Tomorrow, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller, and other top chefs will serve up food at the 20th anniversary celebration (the actual anniversary was August 17) of my favorite restaurant, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Despite the impressive crop of new and red-hot restaurants in this city, Charlie Trotter is still Chicago's flagship chef. And yet, some are asking whether he still has his edge. That anyone would even ask this question after twenty years suggests the answer is yes. A visit to his restaurant confirms it.
I've had the good fortune to eat at Trotter's twice, most recently in the summer of 2005. I've also eaten at Alinea, Moto, Avenues, Avec, and Tru. I've loved every one of these restaurants, but of all the places I've eaten -- including the French Laundry -- Trotter's has been the best across the board. Moto may have been more fun, Alinea more expensive, and the French Laundry more famous. Trotter's, though, had no weak spots. The service was the best I've ever seen. Attentive but not stuffy. Formal but with just enough of a sense of humor to keep it unobtrusive, so that I could concentrate on the food. The food, of course, was beautiful, in what we'd now have to call a "classic" style after the El Bulli-via-Moto-and-Alinea "molecular gastronomy" craze. But those restaurants are always flirting with gimmickry, whereas Trotter's presentations are just unobtrusive enough to highlight the flavor of whatever's on the plate. The only place that may have surpassed Trotter's food was Graham Elliot Bowles' Avenues -- and Bowles, like Achatz and Homaro Cantu, are Trotter's alums.
So, happy 20th anniversary to Charlie Trotter's restaurant. If you ever have the chance to eat there, don't miss it.
The illusion of illusions came next for dessert, courtesy of pastry chef Ben Roche. What looked like a mini Chicago-style hot dog, complete with green relish, tomato wedges and a poppyseed bun, was actually strawberry ice cream topped with kiwi and sandwiched between two shortcake pieces.Of course it was shortcake. Who'd serve a hot dog for dessert?
From the Ulterior Epicure:
It might take a little extra planning for me to “buy local,” but it’s what most of the world does. I love it. I don’t need my eggs flown in from Alabama, my corn shipped from Nebraska, or my milk over-nighted from those happy cows out in California. I can get them all right here, just 10 miles down the road every weekend. Plus, I enjoy the weekly communal time with those who work the land that surrounds me, and quite frankly, escapes me during the office-bound busy work week. Hurrah for the small farmers!We here in Hyde Park have a farmers market every Thursday morning in Harper Court, which I've sadly not been able to attend this year. I always seem to be either working, sleeping, or out of town on Thursday mornings. There's still plenty of summertime left, though, and then the glorious autumn harvest; I'm looking forward to hooking myself up with some good locally-grown food soon.
The Ulterior Epicure has moved from blogspot -- be sure to update your blogrolls.
I've had the pleasure of dining with UE and look forward to doing it again.
Creamy olive oil gelato as a stand-in for coconut. Who'da thunk it?
The LA Times has an article about a cheese called burrata. It's one of the things I remember most vividly about the culinary extravaganza that was my 2L summer in Chicago....
This weekend Heidi and I went to Chicago and, among other things, ate at Le Francais restaurant in Wheeling. We were looking forward to it because of all the good press it's gotten from those in the know.
I'm not a restaurant critic, but I love to eat, and I loved this food. Well, almost all of it. We had the chef's tasting menu, and my favorite course was the fish: daurade with roasted endive, wild mushrooms and blanquette sauce. Don't ask me what the blanquette sauce was made with. All I remember was that it was delicious and went well with the fish. Daurade (go here and scroll down to see what this fish looks like) tasted a lot like red snapper, as our waiter had warned us. It had white flesh that held together well, was a little more flaky than sea bass but less flaky than cod, and had just an itty-bitty hint of "fishyness." In my opinion, it was fantastic. Best course of the night.
The sautéed scallop was also great, as was the duo of sautéed sweetbreads and dry aged ribeye. Several of the courses featured black truffles, which were as decadent as they sound. The portions were reasonable, and I didn't feel too full at the end of the meal. I liked everything, but I've decided I'm not a huge fan of foie gras. Liccioni served it two ways last night: cold, on toast with a super-cute tiny pickle, and sautéed, with abalone mushrooms and port wine sauce. Yummy, sure; but knowing what they have to do to make foie gras, I'd be perfectly happy if I never had the chance to eat it again. I suppose I'm on the Trotter side of the Tramonto/Trotter foie gras war.
One of the most spectacular parts of the meal was the wine. Since I was driving, Heidi ordered the wine pairing with her meal (and I snuck tastes). Each wine was stellar in itself and especially with the food it was paired with. But one of the wines counts as among the best I've ever had anywhere. It was a South African dessert wine, a riesling with a bit of noble rot, and it blew me away.
