I’m going to start this post out like one of those movies or TV shows that shows you the end first – IF you go to the Trenchermen park yourself at the bar have a cocktail and an appetizer or two and then have a fun night somewhere else.
Record scratch…What Joe? No Fucking way? Timeout said it was a “seminal” opening and the Chicago Reader claimed, “It was the new class of restaurants like Next, Goosefoot, El Ideas and Acadia.” Well I’m calling BULLSHIT in a big way. First, a seminal opening should have some history and the Timeout review said skip desserts – on Twitter I was told it’s an optional part of the meal – are all pastry chefs irrelevant now? Does that optional dessert philosophy count for all restaurants or just the ones you want to do really well? As to the Chicagoist review, Mike Sula admitted he was recognized and had a hello from the chef plus I don’t know Mike but his better, hip judgment may have been kryptonited by the Steampunk vibe. I would gladly go back to dinner with either Mike or Julia – I’m guessing we’ll get spotted – and have an utterly different experience then I did on my two visits.
It was Friday night and we had the last table at 9:30pm. Because we were running a wee bit late, I called to bump to 9:45pm. We were seated quickly and soon ordered the Bacon Cured Sweetbreads and the Corn Tortellini to start. For our entrees we chose the Sturgeon and the Short Ribs. My cocktail Baby Momma was rather good and grew on me as I had it. Our first appetizer arrived, the sweet breads, and I thought in my head, “why is this being coursed out? It’s about 10pm and I’m hungry we ordered 2 appetizers and there are two of us where is the food?”
The sweet breads are a dish to order every time with the XO sauce, black garlic and glazed sweet breads this is a dish that will be on the menu always. But, since it was being shared it lasted all of about 5 minutes. Then we waited for the Corn Tortellini which was served in consommé with vegetables. A visually stunning dish it lacked salt and was more tepid then hot. It also only reminded me of how hungry I was!
An old server of mine works at Trenchermen and came by to say hello with an extra course of the Pickle Tots. It was good to catch up but the chicken bresaola at room temp is odd and the red onion yogurt tasted like pink yogurt. Mind you I love tots and the tang of pickle was nice but I’m not spending $11 or $12 (can’t recall) for tater tots.
This is where my head as a former cook got confused. As THE last table and only one getting savory courses, we were in the top part of the dining room so I had a view of the room, we began to wait. I was thinking I remember having last tables and late tables and cursing them for making me stay but as soon as the entrée was fired it was always up in record time. As a cook after a long day, I want to go home, I want to clean and have a beer. A solid 15 minutes went by and the server came by to say it would be out shortly. Another 5 minutes, which felt like an eternity, went by and finally our dishes arrived! The short ribs were a touch warmer than room temp and needed a knife, A KNIFE just to cut them. The sturgeon was so cold it couldn’t be eaten. I for the life of me can’t figure out how this is achieved. Was it put up and plated and sat while every server and busser went by? Did no cook ask for service? Was the manager in the office? Where were one of the TWO chefs? It was the last dish of the night. At this point, we were tired, full enough and didn’t want to make a fuss.
As punishment to myself, I ordered the Klug Blueberries and Gumballhead panna cotta and pound cake. It didn’t take forever but when it arrived the $9 dessert was met with the following comment not from me, “What the fuck is this? Where’s the pound cake and why is it so small? Shit I’m turning in to you.” I had said nothing but couldn’t have said it any better. The whole dessert made me think when did dessert get so ridiculous, $9 for berries and some eggless custard and a crouton or two of pound cake? What little there was tasted good.
As we left, I knew I had to come back but was told I would have to find someone else to go with since my dining partner wouldn’t endure the restaurant again.
A good friend who also writes about food couldn’t believe the story you just read of my first visit. Her short ribs were amazing and the experience was completely different. So I got her to come with me and thought perhaps it’s me or because we were the last table? Fast Forward to a Thursday night at 6:30pm…
It began with drinks in the bar and again my cocktail, The Green Hornet, was the highlight! We sat at 6:45pm and ordered the Kale with Carrot Quinoa Cake and the Tomato and White Balsamic ice cream to start. We then followed it up with the Duck, Short Rib and Pork Belly entrees. The server made us feel like rock stars for how we ordered. The appetizers arrived after a bit of a lull bit it was the start to the night for service. The kale with carrot-quinoa cake was good, really good. I’m not a veggie guy and I enjoyed it. The tomato and white balsamic ice cream was good but not some new twist on flavors others have described and at $12 it was a stretch.
As we waited, and waited, and waited for entrees my friend asked if I was timing it. I told her, “No you know it takes too long when however long you’ve been waiting for your food becomes the topic of discussion.” Two of the three dishes arrived – Duck Breast and the Short Ribs. Again the service team took it upon themselves without consulting us on how to course out our meal. If you warn me or ask me to course it out for (insert any reason) I’d be game or think on it but to have it forced on me seems a bit overstepping especially since your kitchen can’t push out food. As my friend tried the duck I was asked, “Is this sous vide or is it cold?” Yep, the 3/4s of a duck breast was cold with crispy skin and the mortadella rice balls are white hot. Is this a chaud fraud dish? Why can’t you just cook a duck breast normally? The short ribs were not the same as what my friend had before. She described them as gristly and tough. It was the same annoying dish I’d had before. She asked our server if there had been a change in how the dish was made and was told no. It was frustrating to think some people think this is groundbreaking food when I can’t get either entree hot or cooked properly.
With two of the three entrees finished my friend got another glass of wine. While we waited for the next entrée, the glass was drunk and we chatted with our neighbors who said their food was lukewarm and so, so as well. The pork belly finally arrived and was dropped with lightning speed by the manager who said something along the lines of, “Here’s the Pork Belly sorry for the delay” – poof gone! The Pork Belly was hot, and served with okra and apple. I thought it was good but when my friend pressed me if I really thought that - I relented and agreed I might like it because it was the only truly hot dish we’d had and posibly why I made the claim.
This Bataan-like march of dinner wasn’t over yet. I ordered the blueberries again to verify in my own mind what I thought. My friend gave me a look of agreement it was small and a bit overpriced for what it was. Cue: the locally grown lovers of Klug and other farmers telling me how important it is to have local produce. All I can say is enjoy your $9 1/4cup of berries and thimble of panna cotta.
Two hours and forty minutes later dinner number two was over. I was exhausted mentally from making conversation and wanting to eat. Never mind the constant water drips and puddle on our table from the water refills that were sloshed in like a diner. The waiter apologized and comped an entree because the wait was so long for the pork belly. Trenchermen leaves me with more questions and concerns than answers. Partly, with two chefs how is any of this going on and acceptable to them? If this is the first time they’re hearing these issues that is a bigger issue for me. Hot, timely and correctly seasoned food is all I ask for and Trenchermen delivered way too infrequently. Service is a major obstacle in many ways that hopefully can get ironed out.
As I said at the start, grab a cocktail and an appetizer and enjoy the room but plan on spending your night elsewhere unless you have nowhere else to be and all the time in the world to kill waiting to eat
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago and mydailyfindchicago.com