Saturday, May 26, 2012

Charlie Trotter's

For many years, Charlie Trotter's was the pinnacle of fine dining in Chicago.  While the man himself is notorious for having an explosive temper, he is also an incredibly talented chef, having won the James Beard Best Chef Award in 1999.  He is also a talented teacher.  His influence can be seen in restaurants throughout Chicago.  Notable chefs that have worked for Trotter include Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, Mindy Segal, Michael Carlson, Curtis Duffy, Giuseppe Tentori, Bill Kim, Matthias Merges, Gregory Ellis, Steven Fladung, and Graham Elliot (Bowman).  This August, after 25 years, Trotter will be closing the doors to his eponymous restaurant.  I thought that with my interest in good food, it would be a shame to have never gone to Charlie Trotter's so I talked several friends into joining me for the evening.  The best table in the house is the Kitchen Table and while I did try to get it, it was booked within minutes of becoming available (3 months in advance).  With the reputation of the restaurant, I knew that a regular table in the dining room would be very good so I had no problem booking a table there.  We had a 9 pm reservation so we arrived a little early.  It seemed when we got there that there are two seatings for the restaurant because both the waiting area and the dining room were full.  There was a rapid turnaround shortly after that.  We were seated and given the menus.  The dining menu consisted of two options, the Vegetable menu, and the Grand Menu, both 8 course degustation menus.  The wine menu however, was a book.  There were four of us in the party.  Three of us ordered the Grand Menu and one ordered the Vegetable Menu.  We all got the wine pairings for our respective dinners.

The dinner lasted just over 4 hours and everything was at least very good.  While our dinners were supposed to have been eight courses, we were actually served nine because they erred in service.  Our first course was a Sashimi of Blue Fin Tune with a Shrimp Head and Greens.  This was actually the first course on the Grand Menu and as one member of our party had ordered the Vegetable Menu and they served this to her...

They decided to serve all of us the first course of the Vegetable Menu.  This was Roasted Heirloom Beets with Candied Pistachios and Meyer Lemon Sorbet.

After we had the first course from both menus, we returned to our respective menus.  For me, that meant that the next course was the Red Wine Marinated Unagi with Allspice and Pumpernickel Cracker.

The next course was one of my favorites.  It was Steamed Alaskan Halibut with Green Almonds, Acorn-Fed Iberian Ham & Lemon Balm.  Every part of it looked and tasted excellent.

The next course was another favorite, Arkansas Rabbit Loin with Ramps, Burgundy Snails & Elephant Garlic.  It was also served with an Allspice Cracker.  While the dish does look good, I probably could have done a better job photographing it.  The snails and a second loin were hidden by the cracker.

Our next course was the last truly savory course and it was really savory.  It was Espresso Rolled Venison with Crumbled Oats, Boudin Noir (blood sausage), and Pulled Goat.

As has been my habit when I have a multicourse meal, I invariably forget to photograph one course.  This was also true at Charlie Trotter's but unlike others, I didn't notice that I had forgotten until I started going through the pictures.  The course that I forgot was the first dessert course which was a Granny Smith Apple & Greek Yogurt Sorbet with Meyer Lemon, Tarragon and Candied Pistachio.  It was good and if I remember it, like all of the other courses, it did look very good.

The next dessert course was Cinnamon-Glazed Brioche with Georgia Blueberry Compote & Cinnamon-Blueberry Ice Cream.  Every piece of this sort of reminded me of a marshmallow (as far as the look was concerned).  The pieces were round and soft but they had enough structural integrity to hold together when they were attacked.  It also tasted good, sweet with the right amount of tartness.

My last dessert was a good finish.  It was a good combination of sweet and savory, Criollo Cake with Parsnip, Red Wine & Candied Vanilla.