One of my favorite meals ever!
Last week, a major study demonstrated that eating a low-fat diet doesn't lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. Greg Critser describes the health and dietary age that he hopes this study has helped to end:
In a sense, "the era" was neo-Galenic, by which I refer to the 2nd century physician who believed that all bodily ailments could be righted by balancing bodily humors with the right foods, bleeding and herbs. Such is the function — if not the stated intent — of our focus on finding and popularizing perfect dietary content. Right food, right bodily reaction, right health.
Bring back an old era — the Renaissance. And forget the tights and floppy hats. Let's look at how elites in another period of abundance and change thought about eating.
And do you like Chinese food? Then this review of Kansas City Chinese restaurants is for you, thanks to the ulterior epicure. This isn't just a namby-pamby review, either:
I must defend New China King against Charles Ferruzza, who’s underwhelming review in the pitch (July, 2005) made him (with all due respect Mr. Ferruzza) sound like a bumbling idiot.
Go check out some pictures of the meal that Heidi made yesterday. (I helped with the gazpacho.)
Can the state of Montana impose testing requirements for mad cow disease that exceed those required by the USDA?
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said that regulators at the USDA are "a bunch of stooges" who have been bought by the big meat packing companies, and has criticized federal mad cow testing requirements as too lax.
The governor has ordered additional tests of Canadian cattle imported into Montana, which will be paid for by a $3- to $5-per head fee charged to the packing companies. Officials at the USDA say that these requirements may be an illegal burden on interstate commerce. Gov. Schweitzer claims that they are a necessary and permissible health and safety regulation.
May the state of Montana do this? Do these regulations unconstitutionally burden interstate commerce? Are they preempted by any federal statute?
I haven't looked too closely at the controlling precedent, but as far as I know the answer to the constitutional question may turn on whether the burdens on commerce imposed by the increased testing requirements outweigh the health and safety benefits for the citizens of Montana. Kessel v. Consolidated Freightways Corp., 450 U.S. 662 (1981). If so, statements like this might come back to bite the governor:
Critics have said Schweitzer is embracing a protectionist policy, but the governor said he was concerned about Canadian cattle imports driving down the price of Montana cattle.
“Bottom line, I’m trying to keep family ranchers in business,” he said.
I'm not sure what to say about Starfish, a sushi place west of the Loop that I ate at last week. The food was fantastic. I had the chirashi, which was served on a plate instead of a bowl, with the fish piled up on a modest amount of rice and with some tasty greens off to the side. I had a chance to sample the sashimi, maki, and nigiri that my lunch companions ordered, and they were all delicious. If the food was the only thing that mattered, I'd give the Starfish an enthusiastic three stars.
Unfortunately, the food is only about 94 percent of everything that matters about a restaurant. Some combination of service, price, and atmosphere makes up the remaining six percent. The service at the Starfish was bad. Well, not actively bad, but completely nonexistent. We were seated promptly, but after that it was as if we had never shown up.
We waited about fifteen minutes before placing our orders. One of us had a question about vegetarian rolls that the server didn't know the answer to, so she said she'd check with the chef. When she came back ten minutes later, she'd forgotten all about it and had to go back to the kitchen a second time. Finally, she answered the question about what was in the vegetarian rolls with "a lot of different vegetables." Thanks. It felt as if we waited about three hours for our food, even though it was probably only two hours and forty five minutes. We had to ask for dishes to mix our wasabi and soy sauce. We had to ask for spoons, twice. We didn't even bother to ask for regular soy sauce -- low sodium was the only stuff on the table -- so we just grabbed it from the sushi bar. Keep in mind that the dining room was only half full at the most. The worst part was that the staff never apologized for the wait until the very end, and then only because they must have overheard us discussing the pros and cons of leaving no tip.
So it's hard to decide whether or not to recommend the Starfish. I suppose if you want good food, and if you're forewarned that you may have to go on the offensive to pry it out of the people working there, then the Starfish is the place for you.
It's much easier to evaluate Hannah's Bretzel, a new bretzel place on the corner of Washington and Wells. Ok, I know you're probably not tired of all the old bretzel places, but. . . .
A bretzel, apparently, is a big pretzel made with different kinds of soft bread that can be sliced in half and packed with yummies like camembert, organic ham, and fresh cucumbers. You can have a breakfast bretzel with knutella if you want. Hannah's also serves sandwiches on extremely high-quality breads with all-organic ingredients. For dessert they have a fantastic selection of fancy chocolate from all kinds of chocolate makers in the US and europe. Their beverage selection is pretty good too -- teas, coffees, and sodas of all flavors. One little gimmick I think is pretty cute is their delivery service. Everything you order will arrive at your door in a Mini-Cooper.
