Two weeks before closing for good, Charlie Trotter held a $2500-a-plate blowout for longtime customers, and I was invited to record it (and dine there) and interview guest chefs Sean Brock and Nathan Myhrvold. (Here’s more about the night at Grub Street Chicago.)
Last Night at Charlie’s from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.
So how was it? I hadn’t been to Trotter’s since 1988 (it was already famous though only less than a year old) and so I have no real standard of comparison for his food. The star, undoubtedly, was Myhrvold, whose tricks of transformation like the centrifuged pea flavor or the liquid caprese salad were stunning, injections of pure flavor almost freed of their corporeal form. I don’t necessarily think that’s entirely a good thing— we’re getting close to the old jokes about futuristic steak dinner in a pill form— but as magic tricks and thought provokers these were astoundingly good, and also satisfying as dishes (he’s not just capturing flavor but also body, form, in different form). Brock’s best dish (he also did a pleasant but unsurprising chocolate dessert) was sous-vided catfish, amazingly clean and silky, with butter beans and lovage puree, but it needed a little twist of pepper or something— and that’s what a number of people have said about his food, that it often isn’t sharpened up to as fine a point as is typical in Chicago kitchens. Tetsuya Wakuda did a crab salad that was, as I think I said in the article, like the best takeout Chinese you ever tasted, but both his and Trotter’s (or chef de cuisine Michael Rotunno’s) dishes seemed on the subtler side, until we got to Trotter’s beer-can squab, which was on a tripe ravioli that was as good an earthy-funky dish as I’ve ever had from Paul Virant or his ilk.
The room, both architecturally and in terms of the crowd, was very 80s-90s money, surely the highest per-capita wealth of any crowd I’ve ever been in; I’ve heard things about service slipping at Trotter’s of late (like from Steve Dolinsky) but all I can say is, for this crowd it could not have been more on point, as good as I’ve ever seen. The wine, much of it brought in by collectors attending the dinner, was incomparable, at least as far as my experience (which obviously is many steps below that of many people there) is concerned.
And Trotter? He was ready to be done with interviews and greet his guests, he made that clear by not responding to my questions but razzing me. Some interviewers seem to get bent out of shape by him doing that. Some may, in fact, write three-part articles after feeling dissed by Trotter. I have no ego as an interviewer, I am happy to ask what seems like a dumb question if it will get someone talking, so it didn’t bother me. The video shows what I genuinely saw about the warmth between Trotter and his staff; that I did not personally feel it is the least interesting thing imaginable about the night. He is who he is, and I think this video is truthfully who he was on one night, at least, of the 25 years his restaurant was open.