Charlie Trotter…………..4 stars for Trotter’s

By Phil Vettel, Tribune critic

September 8, 2011

Two weeks ago, Charlie Trotterbegan his 25th year of business, a superlative achievement by any reckoning. He has won every culinary award worth pursuing, his restaurant continues to hum with business, and he’s more or less a newlywed, having married Rochelle Smith — “a girl so nice I married her twice,” Trotter said, referring to their months-apart beach ceremonies in the Maldives and on the Wilmette lakefront — in February of last year.He is planning a year’s worth of quarter-century celebrations leading up to the 25th anniversary next August, will release at least one book in the coming months, and plans to throw one more “beach thing” with Rochelle.

Sounds like a guy with the world at his feet. And yet.

The attention and accolades don’t pour in quite so regularly these days. Chefs who once toiled under Trotter — chefs such as Grant Achatz, Michael Carlson, Curtis Duffy — are stealing the foodie hosannas from their former taskmaster. There have been snubs.

Restaurant magazine’s list of the world’s 50 best restaurants, which once ranked Trotter’s in the single digits, has ignored the restaurant completely the last two years. When the Michelin Guide came to town, it bestowed its top score of three stars to two restaurants, neither of them Trotter’s. The restaurant received two Michelin stars, a champagne-popping victory just about anywhere else, a comedown for the team on Armitage Avenue.

And Charlie Trotter wouldn’t be Charlie Trotter if that didn’t bother him.

“One of our great curses,” he said of his restaurant, “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 honestly believe,” he said, “that if we were to close the restaurant and six months later reopen a mile across town, and changed nothing, it would be, ‘Oh, my god, this is so awesome.'”

He has a point. I’ve visited Charlie Trotter’s many times during the last two decades, and my most recent visits gave no evidence of a restaurant that had lost a step or surrendered an inch of vitality to the years.

A couple of months back I was wowed by thick slices of squab breast with toasted pistachio, set over a violent-red smear of licorice-infused beet puree, and a dragon carrot risotto with New Zealand spinach.

More recently, there was a gorgeous study of hearts of palm, presented in thick, raw slices, a gentle puree and pastalike ribbons curled around chopped olive; porcini tart with fig and goat cheese over eggplant puree (a composition so rich and smoky I searched the plate, vainly, for pieces of stealth bacon); and squash blossom beignet next to strips of grilled zucchini, pea puree and Australian black truffle.

The specifics of these dishes are virtually irrelevant. Trotter’s kitchen crew never works off a set menu, but 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.

What you can count on is a dazzling assortment of boutique ingredients. More so than any other restaurant, Trotter’s wows you with its reach, the sheer number of unavailable or unheard-of products that the kitchen puts on the plate.

“When we started, I’m thinking we had 10 purveyors,” Trotter said. “Now it’s 95.”

At least the culinary array isn’t complicated by decision-making. The choice for diners is simple: There is the Grand Menu, at $165, and a vegetable menu, the same number of courses, at $135. Wine pairings are $100 additional. Bring a friend, order both menus and by evening’s end you’ll have tasted 16 dishes that Trotter will never prepare the same way again.

Service has always been a key element in the experience. Trotter often has said he values his service awards more than his chef awards, and he demands near-clairvoyance of his front-room staff.

That has led to evenings when the servers have seemed strained, on edge, but in my last visits the dining room personnel has seemed more at ease than I can ever recall. Dining at Trotter’s has never been a stuffy experience, but my last two evenings there were, well, fun.

Even the one flub I observed was handled adroitly. Midway through one meal, a waiter came by with a wine glass intended for the next course but, horror of horrors, put the Grand Menu wine in front of the vegetable-menu patron. A second waiter instantly spotted the gaffe and brought out two more glasses, placed them correctly but left the errant glass on the table.

“We thought,” he said smoothly, indicating the extra glass, “that you might like to taste this wine as well.”

When Trotter’s made its debut in 1987, the Tribune’s dining critic Paul Camp lauded Trotter’s commitment to “civilized dining at its best” that made it a novelty “in this see-and-be-seen, big bistro era.”Some things never change, even though they may evolve.

Charlie Trotterwas kidding when he cracked, “I thought it was a law in Chicago that you couldn’t open a restaurant without working here first,” but the truth is that one could assemble a formidable culinary all-star team consisting solely of chefs who passed through Trotter’s demanding kitchen.Here are just a few of the chefs, still in Chicago, who have Charlie Trotter’s on their resumes:

Grant Achatz: Alinea, Next

Homaro Cantu: Moto, Ing

Michael Carlson: Schwa

Curtis Duffy: Ex-Avenues, new restaurant opening 2012

Graham Elliot: Graham Elliot, Grahamwich

Bill Kim: Urban Belly, Bellyshack

Michael Taus: Zealous

Giuseppe Tentori: Boka, GT Fish & Oyster

Phil Vettel


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