Thursday, January 26, 2006

My Visit With Charlie Trotter

As some readers of this blog know, I am currently working on a law review article examining the copyrightability of recipes in American law. I decided that it would be useful to interview master chefs to discuss their thoughts on originality, creativity, recipes, and the Western culinary tradition to better understand how recipes function for people at the top of their profession (one might, of course, say "art"). Last week I called up Charlie Trotter's and left the chef a voicemail telling him of my project and requesting a time for an interview. He returned my call on Monday, proposing that we meet on Wednesday. I immediately accepted.

I arrived at the restaurant about fifteen minutes early and was greeted by someone on the staff. Charlie would be right out, I was told, and I was given a seat in the studio where they film Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter. The chef appeared in a few minutes, and we removed to the bar. He was a very pleasant and friendly gentleman, and he answered my questions for over half an hour. Chef Trotter likens cooking to jazz music, and he had plenty of insight into my subject matter.

After thirty minutes or so, the chef recommended that we move the site of the interview, saying that "we don't want this to be just an ordinary interview." Barely able to control my excitement, I was led into the kitchen and was seated at a table set for one. I was introduced to chef de cuisine Mathias Merges who sat down with me and answered more of my questions for another hour and a half. During this time I was served an elaborate five-course lunch with expertly paired wines.

Lunch began with a duo of olive oil poached salmon with smoked salmon roe and monkfish liver served with eel terrine. It was marvelous. The smoked roe seemed inspired by my favorite Scottish whiskies, and the monkfish live and eel expertly combined sweet and bitter components. The next course was buttermilk poached poulard breast with pomegranate gastrique paired with a delightful sauvi blanc from Justin Winery. This was followed by turbot and kumomoto oyster with watermelon radish and grapefruit served with sake. The meat course was a gorgeous preparation of roasted squab with black trumpet mushrooms, oxtail, collard greens, and braised carrots. It was paired with Brooks Pinot Noir 2004. Finally, I was presented with a light and refreshing dessert of fuji apples with butterscotch and rye crisp matched with Isole e Olena's Vin Santo 1998.

Everything was beyond my wildest expectations. Chefs Trotter and Merges were incredibly gracious with their time and their patience answering all of my inartfully worded questions. While I ate, members of the staff wandered by and introduced themselves to me, sharing insights about food, wine, recipes, and cooking. All of their ideas will certainly appear in my finished paper. I was very lucky to have this opportunity, and I am very grateful to everyone at the restaurant.

La Chablisienne Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu 2002

One of our local wine shops had a sale on French wines last weekend, and we picked up a few bottles of this Chablis to add to our cellar. Stephanie and I decided to prepare a nice Sunday dinner, however, and selected one of the bottles to accompany the meal. Stephanie began with a tasting of soups served in my new Valdrome demitasse cups. She prepared a subtle but interesting cauliflower soup and a deep and rich potato chowder with bacon and chives. The main course was one of my favorite dishes and one of the first I learned to cook - veal saltimbocca.

Chablis is the northern most region of Burgundy, and although it shares the same grape varietal with the wines of Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, and Mersault (i.e. Chardonnay), its wine tend to be leaner and more minerally. This wine, from one of Chablis's top producers, splendidly represented the style of the region. Stephanie and I both enjoyed the balance of crisp apple flavors with the chalk and slate textures on the finish. It displayed a truly expanisive mid-palate, where the fruity opening mingled with the acidic finish. Stephanie declared it among the best white wines she has had.

We were very pleased with the wine and it matched both the soups and the veal rather well. This bottle had a faulty cork that already displayed some leaking. It could certainly stand a decade or more of cellaring, but now we're anxious about the closures.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An MLK Weekend Not to Be Forgotten

Stephanie and I were pleased to welcome my great old friend Chuck and his wife Jayne to Chicago for a long weekend of eating, drinking, smoking, and general merriment. Chuck arrived late Friday night, and the festivities began immediately with a surprisingly delicious bottle of Marguet-Bonnerave Champagne Grand Cru NV. A rich and flavorful wine, the Bonnerave is an incredible bargain at $27 for grand cru champers (this means that the grapes come from vineyards that are specifically designated as producing high quality fruit every year). The bubbles, which were accompanied by our favorite toast, "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends," were followed by the remainder of a bottle of Van Winkle Bourbon, a house favorite.

