Another long weekend. What to do? Havent been to Chicago for a year and have run out of beaver (long story, but can only find beaver meat in Chicago). So, lets go and where to eat? Charlie Trotter has apparently banned foie gras, but his food and wine matching is excellent. Hmm. Last year we tried Trio and admired the high-wire act, although not all dishes succeeded. What are the chances of getting the Chefs Table at Trio? Pick up the phone and its done. Just have to pre-order which menu. Hey, if were driving 500 miles lets go for the Tour de Force (20+ courses).
Set off on Friday afternoon, planning to stop in Ann Arbor. Have checked the midwest board, but this time have an invite to stay with friends. Great hospitality and Bobotie for dinner. Last time I had this in a restaurant was 20 years ago in Toronto. By coincidence, shortly after I return, I bump into the restaurant owner that served it (now a wine agent). He hasnt had it in 20 years either. Good company, good wine and we leave with a new list of restaurants to try in and around Evanston (some of which duplicate restaurants found on this board). And a bottle of 1990 Cornas to try in a suggested BYOB restaurant (shouldnt we all have friends like this?).
We amble to Chicago and decide to check out The Room, 5900 North Broadway. It opens at 5:00 and the menu looks good and its BYOB, so were back at 5:01 (6:01 on our stomachs time) and proudly present the Cornas, which they open for us (and are duly impressed).
We choose appropriate food, based on the wine, which explodes with plum fruit and then gently evolves to a sweet and sour dried cherry flavour, surrounded by blackberry and red plums. Our appetizers are
Mixed Greens with Wasabi Vinaigrette and Soy Ginger Beef Tenderloin and Crispy Rice Noodles. Just a hint of wasabi, great textures; the crispy noodles provide a crunch, some tang and chew with the beef. More than a salad, like a large appetizer (incidentally the menu features small, medium and large dishes to accommodate different appetites). The other starter (also medium hey, we skipped lunch) was Grilled Pear and Asparagus Salad with Gorgonzola Cream and Port Syrup not really qualifying as medium in size but very tasty. The Gorgonzola was muted and the pear (Asian) was a crisp contrast. Again, excellent textures. The mains were Lamb Loin with Coconut Mashed Sweet Potatoes served with seasonal veg and a cream sauce. The lamb was OK, cooked slightly more than I requested (aside: my favourite lamb comes from Washington State why havent I EVER managed to find this in the U.S.?) and the coconut-mashed sweet potatoes had an excellent tang from the coconut. The other large was Yellowfin Tuna with a soy-ginger glaze (reminiscent of the beef earlier). Just seared on the outside and accompanied by the same veg. We split a dessert. Our comment if we had a place like this in Toronto wed be back EVERY week. Very good overall really just an upscale neighbourhood place, comfortable, very good food and BYOB (illegal in Ontario).
But the next night was Trio. Need a little food during the day but not too much. In the morning, happened to drive by a Krispy Kreme with the Hot Donuts sign on. To put this in perspective, I only know of two (relatively new) Krispy Kremes in Canada both more than 10 miles from where I live, and I havent tried them. Cant pass this up. So I get my first taste of well, actually its so sweet I almost go into sugar shock. I have to grab my unsweetened coffee to neutralize the taste. I tentatively try a second, smaller, bite. Same reaction! Manfully, I manage to swallow the whole thing. And then Chowspouse presents me with half of hers! Surely this cant be the addictive pastry weve heard so much about! I return to the counter to buy a Sour Cream version. Its sickly sweet no tang at all. And questions flash through my mind. Why isnt it Krisp? Wheres the Kreme? Whats happening to my taste buds? Why is everybody else in here accompanied by kids? Escape! At least I can keep whats left of my boyish figure. Sorry to all you KK addicts I just dont get it.
A couple of hours later another American icon. Ive never looked at McDonalds in quite the same way since the review by David Hammond, on this board since deleted. I didnt make my way to the famous Oak Park version, but I presume the menu was similar at the one I found. No weapons of mass destruction here either. And the fries are still described as French. But the attraction this time was the local appearance of the McRib sandwich. Not sure why, but this disappeared from Canada many years ago, without explanation. There have been isolated sightings in San Francisco, and even at the outlet at Frankfurt airport but it never crosses the longest undefended (as long as you have picture ID and no alcohol) border in the world. This is my secret fast food desire (but secret no more). I actually like the fries too but never get them, as I dont care for anything else on McDonalds regular menu. So, here was the chance to indulge in a long deprived pleasure. And it hit the spot. The bun was a little soggy, the 3 small slices of pickle were superfluous (you know how some restaurants garnish unnecessarily), the sauce was slightly sweeter than I remembered (? KK backlash), the onions were appropriately crisp and the chewy texture of the pork patty was sufficiently greasy to satisfy my craving. Great fries too.
