The End of an Era: Trotter’s

Today must be the most bittersweet day in Charlie Trotter’s life: he’s packing his knives, closing his eponymous restaurant, and starting his life as a graduate student. But as one journey ends, another begins, so is the cycle of life. Countless media outlets have been talking about his life, professional career, and next steps.

Me? Well, let’s just start back at the beginning..

Let me backtrack about, oh, almost a decade. There we were, Jeffy and I, at Lincoln Park High School, but a block away from 816 West Armitage Avenue. There he was, Trotter, Principal for the Day, as he was many times before. The man was great, spending time in our school and giving back to the community. He was known for inviting students for a free meal at his restaurant, one that Jeffy had the opportunity to experience many moons ago…and I’m still green with envy because I never got my invite.

Then, with the blink of an eye, the announcement: Trotter’s is closing. I went twenty-five years without dining there. It took a closing announcement to finally get me there, and the wife and I (yay, we finally got married!) were pretty excited to experience what we assumed would be one of the most influential meals of our lives.

Assumed.

We arrived at Trotter’s, and never having been there, I was intrigued by its design. It is really a home, gutted and staged as a restaurant. Walking through the dining areas brought thoughts of Old Money, something that I will never have. In all honesty, it felt a little dated, with loose wallpaper and dim, yellow lights. I figured they weren’t concerned with buildings and grounds because they’d be closing soon. So I brushed it off.

We sat and were greeted by our server, who explained the two menu options and available beverages. The four of us (my wife, another friend, Jeffy, and I) sat for quite some time, waiting for our service team to come back to take our meal and drink orders (NA pairings for the table, and a glass of reisling for myself and the opening courses). After maybe ten minutes, our service team came back and we ordered. Finally, our meal was about to begin.

I’ll give it to him, Trotter was an innovator. But in today’s booming Chicago food scene, he’s slipped a little. This meal was dubbed “The Last Supper,” because it was the last meal my wife and I had together as unmarried people. We wanted something grand, so the menu seemed perfect. Three of us ordered the Grand Menu, which seemed very earthy and organic. My wife, however, has a more particular taste, one that excludes game and red meats. The kitchen was very good at accommodating their menu, creating a completely different one for her. Much kudos.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting…

Minutes go by, and I’m talking like twenty, before we see our service team again. Diners seated after us already have food. On our tables? Butter.

Tempted by hunger, I almost ate the butter. But lucky for us, someone comes by with a bread roll. The four of us devoured it. But really, it was bread, and we wanted something else.

The bread guy noticed that we licked our plates clean and brought another type of bread. The four of us stared at each other, unsure of what was happening. Then we ate this other bread. We must have tried a half-dozen rolls. Is this normal for Trotter’s? Hmm..

Happy to be at Trotter’s, but confused out of our minds, we sat for nearly twenty minutes between courses. At first we thought “Maybe this is how Old Money-fine dining is…” But really, a four hour meal could have easily been shortened to two and a half.

The food itself was okay, with only one dish that truly shone bright: hamachi + green tomato juice + kalamata olives + avocado sorbet. An interesting dish, indeed. Maybe it was the olives, which I am not too fond of. Maybe it was the avocado sorbet. Something about this dish literally made me stop, chew slowly, and think about what I was eating. Other than that, much of the menu, which was broken into thirds (seafood, meat, dessert) was, with all due respect, forgettable…and it really upsets me.

Our service team seemed to be more concerned with people that appeared to be more, how do I say this correctly, mature than us. To their defense, we are mid-twenty-somethings that look more like we are in our late-teens and early twenties, but really, service is service. It should be delivered equally across the board. My wife’s drinks, particularly water, were filled a whopping one time during our four hour dinner. We could not flag anybody down for a glass of anything.

Maybe I set the bar too high. But was it really that high? Trotter was the place to cook. It was the place to stage. It was the place to learn what it takes to work in a successful kitchen. It is the place that brings us some of our favorite chefs in this city, and cities across the globe.

Do I regret going to Trotter’s? The answer is two-fold. No, because it’s still Charlie-freakin-Trotter’s. It’s the birthplace of legends. Yes, because I think I went at the wrong time. Maybe it would have been different a year ago, five years ago. I have a feeling that during its prime, this place was crazy. Progressive beyond its years.

Yes, Charlie Trotter’s is closing. But all across the world, we can experience what it is, was, and will be through the people that this man taught. Thanks, CT.