After a late start on Saturday, Stephanie, Chuck, and I made it out to Hot Doug's for some delicious frankfurters and duck fat fries. We picked Jayne up at two o'clock and enjoyed a long afternoon of wine shopping. For dinner we ordered deep dish pizza and polished off a bottle of Duval-Leroy NV bubbly, a corbieres, and a bourgogne rouge. After retiring to the basement lounge, Chuck presented me with an incredible birthday present - a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch Whisky and a humidor full of Cuban cigars! That night we stayed up late imbibing the phenomenal Blue Label - peaty and full bodied, with a lingering caramel finish - and smoking the cubans. I had a sweet and round Cohiba Esplendito, while Chuck and Jayne shared a rustic and earthy Romeo y Julieta No. 2 that actually dated from at 2002 trip Montreal that Chuck and I took.

Not surprisingly, Sunday began in the late morning. At Jayne's suggestion we had a delightful brunch at the Atwood Cafe in the Loop and then took Lake Shore Drive down to Hyde Park for a tour of the university. We then made it back to the north side of town, and after a very stressful trip to Whole Foods, returned home to begin a home cooked feast. Dinner started with prawns sauteed in butter in my new cast iron skillet. They were served in a fresh pea soup with creme fraiche. Next, Stephanie prepared Rick Tramonto's amusing and scrumptious "linguine" and clams, where the linguine are actually julienned and blanched cucumbers served in the clam shell. These courses were enjoyed with the always fantastic Domaine de Baumard Savennieres 2002 (reviewed on this blog earlier). The main course was pan-roasted woodear mushroom crusted pork tenderloin, served on a ring of mashed potatoes with roasted shitake mushrooms and a red wine sauce. For this course, Chuck ("Big playa may big play in big game") had graciously purchased a bottle of the much-anticipated Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2001. This is certainly the most famous and widely appreciated wine from the region, and the '01 vintage proved why. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, and a few other grapes, it showed great density and weight but absolutely pure flavors and a tremendous structure. It's often a bummer sharing wines like this with three other people, but I couldn't complain considering the depth of the conversation and incomparable balance of the company's wit and intelligence - not to mention their delightful aroma. That evening we again retired to the basement lounge for more Blue Label and habanas. This time I smoked a R&J Churchill, Chuck a Cohiba, and Jayne a Montecristo.

On Monday, Stephanie and I had to say goodbye to our weekend guests, but not, of course, before a fabulous lunch. Jayne and Chuck had been eyeing the Nine Steakhouse in Las Vegas and recommended that we visit the Chicago location. We ate splendidly although without vino, as we were all trying to rehydrate. Their visit was a wonderful success and a source of great personal joy (and decadence). We hope to soon join them in Vegas to try to outdo ourselves.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Pouilly-Fume Tasting

Stephanie had purchased a bag of split peas recently, and I decided to make them into soup last night with some smoked ham hocks and sausage. On Charlie's recommendation, I sought out wines known for their smokiness - the sauvignon blancs of Pouilly-Fumé in France's Loire Valley. As with the previous night's Cotes-du-Rhone, these wines were made in contrasting styles and, thus, provided an interesting tasting experience.

The Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fumé 2001 was consumed from a half bottle. It showed the characteristic P-F smokiness and flintiness on the aroma. Stephanie detected a hint of oak. Perhaps due to its age and format, the wine was relatively restrained and subtle. There were baked apple flavors and some nice acidity, but nothing flashy or racy. For me, the subtlety made for an enjoyable pairing with the smoky and somewhat muted soup.

