline billowing the in wind… But then make the sheet china and turn it on its side, making sure to create a dip in the middle for soup. On top of the bowl portion was what looked like a normal bowl, but I guess was really a cloche. The waiters brought these strange plates, set them down, removed the cloche and voila! It was soup of cannellini beans with so much alba white truffle that I can hardly imagine seeing that much of it again. At the bottom of the soup was a poached quail egg. The whole thing, beneath the white truffles, was the foamy, frothy mixture that perfectly complemented both the truffles and the wine. We finished these plates and they were whisked away along with the emptied champagne glass that was still left on the table.

Again, the sommelier came bearing more glasses. She poured Chateauneuf-du-Pape “Roussanne-Vielles Vignes” Chateau de Beaucastel 1998, old vine wine. Out came big eye tuna with green and purple brussels sprouts perched on top of pureed curried chicken livers. I assure you, the chicken liver was essentially a sauce on this plate and was brilliant. (So, do not scrunch up your nose like that!) We resisted the urge to lick the plates and reflected on the idea of being served tuna.

These plates disappeared and a waiter came and dropped off some more wine glasses. Chris and I took one look at the glasses (dessert wine glasses) and knew what was coming next: foie gras. For a while it was rumored that Chef Trotter had stopped serving foie gras because he was unhappy with the quality of it, so we were pleasantly surprised when we were presented with seared foie with grapefruit and pine nuts. The sommelier poured a truly yummy dessert wine, which along with the Gaja, was one of my favorites of the evening. It was a Zweigelt Rose #1 Trockenbeerenauslese Kracher, Neusiedlersee 1998.

Chris took a break, headed for the bathroom and I ended up chatting with the sommelier as the dishes were taken away. She asked if we were interested in an "insider’s look tour" when we finished our meal. I told her that we would be delighted, but that she should probably warn who ever would be showing us around that Chris is very shy. She replied that the guys in the kitchen really like to be asked questions. I told her that no one should be surprised if he did not say a word. We talked a bit about where Chris was working, and she said that she had heard lots of good things. I pointed out that one of the sous-chefs at Trotter’s, Giuseppe, had been in to eat there rather recently. And eventually, Chris returned to the table. He had been stuck in the bathroom looking at the menus from various famous restaurants worldwide posted on the walls. A waiter asked us if we would like to be relieved of our white wine glasses, and they were spirited away.

Chris and I had been debating whether or not the man was in residence that evening. Knowing that he spends part of the year in Maui, I had my bets on his absence. If you lived and worked in Chicago but spent part of the year in Maui, one would hope that you would opt to spend January as one of those months away. Chicago winter, after all, is best spent no where near Chicago! Chris guessed that Chef Trotter would be in town at least—and was proven right around the time the sommelier poured two glasses of Sine Qua Non “Ox-Shea Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Yamhill 1999.

Out he wandered from the kitchen, looking somewhat gaunt and very, very scruffy. I was totally surprised by his appearance. When I saw him at the book signing in December he was well-groomed, but that night he mostly just looked a bit insane. He paced the bar area, and made me nervous.

But then, the waiters presented us with roasted breast of squab with braised salsify and perigord black truffle emulsion. While Chris tried to explain the difference between emulsion and foam, I just gobbled it up. This was the only dish where I encountered the regular complainant of the food being not-quite as warm as you might want it to be. It was incredibly yummy though, and Chris had been craving squab for about a week so we definitely enjoyed it… If it hadn’t been for the pacing, frazzled man in the bar who kept looking at us funny, I might have enjoyed it a bit more.

After the squab, I headed off for the ladies room—dutifully escorted by a back-waiter who seemed to take this all very seriously. The first bathroom was occupied so he directed me to a bathroom off of the studio (where Trotter films his PBS show). Coming out of the bathroom I discovered about 7 TV screens facing the door to the bathroom. They showed the action at the various positions in the kitchen, which was rather eerie. In my mind, I have no problem imagining Chef Trotter standing in front of these screens with wide eyes, turning knobs and pulling levers. And if someone messes up, I can easily imagine him hitting a button and a trap door to no where opening beneath the poor unlucky cook.

I went back to the dining room and sat down. We were poured two glasses on Henschke “Cyril Henscke” Cabernet Sauvignon, Eden Valley 1997 to pair with the arriving Niman Ranch lamb saddle and rack with crispy semolina cake (Chris had hedgehog mushrooms). Chef Trotter made his way around the room, and finally, stopped at our table. It was obvious he recognized me—though Chris was the VIP—but could not place the face. I certainly did not want to remind him.