The only thing about Hannah's Bretzel is they only have about four seats in the restaurant. So plan on doing take-out, and plan to try it before it gets too trendy, popular, and crowded.
The first time I went to Charlie Trotter's, the restaurant blew me away. I sat at the justifiably-famed kitchen table, and everything exceeded my (admittedly gourmet-virgin) expectations. Some things were literally awe-some, as in they actually filled me with awe. Eating at Charlie Trotter's for the second time was a risky endeavor -- when you know what to expect, there's just so much more to lose.
Tonight, I went back to Trotter's. It was a different experience.
This time, I sat in the first-floor dining room right off the entry. This time, I wasn't nearly as naive as I'd been the first time I ate there; I'd eaten at Everest a few weeks before, and at Spring only two nights ago. Both of those meals had been fantastic, but I clearly remembered that Trotter's had been, if only subtlely, at a higher level. This time I was sharing dinner with someone whom I'd regaled with stories about how great Trotter's was, and I was actually a bit nervous that the place wouldn't live up to my memories of it. "Come on, Trotter's," I thought, "show me I wasn't wrong! Come through for me!"
And it did. The food, the service, the wine, and the non-alcoholic beverages were every bit as good as I had hoped they would be. It wasn't the same amazing experience as I'd had the first time, when everything was new and surprising. This amazing experience was of a different flavor entirely. There's something enormously gratifying about not being disappointed. It's even better when someone who has chosen to trust your stories about how great the place is, and has gone in with high expectations of her own, is not disappointed either.
Charlie Trotter's impressed me the first time around. Tonight, the restaurant earned my trust.
I've heard a lot about how the French eat raw meat. Last weekend I finally got to try some myself.
I was in NYC for an emergency medicine conference, so I had a great opportunity to eat at Anthony Bourdain's "kick-ass" (as he puts it) restaurant, the Brasserie Les Halles. Not wanting to waste the moment, I tried to order a kick-ass dish. What could be more kick-ass than raw meat?
So I ordered the steak tartare. Never having had it (or even seen it) before, I assumed I was going to get something like a bloody t-bone on a plate. But no. The waiter wheeled a little cart over to my table. On it was a bowl containing what looked like raw ground beef; a set of small bins filled with things like mustard, chopped onions, capers, tabasco sauce, and other goodies; a raw egg; and a fork. The waiter cracked the egg into the bowl with the meat and spooned in a healthy portion of all the goodies. Then he mixed it all together thoroughly with the fork, dropped it on a white plate, and garnished it with parsley. Voila, steak tartare at Les Halles.
It was kick-ass. Very flavorful, very easy to eat--it had the consistency of thick oatmeal--and not excessively filling. I had room for a whole plate of frites (french fries), fromages affine du jour (the daily cheese plate), and an incredible white dessert wine that cost an arm and a leg but which was thoroughly worth it.
All the while, the couples on both sides of my table were carrying on conversations in French. The background noise was pretty loud since the place was full and there weren't any carpets or draperies anywhere. Through it all you could hear this funky jazz music with a real strong, steady drum beat. This was a fantastic place to eat.
So, please everyone, forgive me for not posting on this blog in so long. I've been traveling a bit, and when I've been stationary I haven't had reliable internet access. Hopefully that's changed now, so I can post about trail running in Colorado and foggy sunsets in downtown Chicago. Stay tuned...
The Ulterior Epicure comments on the popularity of chefs-slash-"food technicians" like Spain's Adria Ferran and Chicago's Homaro Cantu. These guys' kitchens look more like laboratories, and they don't hesitate to impose their own will on the food they prepare.
Is this what I want from a top-of-the-line chef?
My agrarian sensibilities tell me no. If I want high-tech food, I'll just go get myself a tube of Pringles. Or Spam. If I want to eat out, a meal at McDonald's demonstrates just as well the power of modern technology to reconstitute basic food products into previously unthought-of and alien forms, flavors, and textures. I don't need no stinkin' Adria Ferran for that.
And yet... One of the things I love about the great chefs is their ability to give me unlooked-for surprises. As in, "Wow! I didn't know a pear could taste like that!" All great chefs impose themselves on their food, but somehow there seems to be a difference between Thomas Keller and a food technician working in the laboratories of Procter & Gamble. Both undoubtedly "intervene" in their food, but the former takes his cue from the food itself, while the latter forces his food into some ideal that originated in a marketing study. Big difference.
I'm curious about Cantu and Ferran. Are they more like Charlie Trotter or more like KFC? Maybe the Ulterior Epicure will investigate further, and will let me know.