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A New Landmark in LP: Balena

About 9-10 months ago, there was a crazy rumor that The Bristol and the Boka Restaurant Group were going to make a baby together. Lo and behold, Balena, their sweet baby girl, was born on the streets of Lincoln Park. There were a lot of minds going into the project, most notably Chef Chris PandelKevin Boehm (the Bo- in Boka), John Ross (The Bristol), Rob Katz (you guessed it, the -ka in Boka), Phil Walters (The Bristol), and Just Desserts gal Amanda Rockman. We, The Taste Buds (for the record, I hate talking in third person), speculated something was up with these two groups last summer when Chef Pandel was the only non-Boka chef to participate in the Quickfire Challenges at Perennial Virant. Little did we know that a restaurant would be born…

Fast forward to 2012, when anticipation started to kick in. Many Chicago foodies played the waiting game, and the Balena team teased us with pictures and videos of food and decor. I received word from a source that Balena would be having a soft opening before it opened doors to the public; I needed to wait no longer. I exchanged information with my source, and the rest is history. We had a table at one of the most anticipated Chicago restaurants of the year. Balena is beautiful, and reminds me of pictures of Italy (because I’ve never been..yet). Gorgeous high ceilings with windows galore, not to mention a beautiful bar and open kitchen; 555 International has done another wonderful job.

But as much as I stared at the walls and ceiling, which I legitimately did for an extended period of time, we were there to eat. To kick things off, we looked over the extensive beverage menu. There are over 300 wines to choose from, of which about 95% are Italian. In addition to the vino, Balena offers a number of craft beers and mixed cocktails from the mind of Debbi Peek. Cocktails are numbered from one to ten, with one being most sweet, to ten, which packs the most punch. Now on to the food..

The menu is split into six different categories: meat/cheese/bread, starters, pizza, pasta, grill/oven/rotisserie, and desserts. Hungry, and living by the motto “When in Rome…” we ordered something from each section.

The cured meats came out as a trio of thinly sliced delicacies: paprika cured pork, gin and juice salami, and bresaola. The plate is also served with bread and vegetables.

For a starter, we ordered the spicy grilled short ribs, with charred orange and basil. Much of the spice was at first lost, but then the flavor came post-mastication. The citrus and flavor of basil added another layer to what would probably be a a solid dish to begin with.

The dishes were paced very well, and what followed was probably the favorite of the evening: lasagna pie. Our server described it as “the best of both worlds.” We figured, we like lasagna, we like pizza. How could this go wrong? It doesn’t, that’s how.The crust is both crisp and fluffy, and as oxymoronic as that sounds, it’s the honest truth.

When it came down to pasta, we were torn between, well, all of them. It ultimately came down to talking with our server, and we decided to try the tagliolini nero, served with crab, sea urchin, and chile. Easily the runner up in the evening’s experience, this flavor-packed dish is one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had in quite some time. Note: I did order some pasta to go, and yes I felt awkward doing it. Wound up getting the orecchiette with lemon, kale, bread crumbs, and chili. When I got home, it was great. Even the most harsh pasta critic, my fiancée, approved (her mom’s a chef).

To round out the dinner part of the evening, we ordered the rabbit loin stuffed with garlic and chives. While I haven’t had rabbit too many times, I must say that I didn’t know what to expect, flavor-wise. Most would say that “it tastes like chicken,” but it really didn’t; it was more like pork. Interesting. Could it be all of the familiar flavors behind the olive oil, chives, and garlic? Possibly. Or was it the cooking method in itself? Again, it could be. But hey, I’m not complaining; it was thoroughly enjoyed.

To eat at Balena (or The Bristol) and not have dessert is like not remembering your anniversary; you just don’t do it. You’re really missing out. Chef Amanda Rockman’s personality shines in each of her ten, yes ten, offerings; she’s oh so sweet, as are her desserts. There are gelati and sorbetti sundaes (six in total), as well as four classics: tiramisu, affogato, caramel pine nut tart, and chocolate budino.On this trip, we got the affogato and doughnuts, which Jeffy says “rivals Mindy Segal‘s,” and the caramel pine nut tart, which is so sweet that it’ll steal your girlfriend.

But what made this experience at Balena that much better was service. Boehm, Ross, Katz, and Walters were all walking around and talking to guests, one of whom was Fabio Viviani from Top Chef. We also had a chance to talk to Boehm and Katz on our way out, as well as Chef Pandel, who asked us how “bad” everything was, and Chef Rockman, she knew who we were based on our dessert order.

Was it worth the hype? Absolutely. Should you go? Most definitely. Make a reservation (they take em!) or have a pie delivered (if you’re lucky, Chef Pandel will deliver like in the preview video…or not). I honestly can’t wait to go back to Balena. It’s a place that I’d frequent. Yeah, it’s one of those places.

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