Rather different was the Domaine Serge Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé Les Pentes 2004. A bright and racy wine, the Dagueneau seemed closer to a New Zealand sauvi blanc than to the Jolivet. Of course, the wine is barely a year old so the ripe fruits and zippy acidity were to be expected. Serge and his daughters who now run the estate are cousins of the more famous Didier Dagueneau, whose P-Fs regularly appear in the Wine Spectator Top 100 and cost as much as $90. Serge's wine was more modest but still quite enjoyable. Although the Jolivet seemed a perfect compliment to the soup but perhaps little else, the Dagueneau worked nicely with the soup but would pair well with a wider variety of dishes, especially white and shell fish.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Domaine les Aphillantes Tasting

Last night I prepared campanelle pasta with smoked sausage, shrimps, and peas. It is an Italian version of low-country boil or frogmore stew. Earlier in the week I had picked up a couple of the many bottlings of Cotes-du-Rhone Villages by Domaine Les Aphillantes from the excellent 2001 vintage. The producer, Daniel Boulle, had until recently, sold his crop to the local winemaking co-op, but he now bottles the wines under his own label. Both of these wines are made from the traditional Southern Rhone varietals, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, but they are blended differently to produce markedly distinct styles of wine.

The Cuvée des Galets is made with 60% Grenache and 20% each of Syrah and Mourvedre. It was certainly the rounder, more extracted wine of the pair. Very ripe, and as Stephanie noted, almost syrupy, the wine gave off aromas of pine nuts, bananas, and cherries. Stephanie found the wine rather tannic, but I thought the tannins were reasonably well moderated by the fruit.

The Cuvée 3 Cépages is a blend of equal parts Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, and perhaps for this reason, it struck me as better balanced. Although the varietal of most Chateauneuf-du-Papes is more like the Galets, the 3 Cepages bottling clearly seemed to mimic this wines of the more renowned appelation. Stephanie noted candied dark fruits and dried cranberries. I concurred, adding tobacco, cumin, and that characteristic citrus flavor that one finds in some Chateauneufs like Vieux Telegraphe. The finish on the 3 Cepages was longer, slightly drier, and more acidic than the Galets, making it, to my mind, more compelling and food-friendly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chateau Souverain Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 1999

I discovered this wine languishing at a corner liquor store and thought I might give it a try. It dates from the days when Souverain used the lovely green bevelled bottles, and it was in fine form for a six year old zin. It shows that when zinfandels are not too highly extracted (the bottle says it only has 14.5% alc./vol.), they are capable of substantial aging. Although was holding on to enjoyable berry and currant flavors, it had picked up some lovely depth from the bottle age, showing earthy and spicy notes. Unusually for us, we drank this wine without food, but it would pair perfectly with roasted duck or grilled quail. F.F. Coppola has recently purchased the Souverain winery facilities, so it will be interesting to see what happens to their wines when made at the new digs.

Cod in Spicy Fennel and Orange Tomato Sauce

Last night I adapted a cod recipe from Patricia Well's excellent and easy-to-use Provence Cookbook (recipe follows). Fresh cod is gently poached in a tomato sauce accented by fennel seeds, chili flakes, and a bunch of orange zest. It was really delicious with a baguette and a green salad.

After discussing a wine pairing with Charlie, we agreed that I should ignore Well's advice to choose a red Cotes du Rhone and instead select a nice rosé. I chose the 2004 Domaine des Aphillantes Cotes du Rhone Rosé. It was highly extracted and very dark, and the aroma seemed to blend candy, cranberries, and ozone. The wine was a nice match for the food. Hints of sweetness from the ripe grapes paired well with the spicy sauce. It was not your Daddy's tavel, however.


Chili flakes to taste
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced lengthwise
1 tsp. anchovie paste
1 tsp. tomato paste
2 tbsp. sweet vermouth
28 oz can of whole tomatoes passed through a food mill
1/2 tsp. fennel
Zest of 1 orange
Bouquet garni
Fresh cod fillets
2 tbsp green olives, chopped
Parsley for garnish

In a sauce pan, heat chili flakes and garlic in olive oil. Add onions and sauté over low heat until soft but not brown, about 8 minutes. Add pastes and cook until dissolved. Deglaze with sweet vermouth and reduce to a glaze. Add tomatoes, fennel, zest, and bouquet garni and simmer for a while (half an hour would do, but longer is better). Add cod fillets to barely simmering sauce and poach gently for 5-6 minutes depending on thickness. Remove to plates and garnish with sauce, olives, and parsley.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Birthday Dinner at TRU

For my birthday on Saturday, my loving fiancé Stephanie made reservations for us at Chicago's most popular restaurant TRU. She and I have been enjoying Chef Tramonto's amuse bouche cookbook for a few months, so it was with great anticipation that we arrived for our reservation. Despite a couple of stumbles, we were not disappointed.

