So let me thank you all for your suggestions of where to drop a wad and three hours. I will take you up on several of them, especially Les Nomades, soon I hope. But in the end, as someone who loves the French Laundry cookbook for what it tells you about a fine cooking philosophy (just don't try to cook anything out of it without a staff of 20 and handpicked suppliers), I couldn't resist the hype of a French Laundry-trained chef now being in residence at Trio, and so we decided to make that our anniversary dinner.
It was a GOOD choice. In fact, it's certainly the finest fine-dining meal I've ever had in Chicago. But then it had more than 20 chances to amaze me, because even though my wife and I had laughed about the absurdity of the 20 course dinner (I think mentioned here previously), when we got to looking at the menu, and saw that it was the only way to sample the most out-there things on offer... well, we decided to go easy on the bread for once and try to make it all the way through.
So before I get to the play by play, let me start with a general overview. There's no question that this was the kind of meal that a lot of people could make fun of. Tiny portions on big plates (well, with 20 courses they have to be unless you're Mr. Creosote; portions are larger on other menus), descriptions that practically give you the family tree of the animal you're eating, insanely "creative" combinations like chocolate and green olives, most dishes turned into something precious like foam (now I know who Charlie Trotter was sniping at when he said something in the Tribune about places that go crazy turning everything into a foam), and one particularly pretentious innovation-- precise instructions on HOW to eat something. If the food didn't live up to it, there'd be a lot to mock here.
But the food lives up to it-- I starred 6 or 7 things below that were astonishingly inventive and good, and more to the point for all the highwire combinations, only a couple did NOT work at least reasonably well. It's certainly the highest ratio of success I've had with this kind of menu. Also living up to the hype was the disarmingly personable service, which completely avoided the hipper-than-thou attitude that makes you feel like a boob for not knowing how to drink spiced water properly, instead couching everything in a sort of implicit "Let's humor the chef here and do it the way he suggests, you never know, he might be on to something." A lot of places say they take you on a culinary journey, but this was the rare case where I actually felt that the staff seemed glad to have us along.
So anyway, here's a course by course recap, plus brief notes on the wines that accompanied them:
Amuse-bouche: Ice cream sandwich of parmesan cracker and olive oil ice cream. Definite effect of cognitive dissonance, as your mouth says Baskin-Robbins and your tongue says Italian food.
[Champagne, with some vermouth added to it for Osetra Caviar course, which was interesting.]
Hot Coconut-Cold Coconut: Shooter with a top level of hot frothed coconut milk and lower level of cold coconut something (clear) scented with vanilla, served in a bud-vase-like glass sitting in a metal stand to be shot so hot salty milk and cold perfumy whatever mix (as provocatively as ice cream and parmesan). Interesting, but a better example of this hot-cold effect was to come.
Morocco: Match A to B quiz, consisting of five dollops of whipped olive oil each seasoned with a typical Moroccan spice (saffron, coriander, cinnamon, etc.) to be mixed and matched with five little dabs of Moroccan foods (meyer lemon, green olive, eggplant, date and almond, sumac bread with couscous). Fun to play with, but you mainly tasted the whipped olive oil (which is not THAT different from mayo).
* Osetra Caviar: The first knockout on the menu and one of the most memorable items: a cup with a lime foam on the bottom, a coriander-flavored disc of crisp sugar, and caviar on creamy avocado on top. The lime-caviar combination is so good and natural I cant believe Ive never seen it before (for that matter, so was the avocado-caviar combination, giving the roe a creamy richness); this is caviar for people who dont care for caviar.
Oysters and Beer: Oysters and salmon roe in a froth of Anchor Steam beer. Not being an oyster fan, this was probably my least favorite thing of the night.
[Premium sake, served cold. All right, I guess. Not huge sake fan.]
* Wild Cobia Belly: Another seafood knockout, a great mix of Asian seafood flavors. Cobia belly, lobster crackers and a couple of seaweeds or something in a tamari foam. You know when you eat Japanese food and a piece of seafood overpowers everything else with too strong a fishy flavor? Thats what this DIDNT do.
[French white wine, mostly viognier.]
Green and White Asparagus: Salad of itsy-bitsy asparagus, a dab of crab salad, a swash of lemon/chamomile foam and a glob of walnut jelly or gelee or something. Kind of an intermission between more ambitious things, the woodsy walnut flavor being the most interesting part.
Sherry Vinegar Sorbet: This small palate cleanser doesnt get a star because I cant imagine having a big bowl of it on a hot summer day, but it was among the top courses in creativity. Sherry vinegar ice cream was surprisingly subtle and pleasant, the lurid green basil sauce it sat in (with a few miniature nubs of mandarin orange) was a trumpet blast to wake the dead.
* Chilled Ramp-Top Soup: Ramps are like wild onions (yup, its hillbilly food at $20/plate); another lurid green item (served in a very pretty, not-quite-impractical gull-wing dish), with abalone (oh, sorry, WILD abalone) and pine ice (a granite made out of pine extract of some sort) in which oniony and sweet flavors kept surprising each other.
* Liquid Black Truffle Ravioli: One of the two dishes mentioned in every review, mainly because it illustrates the thing they do of instructing you how to eat something; pop the whole ravioli in your mouth and let it explode. One was topped with shaved parmesan, the other with a slice of truffle, there were pancetta and favas involved as well, and explode was the right word.
Spice Water: The other dish mentioned in every review along with its eating instructions, also because the idea of a water course seems so silly. Well, tasting is believing. A top layer of salty-smoky hot froth, a lower level of cold spiced water, and the flavors (I forget which were on which level) were Jamaican peppercorn, star anise, allspice, black truffle oil (must have been on top), toasted hazelnut (likewise). This was like pure flavor without the distraction of food being involved.