So, could Trio top that? Grant Achatz had just won the James Beard Rising Star Chef Of The Year Award for 2003 (after I made my reservation, so I couldnt be accused of being a Beardie or whatever theyre called), so I was hopeful.
Trio was approached with much anticipation. The Chefs Table is slightly raised on a platform above the main kitchen action. It seats 4 people (max) and overlooks the final stage where the dishes are assembled and despatched to the dining room. High sides mean that you cant see over half of the kitchen (no dessert sightings), but all the serious stuff can be seen (meats, saucings, garnishes and a few other special techniques). Discipline rules in the kitchen. There are verbal cues and responses so the guests are required to exhibit reasonable decorum and can only move to and from the table if accompanied. A server is assigned to the table, but the overall teamwork means that several different people (including various categories of chef) will serve you and that your server will also be used in the main dining room when needed.
You are given the option of a printed list of courses, or to have each course a surprise. We optioned to know what we were eating and were given a personalized tasting menu (nice touch). We were also offered the option of a break to go for a walk whatever, as long as we notified the kitchen a few courses in advance (which we did). We also chose the wine tasting included option although no list of wines was provided (they offered to forward it later, but it hasnt arrived yet). Ill give as much detail of the wines as I can recall.
Cheese n Cracker (the quotes are theirs). A ravioli-style crunchy cracker with a liquid cheese centre. We correctly identified the cheese as cheddar and also guessed Wisconsin. Worked extremely well. Served with a Lustau Amontillado one of my favourite dry sherries, but a little swamped by the cheese.
Osetra Caviar kola nut ice, milk foam. Most notable thing in this dish was the textures, with a vanilla flavour dominating and both creamy and salty notes. Served with LAbrey & Fils Champagne toasty with lime notes. Around this time we commented on the butter very good, from a small herd of cows, individually pampered (we asked).
Chilled Purée of English Pea Soup eucalyptus, melon, preserved lemon. Very creamy with a eucalyptus ice that really wakes you up. The lemon was preserved Meyer lemon although it didnt have the sweetness I expected more like a regular lemon. But the highlight of this dish was the garnish. An immature pea pod (past the pea-shoot phase that Ive been served elsewhere) with a paper-thin translucent pod through which the immature peas could be seen. This was absolute essence of pea, pure and sweet. Something to look for in food stores. Served with a 2001 Arneis from the Langhe region of Italy dry with a hint of asparagus but clean fruit and a touch of honey in the finish.
Black Truffle Explosion. The only dish repeated from last years visit. A ravioli topped with a truffle slice that you place whole in your mouth after scooping up some broccoli purée into the spoon. As you press down it explodes over the tongue. This time the truffle flavours seemed much stronger than before, so I didnt identify any other elements that might be present.
Poached Loin Of Lamb with floral infusion, artichoke, orange. We were told this was Elysian Fields lamb. As an aside I know this is the lamb served at the French Laundry (and many other restaurants). But Ive always found it good (not great) and its just a brand name no real Elysian Fields exist (outside mythology), but brilliant marketing. I cant tell the difference from our local Ontario lamb. Give me Washington State anytime. My best recollection is of the grated Taiwan peppercorn on this. The artichoke was served on an orange purée, and the infusion was the broth from the poaching. I vaguely recall this was in the form of a gelée, although my scribbled notes dont say anything about this. The lamb is pretty mild though. So mild that they served a white wine with this dish. It was a Portuguese by Luis Pato from the Beiras region. French oak barrel fermented and a blend of cercial and (I think) bical. Coincidentally I had bought a case of a similar blend recently although this one was a little heavier in style.
Roasted Calfs Liver fava beans, cous-cous, coffee-cardamom. The calfs liver was encrusted with cous cous and there were also shallots in the dish. But the standout here was the coffee-cardamom. Absolutely a perfect flavour marriage combination. This is one to experiment with at home. Served with a 2000 Willakenzie (Oregon) Pinot Meunier.
Pizza (their quotes). I had read about this dish, but was still surprised. Tiny tending to miniscule about ¼ the size of a postage stamp and presented on a pin. A paper-thin crust dusted with dried powdered tomato. Just pop onto the tongue. Chowspouse identified flavours of fennel and sausage (?) but I just got a blast of tomato. Gimmicky, yes, but fun.
