My wife and I celebrated our two year anniversary at Charlie Trotters last night. We are new to the whole "fine dining" scene, the highest caliber restaurantw we've eaten at previously was Le Titi in Arlington Heights.
We were hesitant for an array of reasons, mainly from various negative posts (on this board and others) but we figured we may as well go with the old standard first before branching out into food created with a laser intended for surgery.
We arrived a bit early and were greeted warmly. Honestly, we were both a bit nervous with the whole thing: could this possibly be worth the price, will we be seated next to obnoxious people, will the waitstaff be rude, do they really sniff you when you come in? We're in our mid-20s so there's always the fear of being treated like children (we are fans of wine and unfortunately many of the times we go to wine tastings we are treated poorly and it's hard to not think it's based on age--if you were at one with us you'd notice, that's all I can say). Anyways, all of our fears quickly were put to rest.
We were seated in the main floor dining room (and there was no sniff test, so that rumor can be put to rest). Service was formal and clearly confident, but never stuffy or patronizing. Most of the servers (and chefs) could not have been older than 30, so any fears about being "too young" are pretty much thrown out the door when your waiter is younger than you. The dining room was filled with people of all ages and we were made to feel right at home.
When each glass of wine and food course came, the server would explain what it was in detail.
I'll point this out, the people at a table near us had, I don't know how to phrase this nicely, a sort of aloof/rude/condescending attitude with the waitstaff and the food (they were seated well after us and finished just before us--I don't know, I think quickly devouring food at a place like this suggests you're not there to appreciate food). Becuse of this, the servers "accidentally" forgot to go explain the occassional course or go into detail about the wine. Not to say their service was "bad," but our servers did not miss a beat and when I (or the very nice couple next to us) would ask a question the servers were friendly and went into extreme detail whereas when they did the answers were much shorter. As a person who works in customer service I definitely recognized the difference between the 100% some people received vs. the 98% with others. The point: you don't even have to be "nice," but don't a jerk and you'll have a flawless evening.
We both ordered the vegetable menu and the first question asked was if we were both vegetarians (which we are) and that they'd make everything without meat based stocks. Excellent. We also both went with the wine pairing.
The meal started with Amuse Gueule, which was a small radish salad with turnip ice cream. The flavors worked together very well and I found it to be fascinating. It was clear right away that this would be a meal unlike anything we'd ever experienced. The wine was Larmandier-Bernie "Blanc de Blancs" Brut NV. I'm normally not a big champagne fan, but I enjoyed this, it was nice and smooth with not much of the toasty oak flavors that turn me off.
Next up was Spring Onions with Fiddlehead Ferns, French White Asparagus, Summer Black Truffle & La Quercia Prosciutto. The proscuitto was replaced with some sort of almost bread like shaving. The flavors were familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on just exactly what it was. Everything was simply perfect. The onions were the best I've ever had. I'm not an asparagus fan and I enjoyed this (I didn't even realize it was asparagus until later honestly). Fantastic. The wine was different than the one listed on their website, it was a Gruner Veltiner, not sure the year or producer, but it matched the salad perfectly. We've only had a few different Gruner's before and this one was fantastic, it had flavors of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc...a bit of sweetness, a bit of tropical fruit.
Third course was: Celery Root Soup with Spiced Pumpernickel Bread, Confit Shallot & Parsley Emulsion. This was our first encounter with "foamy" food which was incredible. The soup came out and was placed in front of us and the server then added (I'm 99% sure he said) "onion chutney." The flavors blended wonderfully and if I think the only way I could've cleaned the bowl more would be if I picked it up and licked it. This was served with Palacios Remondo "Placet" Rioja 2004. A fantastic Spanish white wine.
I should mention the bread at this point. Three types of bread were served throughout the meal. A ciabatta style roll, a baguette style roll, and a raisin wheat roll. All were wonderful. I know I'm gushing, but what can I say.
Next up a Rosemary Tart with Grilled Treviso, Cauliflower, Maitake Mushrooms & Red Cabbage. I can't say much other than this was fantastic. The mushrooms were the best I have ever had and the tart was delicious. Served with the phenomenal Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough 2002. Perfection.
I was somewhat surprised with just how large the next course was. It was Stinging Neetles Risotto with Salsify, Whole Roasted Abalone Mushroom & Sage Infused Red Wine Essence. I don't mean to say it was "a lot of food" but the serving was large enough that I was more than satisfied (I sincerely expected to leave the restaurant, perhaps not "hungry" but willing to have a snack somewhere). Though the risotto was excellent, it simply didn't blow me away as the rest of the meal. Don't get me wrong, it was fantastic, but up to this point everything we had burst with one flavor and nuances of several others that made every bite of food interesting. This simply was what it was--good, but not mindblowing. Could I make it myself at home? Of course not. The mushroom and wine essence sauce on the side had the interesting flavors that I was looking for. A bit more mushroom and a bit less risotto and this would've been perfect. The wine, on the other hand, Tikal "Amorio" Malbec, Mendoza 2004 was phenomenal.
Dessert Phase 1: Lime Sherbet with Pickled Lime Radish & Lemongrass. The sorbet was very good, but the radish brought in peculiar flavors that just worked perfectly.
Dessert Phase 2. For me: Fuji Apple with Butterscotch, Rye & Thyme. For my wife: not on the menu, but it was some sort of airy whipped cream like substance on top of razor thin slices of rhubarb. Mine had tiny scoops of ice cream and the apples had were served the same way--tiny scoops of apple if you will, with a hint of thyme that was fascinating and delicious. The rhubarb cream dish was excellent as well. Also served: chamomile tapioca pudding. Perhaps pudding is not the best word, it was a bowl of tapioca and when you bit into it you were hit with a punch of chamomile, not sweet at all but very flavorful. As much as I like sweets, this was my favorite dessert, the texture and flavor were perfect. Also served: A chocolate fudge bar with roasted banana creme sauce: mindblowing, that's all I can say. Also served: a tray of four candies: a hazelnut chocolate type bar, a jelly candy, a caramel (that's still stuck to my teeth, 16 hours later), and some sort of nut (my wife said they were excellent, but I'm not a big nut fan so I passed). All of this was served with two dessert wines: Jurancon "Cancaillau - Gourmandise" Clos Cancaillau 1995 and Niepoort Colheita Port 1994. The Port was excellent, but the Jurancon was somewhat Sauternes like which is fine, but really not my thing. We both also had a cappucino which were excellent.
After the meal, we were offered a tour of the kitchen which was really interesting: the kitchen is extremely cramped and on the tour you're literally pushing your way through the teams of chefs in various stations. A chef gave the tour and she was extremely friendly.
Overall, a wonderful evening. As for the bill: the Vegetable Menu is now $125, the wine menu is $85, a service fee is automatically added to the check of 18%, and with tax, dinner for two was $546. Dinner lasted just over two and a half hours. Was it worth it? Is any meal *really* worth $546? Of course not. Is dining at Charlie Trotters just a "meal"? Absolutely not. It's an experience and I do not regret it for one second. I've read some people mention a "gift bag" when they leave with a book and sauces--we did not, nor did I see anyone else get one of these. We did however get to keep our menus which had a nice "happy 2nd anniversary" message on them.
Will we go back? Well, we're not the type to just go back to someplace reliable when Chicago has so many other interesting places we haven't tried yet (Alinea, Moto, Topo, Green Zebra etc.). Should I come into money from a distant relative, lottery winning, or some sort of thing, I wouldn't hesitate returning. Trotters sold us both on the fact that the absurdly expensive "fine dining" dinner is now going to be annual anniversary outing rather than a gift exchange.