Chef's Choice

Chi-town's Charlie Trotter's points the way.

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Charlie Trotter's. 816 West Armitage Street, Chicago, Illinois. (773) 248-6228. The Grand Degustation: $100
The Vegetable Degustation: $90
Selections change daily.
Charlie Trotter, who never met a meal he'd make again.
Charlie Trotter, who never met a meal he'd make again.
The concept isn't unknown to Cleveland's forward-thinking chefs. Donna Chriszt has a version of it at her new J Café. So does Chef John D'Amico at Vermilion's Chez François. It's an option at Parker Bosley's Ohio City restaurant, and Lola's Michael Symon sometimes gives it a whirl.

But by and large, the notion of a chef- driven "tasting menu" — wherein the chef alone decides what you will enjoy on any given evening — is still a novelty on the Northeast Ohio foodscape.

That's not the case in major restaurant markets like New York and Chicago, where sophisticated diners have long been surrendering their taste buds to talented kitchen magicians. The tasting menu approach has real advantages for creative chef-artisans and adventurous guests, both of whom are freed from the constraints of a "one size fits all" list of appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Instead, each night becomes an all-new exploration of tastes, textures, and flavor combinations, capitalizing on whatever is freshest and most deliciously in-season, and challenging both chefs and diners to strive toward new heights of culinary appreciation.

The spectacular success of Chicago's Charlie Trotter's, one of the first restaurants to serve nothing but daily tasting menus of numerous small courses, points out just how satisfying such a fine-dining experience can be.

Since opening in 1987, the restaurant has been awarded Five Mobil Stars and Five Triple-A Diamonds, and has been inducted into the Relais & Château, an internationally known guide to outstanding hotels and restaurants. The Chicago Tribune gave Charlie Trotter's a four-star rating ("I'd give it more, but that's all I have," wrote the critic), and Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and The New York Times have been unstinting in their praise of the restaurant's complex, experimental cuisine. No surprise, then, that the intimate hundred-seat restaurant, snuggled into a tall red-brick townhouse in the city's tony Lincoln Park neighborhood, begins accepting reservations six months in advance.

Chef-owner Charlie Trotter's unique style has been described as a blend of European traditionalism with Asian minimalism and American ingenuity, with an emphasis on innovative uses of seasonal and organic raw materials. However it is categorized, the youthful, bespectacled Trotter's approach has clearly gained him the respect of his peers: Trotter was named America's top chef by the James Beard Foundation in spring.

Such recognition never goes unremarked, and it is just a matter of time before some innovative Cleveland chef-owner, tired of demands to hold the onions and sear the tuna to a fare-thee-well, takes the plunge into an all-tasting-menu format like Charlie's. A recent weeknight visit to Trotter's in Chicago gave a companion and me a hint of what local diners may someday see in our own city.

The restaurant offers two daily tasting menus: the Grand Degustation, with seafood and meats in starring roles, and the complementary Vegetable Degustation, which highlights robustly prepared vegetarian dishes. Both menus follow the same general sequence of seven courses, which made it convenient, as well as more interesting, for us to sample both. Abridged descriptions of each complex preparation were included on the elegantly printed menus, although we noticed that the kitchen, presumably overtaken by sudden bursts of inspiration and the desire to surprise, sometimes strayed from them; our genial server gave us the actual low-down on each course as he presented it.

(Caveat: Trotter has said he never cooks the same dish twice: While he may use certain ingredients repeatedly, he insists he never again prepares them in quite the same way. So there's no point in turning up at Charlie's hoping to revisit, say, the saddle of venison with caramelized rutabaga and braised legumes that you loved on a previous trip. Likewise, the wonders that we explored during our July visit will ne'er be seen again, although variations on the themes can no doubt be expected.)

Like a well-crafted symphony, tasting menus typically begin with light flavors and move toward a crescendo of more robust tastes and textures. Accordingly, our meals began with a dainty Amuse Gueule, literally an amusement for our muzzles. The vegetarian version was a tiny salad of assorted heirloom tomatoes underpinned with shreds of crisp lotus root and sparingly dressed with a rich fifty-year-old balsamic vinegar.

The grand alternative was a scallop-sized cake of salt cod, mashed potatoes, and garlic, topped with caviar and a teensy pouf of greens. Neither one was more than three or four well-mannered bites, but they stimulated our palates and primed us for the larger tastes to come.