White Pekin Duck lavender salt lozenge, rhubarb, foie gras. This was one of the more complex dishes (and relatively a large portion). Beautifully presented curled slices of duck breast on rhubarb braised in port, red wine and red wine vinegar. The sauce appeared to be the duck drippings whipped with rhubarb. For contrast the duck skin had been confited and then crisped to give a crunch. The lozenge was placed on the tongue to dissolve before eating the rest of the dish (acted as a palate cleanser and added the lavender aroma). Served with a 2001 Nero dAvalt from Sicily.
Salad (more quotes) red wine vinaigrette. Another dish designed to make one rethink conventional food. This salad was a granité of puréed spinach, romaine and arugula. The red wine vinaigrette was also an ice. The salt and pepper were not iced.
Crispy Strawberry horseradish, lime. The strawberry had been thinly sliced and crisped. I was unable to taste the horseradish as the intense strawberry flavour dominated. But, again, Chowspouse got the whole effect and enjoyed it more than me.
Pushed Foie Gras pears, Sauternes, salt roasted pear sorbet. The pushed foie gras had been part of our previous visit but that time served in a savoury manner with Poussin. It worked just as well with the sweetness in this dish. The foie gras is pushed through a fine sieve, which gives it a fluffy texture (and appears to have air trapped within it). It seems to melt at tongue temperature to a velvety sauce that coats the tongue. And the sweetness of the rest of the dish complements perfectly. The pear balls were of different sizes, so the pear flavour intensity altered with the size of the ball. The Sauternes was in the form of a custard. The wine was a Bechtolsheimer Petersberg Beerenauslese from the Rheinhessen. Pear is one of my favourite flavours and this dish delivered temperature variations, the fatness of the foie gras and complex concentrations of pear. My favourite dish so far and coincidentally the time we chose to take a break, which allowed the residual flavours to linger as we took a stroll down to the lake. A clamber over the rocks and a short stroll along the sand left us staring lovingly into each others eyes and saying, Lets go back for more food.
Refreshed and rejuvenated we were ready to be further entertained. We were welcomed back by:
Passionfruit-Mustard. A frozen lozenge that you allow to melt on the tongue. Strong passionfruit flavour with a hint of spice.
We had been quietly observing the creative process in the kitchen, but were now determined to learn some secrets with which to amaze and astound our friends. Suddenly a small copper pot was whisked past our table, carried carefully and with a large foam on top. What was this? We motioned to the server to find out what creation had just been whisked past our table obviously destined for somebody special in the dining room. And they even told us the secret! It was soap the pan was just being washed out! Oh, well. We already know how to do that one.
Salad of White Asparagus progression of five flavors. Another dish we had read about. The rectangular dish is presented with the short side towards you. A huge spear of white asparagus points away from you on the left side of the plate. Then there are a series of 5 flavours to accompany the asparagus and to be sampled in order with the asparagus. The first is saffron braised asparagus stems; then comes chopped wild mushroom mousse with trumpet mushrooms, walnuts and Meyer lemon; a cheese mousse (? asiago I dont remember) with tupelo honey; a Japanese spiced concoction including pickled oyster, daikon and sesame seeds; and finally a perfect hollandaise. Served with an Austrian Heiligenstein Gruner Veltliner.
Pacific Sea Urchin puffed rice, frozen banana, parsnip milk. I missed the banana on the first scoop it was at the bottom, so I may not have got the intended effect. For me the main flavour was cinnamon apparently this was a Saigon cinnamon, which is new to me. Again, textures were key to this dish. Served with an Oregon blend Amytas (pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer).
Big Eye Tuna-Nasturtium-Green peanuts, Kiwi-Celery-Clam. Well the name is a mouthful, but its only a small portion. The ingredients are wrapped in a nasturtium leaf and eaten like a wrap.
Wild French Turbot Served Warm ginger, mussels, beer, green apple. Another complex dish. Two parts of the turbot are served, the meat and cheeks. Similar flavour but different textures. The beer is foamed and theres a strong taste of ginger, dominating the dish. There are maché, radish and arugula salad. Apple slices and mussels (I think they were in the foam, but I dont really recall). And my notes say Cucumber and Apple Capsules. But that also escapes me now. Obviously too complex for me to remember everything. Served with a blend of grenache, and petite syrah from the Languedoc De Carplong.
Capsule of Mango Spicy Yuzu. Sort of a mango fruit roll containing mango freeze. Also contains a Japanese pepper to give a hot/cold hot/sweet sensation.
