3:25 PM EDT, August 28, 2012
It was a strange feeling, emerging from a car at 816 W. Armitage Ave., knowing I would never do so again.
Charlie Trotter will serve his last meal Friday, the end of an illustrious 25-year run that has seen the chef and restaurant earn virtually every award and accolade worth receiving in the food world.
Other restaurants have announced their closings with enough advance warning for fans and patrons to enjoy one last meal. I've never attended any of those four-course wakes, though I understand why people do and why they're grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye. But I always assumed such dinners would make me sad.
But Trotter announced Friday's closing on New Year's Eve, to a room of shocked well-wishers. When you call it quits on your own terms, when your patrons receive an eight-month heads-up to make their dinner plans, your restaurant's final weeks are less of a wake than they are a well-deserved victory lap.
So I pulled up to the town house that Trotter converted into the most renowned restaurant in the city, stepped onto the sidewalk Trotter had refurbished at his own expense (believing correctly the city would never make it as nice as he wished it to be) and prepared for a final dinner.
There's a certain arm's-length distance that must be maintained between chef and critic, even those whose careers have been virtually parallel for more than two decades. I admire and respect Trotter, and I'm pretty sure he respects me, but we've never officially met, despite many phone conversations over the years.
Nevertheless, Charlie visited my table, greeted my companion (whom Charlie knew) and warmly shook my hand, using the name my companion supplied. There isn't a chance in hell that Trotter was fooled, but he respected the ploy. But it was the closest thing to a personal greeting we've ever had.
Trotter, who over the years has been the most intense presence I've ever seen in a restaurant (his gaze could melt glass, I sometimes felt), was positively jovial this evening. “I tell people, ‘Come on in; maybe we'll do something right!'” he said with a laugh. Charlie making jokes about kitchen limitations? Unthinkable, once.
Because there were two of us dining, we ordered both eight-course menus, the grand menu and the vegetable menu. I was reminded anew that while Trotter might not be the first Chicago chef to offer an all-vegetable tasting menu, he certainly was the first to make such a menu a permanent part of his repertoire.
I'd describe the full menus, but it hardly matters. For one thing, they'll never be repeated; for another, the kitchen didn't stick to the script anyway. The opening course of big-eye tuna and nori? Never showed up. But there was a wholly unannounced bento box of cuttlefish and caviar, Meyer-lemon custard and passion fruit, and a basil-sorbet-topped artichoke. The first of many surprises.
Trotter's stock in trade was to dazzle diners with the breadth of his sourcing (he once told me ecstatically about getting onto a small-volume fish supplier's client list, which took a couple of years) and his novel pairings. Both approaches were on display on a dish of Muscovy duck breast graced with smoked-coconut foam and a nearly clear sauce of Venezuelan chocolate; and with golden thread fish (delicious and snapperlike) over a subtly sweet tomato-water chutney, hints of anise and Pernod and cipollini onions.
And so it went. There was a one-hour poached egg, its yolk still liquid, lying on a virtual forest's floor of Swiss chard, morels, candied barley and an impenetrably black licorice sauce. Chunks of Elysian Fields Farm lamb shank with curried sunchoke puree, tightly packed miso tortellini with shards of turnip confit and red cabbage, cantaloupe sorbet astride anise shortbread surrounded by ham — yes, ham — consomme.
Across from us was an elderly couple who, as one told a staffer, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary and who had just now realized that the restaurant was in its 25th year too. The servers were generous with the couple the rest of the evening, while I wondered to myself how such a thing could be possible. But that's the humbling part of a restaurant's career, even one so lauded as Charlie Trotter's. You cook for royalty, accumulate a garage's worth of honors and, in your last month of business, in walks a couple with only a vague sense of who you are.
And now — what? Trotter has repeatedly spoken of returning to school for a postgraduate degree in philosophy, though he'd better get a move on if he doesn't want to miss fall registration. A part of me still expects that tomorrow, Champagne glass in hand, Charlie will yell “Psyche!” to a room of shocked well-wishers and announce that reservations for Charlie 2.0 will be accepted, starting Monday.
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