Next up for the vegetarian was a tiny slice of white and green asparagus terrine, sided with pencil-thin spears of roasted asparagus and a lightly poached quail egg that provided an ingenious twist on sauce Hollandaise. (When we placed our order, our waiter had quizzed us on just how strictly we adhered to a vegetarian diet, so that the kitchen could accommodate our preferences. We assured him that we had no objection to eggs or dairy products; ergo, the quail egg. Different standards of vegetarianism would also be cheerfully met, we were told.)

The grand offering was an extraordinary chilled soup of creamy sweet corn drizzled over a tiny mound of shredded peekytoe crab meat, several tender Prince Edward Island mussels, and a perfect piece of crayfish.

Our taste buds were all a-tremble by the end of the next course, which for the vegetarian was a miniature stockade fence of tender pasta, corralling bits of perfectly steamed parsnips, cipollini onions, and immature zucchini, served on a golden emulsion sauce that hummed with flavors of saffron and fresh tomato.

For the carnivore, there was a tiny piece of crisp seared Japanese tai, a fish similar to red snapper, moistened with a bit of anise-like fennel sauce and set atop a diminutive salad of shredded carrot and celery root that had been dressed with piquant Pommery mustard vinaigrette.

This was followed by the first of two main dishes, which for the vegetarian consisted of a stunning ragout of radishes, carrots, small turnips, roasted garlic cloves, and eggplant in a heady brown reduction of red wine and natural vegetable juices. It's not hyperbole to say it was the most robust, yet sophisticated, vegetarian dish we have ever enjoyed.

The meat-eater's choice was equally profound, though altogether different, with slices of milky-white rabbit loin served beside a tiny timbale of herb-infused risotto, a few crunchy haricots verts, and a spoonful of savory black trumpet mushrooms, all on a shallow pool of rabbit jus and red-wine essence.

The following course was even headier, bringing our meals to a thundering crescendo. The veggie version was a delicate cake of tender pearl barley surrounded by morel mushrooms and roasted fennel, on a drizzle of earthy mushroom juices. Three emerald-green soupçons of puréed stinging nettles provided a beautiful garnish and added a deep flavor note not dissimilar to spinach.

The grand alternative was an impeccably tender and juicy rare filet of North Dakota buffalo, under which was nestled a spoonful of rich braised and shredded oxtail meat. Lightly steamed fresh spinach, capers, and a hearty sage-infused veal reduction sauce finished off the plate.

Despite the mind-boggling variety of ingredients and flavors that we had relished, the petite portions and small amounts of light but intensely flavored sauces kept us from feeling overful. The next dish, a postage stamp-sized piece of improbably delicious warm Stilton-cheese bread pudding, topped with a dollop of creamy Maytag bleu sabayon, was a masterful blend of sweet and salty tastes and created a brilliant transition from the meal's savory components to the upcoming desserts.

For the vegetarian, the parade of sweets began with a platter of perfumed sorbets — aromatic lavender-mint, tongue-tingling lemongrass, and tart-and-sweet chamomile. For the nonvegetarian, the offering was a section of peeled peach encircling a smidgeon of vanilla yogurt and served in a gingery peach soup with bits of sweet black cherry. As wonderful as these were, they were just a prelude to the next arrival — two huge red-lacquered platters bearing four more tiny, distinctive sweets for each of us. The selections included a frothy malt-and-banana-flavored mousse, a crescent-shaped portion of lemon-pudding cake sided with bits of tangerine, a tender brioche topped with miniature champagne grapes and a dollop of whipped cream, and a little "sandwich" of crisp rice-and-corn-flour crackers surrounding a spoonful of nectarine-studded sweet cream.

The evening's final grace note arrived on a rectangular serving plate of iridescent glass: a selection of darling little mignardises, or "sweeties," including light and dark chocolates, cocoa-covered almonds, and nougats the size of a baby's fingertip. When we indomitably polished off the first plate, our waiter brought us a second. Remarkably, we displayed sufficient restraint to ask to take them home, and they were returned to us tucked into a small burgundy box embossed with a golden "T" and tied with a shimmering ribbon.

We left feeling pampered and well-loved, not to mention thoroughly nourished. One would never tell a great painter what to paint, we thought; how strange then that we literally give orders to our great chefs. It is so much more exciting to turn the evening's dining pleasures over to the culinary artist and let him create a personal masterpiece than to order off a paint-by-numbers menu. And soon, we predict, Cleveland diners will have the chance to embrace that experience, too.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].

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