Last week I went to Charlie Trotter's. I'd always had the grand degustation before, so this time I decided to try the vegetable menu. Something which I'd noticed on my last visit was even clearer this time: the approach to food displayed by my meal was quite different from any other "gourmet restaurant" I've eaten at. Other such restaurants aim for a harmonious blend of their ingredients' flavors, even when the combinations of ingredients are odd. But the food I had was about juxtaposing flavors without blending. The meal also used very little butter, cream or oil (this wasn't for the sake of vegetarian purity: the waiter warned me that meat stock was used in the vegetable menu, though substitutes were available if you wanted). This approach was exemplified at its purest by one of the highlights of the meal, a dish called "Study in Squash": small portions of buttercup, acorn, and gold cup squashes, each in its own puree, paired with small portions of braised endive, crosnes (a root vegetable), and kohlrabi. Each vegetable was separate on the plate; there was no elaboration in the preparation or presentation, just six different vegetables to compare.
Other highlights were an amuse guelle of tempura-coated broccoli and haricots vert on an almond-wasabi sauce; a roasted eggplant terrine with garlic confit (half of a "Duet of Terrines"); and roasted matsutake, trumpet royale and black trumpet mushrooms with caramelized fennel, Israeli couscous and red wine-kalamata olive emulsion. This last was somewhat of an exception to the "no blending" principle: the Israeli couscous (which resembled barley in taste and texture more than it did any couscous I've had in the past) and red wine-olive infusion functioned somewhat as a cream sauce would have, binding together the disparate flavors; and this was actually the dish I enjoyed the most. Desserts were also very good. The sorbet was a plantain sorbet with boniato (a potato-like vegetable) and garnet yams: the starchiness made quite an unusual texture for a sorbet, but it worked. The dessert course was a trio of pastries (which replaced the course listed on the menu, so I may not have them transcribed accurately): a jasmine tea custard, an apple tart with apple cider ice cream, and a chocolate date cake.
With its minimal use of butter, cream or oil (the desserts also were not too sweet), the meal I had made much less of a sensuous appeal than the usual expensive meal. It's an uncompromising cuisine, which requires you to meet it halfway, and it's not for everybody. In a sense, it's an "intellectual" cuisine: to fully appreciate it, you have to understand the ideas behind it (which I don't claim I do fully), not just the taste. I can see how some people would dislike it, or even dismiss it as pretentious. But I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to returning. (I'll probably have the grand degustation next time, though; I do like a little more sensuous appeal in general.)
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