First the stumbles. Although the restaurant received a 27 Zagat score for its decor, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The white curtains covering floor to ceiling windows and the stick lamps that could have doubled for emergency exit lighting did not create a particularly inviting scene. The bathrooms, however, were lovely.

Stephanie and I each chose to dine from Chef Tramonto's special degustacion menu, giving us each eight different courses. We began with tasty acorn squash panna cotta served on spoons and then moved on to the famous four-taste amuse. It included borscht soup on a spoon, squash terrine, carmelized shallots over cumin gelee, and cucumber juice shooter. My first course was the famous caviar staircase, the restaurant's signature dish. I was informed by the waiter that they were still serving caviar harvested in 2005 and thus not affected by the recent export bans by the US and EU. Stephanie opted out of the caviar course and was instead served four bento boxes of salads and terrines, each more enjoyable than the last. Next I had seared yellowfin tuna with tapenade and Stephanie enjoyed peeky toe crab over beets (the second time in two courses that she was served beets). With these courses we enjoyed Domaine des Baumard's Trie Speciale Savennieres 2003. We are big fans of Baumard (whom you have seen reviewed on this blog before), and the Trie Speciale was as good as I've had from them in a dry chenin blanc.

My next course was the highlight of the evening, and it is the best reason to introduce the exceptional service we received from sommelier Scott Tyree. I was anticipating my foie gras course and was considering a glass of Sauternes to accompany it. Mr. Tyree politely suggested that while the Sauternes would be a classic pairing, given the preparation he would recommend another wine. The gras was served barely sauteed with cabbage confit, raspberries, and blueberries. Mr. Tyree brought a glass of botrityzed rosé from Kracher in Austria. The berry flavors from the red Zweigelt grape perfectly matched the berries in the dish. I was stunned. Stephanie declined the foie gras course and was served ricotta gnocchi with about a pound of shaved black truffles. (Don't tell them, but she saved one and served it to me with scrambled eggs the next morning.)

We then moved on to soups served capuccino style in demitasse cups. Stephanie had pumpkin and I had cauliflower. These were followed by rather disappointing fish courses. My salmon with salsify lacked interest although it was paired with a perfect pinot noir from Rivers-Marie in Sonoma. Stephanie received delicious butter-poached lobster, but it came with the very same gnocchi she tasted two courses earlier. This upset us, but the chardonnay from Faila that Mr. Tyree selected to accompany the dish more than made up for it. It's subtle and restrained nose (I can only speak of the bouquet because Stephanie wouldn't share a taste with me) was an ideal match for the lobster. Stephanie remarked that it was the first time when she tasted a wine that worked as an ingredient in the final dish. I guess I have to try harder.

Our meat courses were superb. Stephanie enjoyed prime ribeye with mushrooms and I had venison loin with chesnut puree. She was recommended the romantic Chateau LaLagune Haut Medoc 2000, and I was introduced to a new wine - the Trinoro Le Cupole 2003 from Tuscany. I was told that it was primarily Cab Franc blended with indigenous varietals modeled on the great Cheval Blanc of Bordeaux. What a wine! The typicaly tobacco notes from the cab franc were present, but they smelled more like a Havanna than any I've ever experienced. Thank you Scott.

By this time, we were quite full and perhaps did not pay enough attention to Chef Gale Gand's desserts. We had creme brulee and semifreddo along with cheeses, truffles, chocolates, and lollipops. I finished the meal with the Cuvee Ste. Catherine Coteau du Layon from Baumard, and Stephanie drank half of an enormous glass of Banfi grappa. We left, perfectly sated, after four hours.

It was a wonderful birthday celebration thanks to the kitchen staff at TRU, sommelier Scott Tyree, and mostly to my beautiful fiancé.