I was glad I went to Charlie Trotter's and it was interesting to see where other fine dining chefs learned their techniques.  Dinner lasted four hours but with the good company that I had, the time flew.  The service was excellent as was the food and while I am sorry that this restaurant will be closing and I wish Chef Trotter the best on wherever life may take him, if the restaurant were to remain open, I am not sure that I would have the urge to return.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tre Kronor

I recently had an urge to try something different.  Trying something different though, can be tougher than it sounds.  I have a very adventurous palate and have tried a wide variety of cuisines.  I wasn't really looking for anything exceptionally weird but I knew that Mexican, French, Italian, American, German, Chinese, Thai, or Sushi were pretty much out of the question.  So what could I do?  I have had African, Polish, Greek, Middle Eastern,and Indian foods but I wouldn't really consider myself exceptionally familiar with any of these so they were an option, but I decided to go with Swedish because I have never had it and from what little I did know, it didn't seem exceptionally unusual.  I decided to go to Tre Kronor in North Center.  From the outside it looks like an Alpine cottage, very friendly and homey.  The interior maintains that look with wooden tables and chairs, lace curtains, and a mural of elves relaxing on a mountain meadow along one wall.  The music, surprisingly enough was a Fleet Foxes (an indie pop group) album.  I was seated and was quickly waited on. There were several things on the menu that really looked good but I ordered what I think were standards that weren't meatballs.  For my appetizer, I had potato pancakes with smoked salmon and chive seasoned sour cream and garnished with a slice of lemon.  I knew that I was going to like every part of this individually, but together, they were exceptional and worked really well together.  I ended up squeezing the lemon on the pancake, spreading the sour cream on it, putting the salmon on top, and then rolling it up like a crepe.  I liked it a lot and it may have been my favorite dish.

For me entree, I did pick something that is a favorite of mine in other restaurants, duck.  The duck portion of the dish was a Seared Duck Breast.  The duck breast was served with  Asparagus, Rice Pilaf, and a Lingonberry Sauce.  The duck was good, and the sauce provided a nice tartness.  The asparagus was also nice and fresh.  The rice was prepared well and tasted good but it wasn't exceptionally exciting.  While I love duck, the potato pancakes were better.

When I looked at the dessert menu, I saw what I wanted immediately.  I ordered the Lemon Tart.  When it came out, it looked very nice.  It had a sliced strawberry, blueberries, and a whipped cream topping.  The fruits were crisp and juicy and tasted as if they were just picked.  That unfortunately, was the best part of the dessert.  While the lemon part of the tart tasted good, in my opinion, a tart should be fairly firm, whereas this was like pudding.  The crust didn't taste bad but it was kind of tough so it was a bit difficult to keep the tart and the crust together when it was cut into bite sized pieces.

Tre Kronor was very friendly and there were several other things on the menu besides what I ordered that looked good.  I don't know if I would order dessert the next time I return but the food, atmosphere, and service do warrant a return trip.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Merlo on Maple

While I like to go out for my birthday, I like to do something special.  I like going out with friends but I don't like asking them to spend a lot of money to go out.  I, on the other hand, don't mind spending a substantial amount for a special dinner and I consider a really nice dinner a birthday present to myself.  I have and will be going out with family and friends for my birthday in small groups and while the places that I will be going won't be anything new to me, they will be special because I will be able to share with my family and friends.  For my birthday party to myself, I got an 8 course Italian dinner with a glass of Prosecco at Merlo on Maple.  Merlo on Maple is a regional Italian restaurant based on the food of Bologna, Italy.  The restaurant is in a townhouse that looks like it was built in the 1920s and is a very beautiful space.  As one might imagine, because the space was a former townhouse, there are several dining rooms.  I was in what looked like a former basement rec room.  The lights were floor lamps and their were a lot of vintage images on the walls.  There was an in-wall bookcase with a stereo that had a vintage look although it also had an ipod jack.  The music that was playing was mostly light indie pop which was nice to listen to when the room was mostly empty but impossible to hear when the room filled.  The 8 course meal that I ordered was a set menu with a glass of Prosecco (which arrived first) so I didn't have to think about what I was going to order.  My dinner started with some charcuterie.  I was served some housemade Prosciutto di Parma aged 24 months and some 18 month Parmigiano Reggiano.  It was simple but very good and a good start.  The prosciutto was sliced thinly as prosciutto is and had a nice strong flavor and the Parmigiano Reggiano was very nice and nutty. 

