Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Charlie Trotter's (Kitchen Table)

Recently, Mrs. Hackknife celebrated both a milestone birthday (out of respect for her, I won't mention which one; however, if you're really interested, you'll find a song with a numeric title on U2's War album that might give you a clue) and a hard-earned promotion at work, so I thought I'd surprise her (and, by association, me) with a little gift in the form of an extravagant meal at one of the city's top dining establishments, Charlie Trotter's. She and I had eaten at Trotter's only once before, back in 2002 when she had completed her actuarial exams (a big accomplishment in and of itself) - this is when we were still just dating and it represented (at least for me) my first real introduction to high-class cuisine in a lifetime that had pretty much been limited to frozen dinners and cold cereal up to that point. Needless to say, I found the whole thing very stuffy and intimidating: unheard of ingredients/dish descriptions, small portions that looked too nice to touch, the feeling like I needed to raise my hand when I needed to go to the bathroom, an overwhelming desire to stop at Burger King for a Whopper on the way home, etc. Fast forward almost 10 years and now we've become seasoned pros at this type of dining experience; in fact, we have a far wider appreciation for them and actively seek them out. The time felt right for us to revisit where the foodie road began and I could think of no better place to choose as the venue for our special celebration.

I contacted the restaurant about 6 weeks in advance of Mrs. Hacknife's birthday to inquire about reserving the kitchen table, which I'd heard was a standout experience even above and beyond what one would normally encounter at Trotter's, and I was able to reserve it for a party of 4 (the other part of the surprise was to secretly arrange for Mrs. H's respected co-worker/friend Wendy and her husband Andy, both fellow foodies, to join us that night). When the big day arrived, Mrs. Hackknife picked me up at the train station not knowing exactly where we were going, other than it was somewhere near the North/Halsted stop on the Red Line (or was I bluffing?). Conveniently for me, that particular neighborhood happens to be home to another amazing restaurant that we both love and long for a return visit, Alinea, so it was easy to me to do a drive-by of the decoy place and pretend to pull up to the valet stand, only to zoom away at the last instant. Facing a now displeased and hungrier Mrs. Hackknife, I assured her that our next stop was the real one (or was I bluffing?), and, after missing the valet stand at Trotter's and having to go around the block (which, I SWEAR, was an honest-to-goodness accident), we pulled up for real and went inside to await our dining companions.

Once seated, we could immediately tell that eating in the kitchen would be much different than our last visit, that is, much more casual, irreverent, and relaxed (a welcome occurrence if you ask me, as the one criticism that is most levied at Chef Trotter is that he's too high-falutin'). For example, you'll see us all seated at the kitchen table in Photo #1 above - this picture was taken by our head server for the evening, Eric, who is literally standing on a metal counter in the dishwashing station while taking the picture. All of the servers and chefs were very approachable, even going out of their way to interact with us at times, and we were able to walk around the kitchen taking pictures pretty much at will (of course, I tried to keep a respectful distance and avoid being a nuisance as much as possible, as it was, you know, their workspace). At the end of the meal, Mrs. Hackknife was given a happy birthday serenade by the whole kitchen staff, an event that I'm sure she won't soon forget. Overall, the level of service we received was nothing short of spectacular (and even better when I got copies of our menus as souvenirs the next day - more on that later).

And the food, you ask? Well, let's just say that I didn't feel the urge for a burger run after we were finished this time around. Everything that was presented to us was both aesthetically amazing (down to the silverware/serving pieces) and delicious to boot. We were given 15 courses in all (not counting the 6 individual plates that made up the first course, which resembled a giant bento box - see Photo #2 above), a well-balanced array of vegetable, seafood, red meat, and dessert offerings. I don't normally like to list out menu items from a meal line-by-line in my postings (it feels a little rote to do that), but, in this case, I think that's the best way to document what glided down our gullets:

Course #1 -
Chilled miso soup with braised rishiri kombu (Japanese seaweed)
Peekytoe crab with hearts of palm and tarragon
Charred bonito with compressed watermelon and kanzuri (red pepper paste)
Barron point oyster with yuzu mignonette (vinegar sauce)
Skate wing terrine with grapefruit and preserved ramps
(mystery plate not documented on menu - lost to the mists of time)

Course #2 - Squash blossom beignet with zucchini and black truffle

Course #3 - New Zealand cockles with sweet corn and pickled Yukon Gold potatoes (Photo #3)

Course #4 - Heirloom tomato terrine with white sesame and daikon radish

Course #5 - Seared sea scallop with plum, fava beans, and bonito

Course #6 - Grilled Atlantic squid with carrots and couscous

Course #7 - Heirloom beet "lasagna" with sweetbreads and saffron

Course #8 - Suckling pig with black-eyed peas and kale

Course #9 - Lola duck breast with hoisin, spring leek, and thai basil

Course #10 - Elysian Fields lamb with fire-roasted bell peppers and chickpea (Photo #4)

Course #11 - 72-hour braised short rib with lotus and kohlrabi

Course #12 - Ombra (Spanish sheep's milk cheese) with black mission fig and crispy bread

Course #13 - Cucumber sorbet with honeydew melon and candied cumin

Course #14 -
Pineapple tomatillo soup with blackberries and yogurt gelato
Coconut mousse with dark rum and key lime

Course #15 -
Cacao fruit gelato with ceylon cinnamon and pequin peppers
Green tea ice cream with cherries and white chocolate mousse

I failed to mention that Mrs. Hackknife and I opted to do the wine pairing with this menu, which seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, but after 15 courses of food and innumerable pours of nice wines (including champagne, garganega from Italy, chardonnay, pinot nero, cabernet sauvignon, a couple Spanish wines, an Australian sweet wine, and a few others that I couldn't finish nor remember), I was beginning to suffer from consumption fatigue, later manifesting itself as a nasty hangover the following morning (I had to swear off alcohol for at least 10 hours). Even though my kids saw to it that I couldn't sleep off the excesses of the prior evening, it was quite worth the temporary discomfort and urge to avoid eating anything not called Cheerios.

One final note - I called the restaurant the next day to see if we could get copies of the menu from our dinner, not only to help me regurgitate what we had in my blog, but also as a nice souvenir for us and our dining companions. They happily obliged, even though Eric told us during the meal that they normally don't print up menus for the kitchen table (as what they serve changes daily). When they arrived in the mail the other day, I noticed that Chef Trotter appeared to have signed all 4 copies of the menu on the letterhead. This was a fitting touch to conclude what had been a very classy evening....

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