Sautéed Frogs Legs forest vegetables, evergreen vapor. This is the latest incarnation of a dish that wasnt totally successful last time. The dish plays with aromas that dont appear in the eaten ingredients. Last time it was Lobster with Rosemary Vapor. The problem then was the rosemary scent was so dominant that every time somebody else had the dish you had rosemary with whatever you were currently eating. However, the new version works perfectly. Probably my favourite dish of the evening. The centre bowl contains the eating part. This sits in a second bowl that contains freshly snipped twigs of cedar, balsam fir and spruce (didnt detect any pine). Hot water is poured over this to release the natural oils, giving a forest aroma, surrounding the forest tastes in the centre dish. And these were all earthy. Wild mushrooms dominated by morels. Wild vegetables asparagus and leek (ramp) and nuggets of frog leg. Accompanied by another Sicilian red, Shardana.
Cap of Prime Beef bottarga, eggplant, toasted bread purée. Bottarga (cured fish roe) was my big discovery last visit but it disappeared in this dish. This dish also had a textural component. It was served with roasted bone marrow that closely resembles the eggplant texture and its not one of my favourites. Probably the only dish I didnt finish.
Manchego textures. One of my favourite cheeses, so much anticipated. Four tiny servings: melted manchego with roasted pea; virgin unadorned manchego; manchego crisp with pine nuts and grated manchego; manchego sorbet on red and yellow bell peppers. Served with a Lustau East India Solera sherry (which is mainly Pedro Ximenez, which I dont particularly like, so I received a taste of a 15yr-old malmsey madeira which I really liked).
Roasted Pineapple Financier haas avocado, cilantro, coriander. Another success. Think pineapple upside down cake with a brunoise of pineapple, a sliver of avocado, a crystallized cilantro leaf and a coriander sorbet.
Sunchoke Parfait minneola, maté, crispy sunchoke. Very refreshing. Tangerine and vanilla flavours with a herb infusion and crispy sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Served with Pineau des Charentes. The wine is a classic match with melon maybe that could be added to the dish next time around (as if we need more food).
Tea Smoked Chocolate. Sounds simple. But this has a pavé of tea-smoked chocolate with a Darjeeling tea gelée, strawberry sorbet, crystallized nori and shaved chocolate. Served with a sweet red wine from Piedmont, Brocchete.
Chilled Moroccan Milk. Another feast of flavours. Yes, there was milk but also a strong apple juice (from Calico apples), almond, orange(?) and a granité texture.
Coffee. Just coffee, no fooling (extra charge).
So, 24 courses over 5 hours. Total cost for two around $700.
Overall assessment. Definite evolution and improvement from a year ago. The entire meal structure is much easier to take. The slightly sweet dishes about half way through provide a pacing break (and we also had a physical break then too). Last year we struggled to get through 21 courses. Here we were full, but not overfull after 24 courses. Our favourite meal, so far, this year (last years didnt make the top three). The wines were OK, no serious missteps, but not great either. But, Im not sure I could do a better job of matching the price point with so many samples. A group of 4 diners might be able to select 4 bottles (say, Alsace pinot gris; well structured chardonnay, pinot noir (preferably Burgundy) and a glass each of Champagne and sweet wine) for about the same price if they can spot bargains. But its difficult with so many courses. We certainly didnt question or resent the cost. This isnt your average diner! But, of course, driving 500 miles for dinner, were predisposed to enjoy it to justify the trip. And we did enjoy it.
I havent said much about the kitchen or goings-on. Thats deliberate. There arent any sensational revelations. Its well organized and controlled more formal than I expected. Great teamwork (for the most part) and the relatively few missteps handled quietly (You know better than that!). The chefs, including Chef came over when there were natural breaks to see how we were, and answer questions but, of course, the job of getting out the food to those in the main rooms came first. We noticed that some dishes (e.g. the White Pekin duck) went out in larger servings (4 slices instead of 2), presumably featured on the smaller set menus that night. The only times we were obviously noticed was when the end-of-evening tours came through the kitchen. The other guests assumed we were important (of course, they were right) and we were amused by their attempts to impress both the staff and us.
We slept well that night. And unfortunately the butcher that stocks beaver was rebuilding after a fire, so we now have an excuse to go back to Chicago later this year. We had a clear drive back, stopping just before we left Indiana to fill up the car (gasoline is much cheaper in Indiana). And right next to the service station was . McDonalds. Could, I? Should I? So it was another McRib. This time only two pieces of pickle, but more onion, which was not as artfully arranged on the bun it had spilled out over the side. And the cheap gas lasted all the way back to Toronto.