The next course was a Warm Artichoke Tart which was served with a side salad dressed with a Balsamic Vinaigrette.  While they called it tart, I would call it a quiche.  This is neither good nor bad, it's just a difference in terminology.  In addition to the artichokes, it had eggs, cream, mortadella and Parmigiano Reggiano.  I didn't really taste the mortadella, the flavors of the eggs, cheese, and artichokes were the prominent flavors, but it was good in any case.  The salad was very fresh and the balsamic vinaigrette was something else.

The next course was an Eggplant  Parmesan.  It took sliced eggplant rolled with more Parmigiano Reggiano and Parsley, baked and covered in a fresh and housemade tomato basil sauce.  I am generally not a fan of eggplant.  I find it slimy and pretty unappetizing but this was something else.  Admittedly, it wasn't exceptionally pretty and because I was eating a multi-course meal, the individual serving size was smaller than it normally would have been, but I definitely would have enjoyed a full size portion of this. 

The next course was the soup.  Personally, I would have served the soup before the eggplant but I suppose that since it is early in the progression it does make sense.  The soup was a Passatelli.  It is essentially an Italian Chicken Noodle Soup.  The broth was chicken (obviously), but the noodles were unlike anything that I have ever had.  They were made with eggs, Parmiagiano Reggiano, and bread crumbs.  They were really good and while they held together fine, they were also very cheesy.  It was kind of like soaking a grilled cheese sandwich in the soup that you would normally eat it with.  I normally find chicken noodle soup pretty boring but I did make sure I finished this.

Finally we got to the meat of the meal, if you will excuse the pun.  I was served Handmade Tagliatelle with a Bolognese Meat Ragout.  The tagliatelle was uneven as one might expect from handmade pasta and it was cooked perfectly, having the right amount of toothsomeness.  Of course it was covered in Parmigiano Reggiano.  I have nothing to say about this other than that this too was very good.

The next course was another pasta course and it was much better than I would have expected.  It was Tortelloni al Burro e Salvia.  I like tortelloni but this dish was so simple that I wasn't expecting much.  Like everything else, this pasta was housemade and stuffed with Ricotta di Pecora and tossed with fresh sage and butter.  It was buttery, creamy, cheesy, and roll-my-eyes-back good.

Yes, this is a picture of an empty plate.  As you might expect, I liked this dish as well.  It was a Grass-fed Beef Tenderloin Medallion.  It was actually a pretty big medallion and it was covered with shaved black truffles.  While I have had things flavored with truffle oil, I have never had real truffles.  They let themselves be known with their odor as soon as the plate.  It was served with a Kabocha Squash Souffle.  The beef was very tender and flavorful and the truffle shavings had a flavor much more than that of just truffle oil.  It had the strong pungent flavor of truffle oil but it also had the mushroomy flavor that you might expect from a fungus.  The souffle was very delicate and had a flavor that very much complemented the flavor of the steak and the truffles.

Finally, we came to dessert and it was something else.  It was an Angel Food cake soaked in Rum and Grenadine, filled with Pastry Cream, and Dark Chocolate Mousse, and drizzled with Dark Chocolate Sauce.  It was served with a sliced strawberry and a biscotti.  The cake was sweet and very moist and a very good finish to a very good dinner.

The food at Merlo on Maple is very good with everything being housemade and the space is classic and very nice.  The music was nice when I could hear it and the wait staff was very friendly.  The only negative that I have to say about my dinner was that the pacing was a little slow.  While I did enjoy my dinner and would return, if the pacing was a little faster, it would have been much more enjoyable.