Food-Lovers Gallop to Trotter's

Chicago restaurant-goers rave about Charlie Trotter's `degustation or `tasting menus

CHARLIE TROTTER is in the midst of realizing a vision: offering the ultimate dining experience.

Even if his restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and continues to receive the highest-possible ratings from critics (not to mention raves from diners), the chef-owner still insists that it's not "there" yet.

"We are 85 percent of the restaurant we will be," says Mr. Trotter in an interview.

With a zest for perfection and creativity, Trotter has earned a reputation as a culinary wizard and bold experimentalist.

He started cooking in 1982 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in political science. After discovering his culinary calling, he set out to learn as much as he could about food, studying under chefs, traveling the United States and Europe, and reading "incessantly" (his cookbook collection numbers around 2,000). All the while, he says, he felt he had to make up for lost time. He was "a big sponge," he recalls. "I took in everything in gargantuan gulps."

Soon he began cooking for exclusive dinner parties, which helped him fine-tune his culinary talents. He opened Charlie Trotter's in August 1987. Today it is one of only four restaurants in the Chicago area to receive a four-star rating from Chicago Magazine.

In person, Trotter is frank, intense, and brimming with intellectual energy. This day he sports his chef whites, jeans, and sneakers. He gives the impression of being extremely focused. He occasionally smiles.

Is he a perfectionist? "Some would say I'm an insane fanatic," he responds, half joking. One of his tasks as chef and owner is to keep things stimulating. "There's great room for change, spontaneous change," he says.

Does he have fun? "I do have fun, but I'm not interested in fun. This is a period in my life when fun is not my goal," he states. "Salvation comes from work," Trotter adds, intoning Dostoevsky.

His goal, and that of the restaurant's staff of 45, is a three-tiered one: To make an aesthetic contribution ("We're well on our way," he says), a cultural contribution (75 percent achieved), and a social contribution. For this last goal, he aims to go beyond fund-raising dinners to holding special dinners for the homeless, perhaps, and introducing inner-city children to the workings of a prestigious kitchen. Trotter and his staff already participate in several major charity fund-raisers a year.

Trotter's hopes for his dinner guests are as big as his interest in food. He says he wants people to have a dining experience "beyond their expectations" and feel that "they been truly touched to the soul."

Expectations from diners should also be high, one assumes, considering that the cost of the food "experience," exclusive of tips and beverages, can run near $80 per person.

Trotter's food philosophy - using fresh-only foodstuffs - is not unlike that of other savvy chefs of the '90s. But he is even more the purist: Eight-five to 90 percent of the produce is organically grown, says Trotter, and meats are free-range, raised without hormones.

Everything at Trotter's is made from scratch, and there is a deliberate emphasis on infused oils and vinaigrettes rather than on cream and butter. "The intent has nothing to with `health food it's taste," says Trotter. Unadulterated food produces a purer cuisine, he explains.

"What Charlie represents is the best and brightest" of a group of "real American chefs," notes William Rice, food and wine columnist for Chicago Tribune. Chefs like Trotter - and David Bouley in New York, for example - have a heightened appreciation for the ground-to-table process, Mr. Rice continues. There is an emphasis on grains and vegetables, "not out of vague commitment against something, but because of enthusiasm, curiosity, and challenge of it all."

Trotter refers to his cuisine as "Americanized modern French." It's rooted in French cooking, he says, yet has many influences such as Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and more. "It's not a hodgepodge," he says, but the result of "natural cohesion."

The restaurant is known for its "degustation" menus, or tasting menus. The idea is to allow diners to experience the full range of the chef's creativity through many small courses - up to 15 of them. Trotter says the experience is for the active diner; it aims to satisfy sophisticated palates. Trotter's is, in short, a food-lover's restaurant.

Great care is taken to make diners' experiences food-focused. The restaurant's setting is in a renovated townhouse with simple, elegant decor. Lighting is subdued. "We're in a dwelling," Trotter says. Even the understated flowers on the tables are fragrance-free, so as not to interfere with flavors. The servers are refined and friendly.

My companion and I spent half our dinner at the famous table in the kitchen that has been billed as "the hottest table in the city," with a usual wait of four to six months. We spent the other half of dinner in one of the three dining areas, each of which seats about 30.

WE ordered Chef Trotter's "spontaneously prepared" 15-course degustation, a sampling of surprises, or whatever inspires Trotter at the moment.

Here is a sampling of the sublime: Napoleon of Marinated Scuba-Dived Sea Scallops Layered With Avocado and Daikon in Herb Coulis, Mustard Oil and Red Bell Pepper Juice; Terrine of Red and Yellow Tomato Wrapped With Basil and Grilled Eggplant in Crayfish Vinaigrette and Nasturtium Oil; Peeky Toe Crab Cake on Chanterelle Mushrooms With Fresh Water Chestnuts and Granny Smith Apple Balls in Curried Carrot Broth.

Seeing Trotter in action in the kitchen is like getting a chance to stand behind the conductor at the symphony. In fact, classical music plays as he carefully orchestrates the harmonious kitchen. (If you have scores of guests who have all ordered a 15-course meal, timing can be tricky.) "I see 90 percent of the dishes that go out," says Trotter.

Meals are labor-intensive, meticulously presented. The plates were truly as lovely as they were delicious, a riot of color and explosion of flavors.

At the end of the meal, we asked Charlie Trotter what he does in his free time. His response: "Think about food."

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