Pushed Foie Gras: One combination I felt outright did not work. Foie gras was pushed through something so it looked like shredded wheat, and melted on the tongue. A licorice foam added somethingnot especially licoriceyto it. So far so good. But the red beet gelee was the wrong flavor to add on top of it, I thought, too fruity and root/dirt-tasting for the foie gras.
[White burgundy, much richer than previous whites, buttery, best white of evening.]
Frog Legs and Fenugreek Seeds: With caramelized cauliflower. Unusually subtle dish, fried frog legs only a little more exotic than youd get at Phil Smidts thanks to a hint of fenugreek (an ingredient in curry) and a stripe of apricot-flavored sauce along the plate. Actually the caramelized cauliflower is what I want to try to replicate.
* Maine Lobster With Rosemary Vapor: Candidate for next dish most likely to be mentioned in every review. Chunks of lobster in a wild mushroom sauce (including a whole morel head) were terrific. But then, the plate was surrounded with rosemary, over which hot water was poured at the table, so you SMELLED rosemary vapor as you ate the dish. (Otherwise, no rosemary in the dish.) Sounds preposterous (like the martini recipe where you hold the bottle of vermouth up to the glass to let light pass through it to the gin), but it worked in fact it worked so well we could tell when others in the room were being served the dish.
[Baga, an Italian red.]
Lavender-Scented Elysian Fields Farm Lamb: Slices of rare lamb in a sauce I seem to have failed to take notes on (some kind of cream, out-there things like little bits of citrus fruit, maybe the Ramp-Bottoms?) It was good, but evidently not as memorable as other things
Grapefruit Cells--Smoke and Anisette-Cinnamon: A palate-cleanser of two spoons, the one facing left containing grapefruit pips and bitter chocolate diced, the one facing right holding a little clear gelatin cube with a center of brown anisette. The grapefruit and chocolate I thought made each other more bitter (and strangely brought back a seaweedy flavor from earlier), and prompted yuck faces on both sides of the table; the cube was fine.
[Peter Lehmann shiraz, one of the best Australian wines Ive ever had, usual fruity characteristics but more structure and subtlety, not just grape flavors.]
White Pekin Duck: Ah, here are the ramp bottoms, pickled with slices of duck and a duck leg confit, and a bit of melysol melon. Not very Asian to me, this improved with each bite, partly because the duck was especially strong and flavorful.
[Italian red, Dolcetto.]
Prime Ribeye of Beef: To be honest, after so many ethereal flavors and vapors it was kind of time for a bit of red meat in a robust wine sauce, and here it was. Crusted with pine nuts and something green, on the side there was not only a wine reduction but then a roux-like puree of bread crumbs with the wine sauce (another peasant food at aristocrat prices).
[Pommeau de Normandiesort an apple eau-de-vie, harder than cider, not as distilled/high proof as Calvados. Much better than the food it inspired below.]
Wild Mushroom Cheesecake: This was odd. Said to be inspired by the wine above, and thus a savory-to-sweet transition to dessert, they said, this was a kind of mini camembert cheesecake with wild mushroom flavors. Pretty strong, far more savory than dessert-like, I wouldnt have eaten a whole slice.
* Sparkling Rhubarb Parfait: The hands-down winner of the desserts. One glass held a rhubarb parfait, nicely tart; a carafe held a homemade ginger soda which wasnt ginger-ale-tart but light and floral; pour them together and drink with a straw, the result was wonderful, even for people who dont like rhubarb.
[A Loire dessert wine, botrytisized Chenin Blanc, quite nice.]
Tea-Simmered Pear-Crystallized Nori: Im not convinced that Japanese desserts are entirely a good idea, but this proved to be a strong argument for themlittle slices of pear with a tea and toasted sesame flavor, a bit of pear sorbet, and surprisingly, a very successful little thing of ice cream and poached or baked pear between squares of a sugar-coated seaweed. (When I asked what nori was they promised I wouldnt taste the seaweed; I did, but it was quite good anyway, if not quite so good that it didnt make me wish those dark squares were simply chocolate.)
[Curious & Ancient 20-year Tawny Port. Probably best Port Ive had, wine complexity and not just sherry astringency.]
Chocolate and Olives: Skeptical about that combination? Well, you still may be after eating it. A layer of dark on top, a layer of tart strawberry jam below, and in the middlegreen olive ice cream, as strong as it sounds. My wife scraped it out entirely, I made sure to lead with the strawberry side tongue-first. On the whole, one of the failures.
Mango Lassi: With real confit of collie! No, we conclude with one more glass of hot foam on top and cold something or other below. Too salty and too strong for the last stop on the dinner, I thought. Though technically speaking it wasnt, since we received a pair of truffles (chocolate, that is) in a box as a parting gift. (We decided to save them for another day, so I cant report on them yet.)
* * *
So how much was this, you finally ask? $175 per person, plus $95 for accompanying wines. Yeah, it's a hell of a lot, but I've paid roughly as much for nowhere near the experience. If you can only do this once in a lifetime, I can recommend this without hesitation.
One final thought, on Vital Info's notion of surprise at dinner. The night before this meal, I ate at Piccolo Mondo and had one of the city's most reliably perfect items-- their caprese salad, with exactly right proportions of oil, salt and pepper, and mozzarella so fresh and delectable you'd think they're milking the cow in the kitchen. In that case, no surprise was exactly what I wanted.
The next night, we had nothing but surprises, and a few were the kind you never forget. That's perfection, too.