He asked us if we had been in before and we said no. He invited us to take a tour after and then wandered off to another table. It is hard to use the word wander for someone whose style of walking is more like charging, but it absolutely had an aimless quality to it. I am not sure how one can accomplish charging and wandering simultaneously, but the man has.

Our table was cleared, and next was a black truffle crepe with Hudson Valley Camembert and stewed figs. I had been fine until this point. I conquered each dish. I left no scrap—with the exception of a piece of fat from the lamb. I was good. But this was just inching toward way too much. I love figs but I left them, as I have a history of insulting pastry chefs by not doing my part to devour their delicious desserts.

Next came the dish I love the most at To Go, in its original form. It was coconut tapioca soup with Papaya and Pineapple sorbets. When they offered us espresso, I thought we were done. I thought we had won. I thought that we were going to leave satisfied but not ill, without insulting the kitchen with things like blatantly uneaten dishes. After they brought our espresso there was a pause and I saw just how wrong I was.

Dish, after dish, after dish (I think 10) came pouring out of the kitchen. Piled high with amazing confection, they covered the table. Chocolate cakes with sauces and ice creams, parsnip-carrot cake, quince tart… I cannot remember most of them, let alone all of them. I think my eyes bulged out of my head.

I took a bite of each one.

We sat. We digested. We stared in awe at the table and then John Lithgow walked passed. I think one of the most amazing things is that no one seemed to care that this TV and Broadway star was eating among us. Chris and I continued to stare at the food we could not consume. The waitstaff laughed a bit, took away the plates, and came back with a small box with the mignardises. Then they brought the bill. It was about $500--and the truth is, we felt like we had gotten the experience at a steal.

After we paid, we were escorted to the kitchen where, you guessed it! Giuseppe the sous-chef became our tour guide. He showed us the line, and I can assure you, that perhaps the reason why people complain about food being not quite warm enough at Trotters is that the kitchen seemed to be very air conditioned. Beyond trying to weasel the recipe for the black-truffle ravioli that Chris maded everyday, Giuseppe was well behaved. Much to my surprise, Chris did actually pipe up with a few questions. We saw the studio, the large format wine cellar, and then the other cellar. I saw an 1870 bottle of wine that amazed me and then Giuseppe pointed out the bottle that was the most expensive in the house: $21,000. $21,000 for a single 750 mL bottle of wine. I would not want to be the clumsy waiter who ever had to touch that bottle (by the way, all of the bottles in the cellar appeared to be dusted and perfect).

On our way out, we said good night to the still disheveled and pacing Chef Trotter. A hostess handed us a goodie bag with two books, some Charlie Trotter sauce and a hat. They had a cab waiting for us as we exited, and we were done.

The next morning Chris pointed out that if I told him it had all been a dream he would believe it. It was surreal, amazing, and somehow intangible at the same time.

-Emily

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Emily in London

http://www.august18th2007.com

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1.  I disagree that one has to be expert for their views to be valid.  I think any carefully written account of an experience, regardless of how lofty the subject matter, can be worthwhile. 

I think this is where you will find the biggest disagreement from at least me. Such an account is worthwhile pretty much either for entertainment or for exposing the psyche of the writer. I know it is rather fashionable and post-modern to mock expertise and consider all POVs equal. I think it is solipism run amuck as the writer places themselves before the material and spends more time navel-gazing than interacting with the subject. Interestingly you did attempt to stake a claim to 'expertise' or at least something more than a random truth-spouter. You called yourself an 'aspiring gourmet.' It is also not pretentious in the least if one is an expert on something.

Maybe you didn't know what poussin was, but you didn't ask either. It is little intra-textual cues of that sort that lead me to believe you were more entranced (and penis was meant more archly than sexually) with your companion than the food or the dining experience. While it is well and good to post a piece about your experience, you can hardly expect to not be called to account for it - and you have handled that far better than your defenders.

Finally, it is common rhetorical dodge to claim to be telling the truth, no matter what. Let me ask you this: The truth is you don't remember the food. Was this because the food was intrinisically unmemorable or were you in such a state of inattention to it that it was not remembered by you? Those who criticize you tend think the "truth" is the latter.

A.

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