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Is Charlie Trotter a has-been?

A young Chef Charlie Trotter enthuses to David Lissner about rare tuna and foie gras back in the days when Trotter was Chicago’s hottest wunderkind.

The New York Times thinks so. In an article printed yesterday titled “Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind, writer David Kamp suggests that the chef behind Lincoln Park’s eponymous Charlie Trotter’s has been made irrelevant by proteges such as Alinea’s Grant Achatz, whose recent memoir, “Life, on the Line,” devotes a chapter to Trotter as a kitchen tyrant. Kamp writes:

One might infer that Charlie Trotter’s has reached its twilight, becoming something like New York’s La Caravelle circa the 1990s: a still-enjoyable high-end dining experience, but stodgy and antiquated compared with the whippersnapper competition.

“Well, I have 20 years before I get to that point,” Mr. Trotter said, aghast, when presented with this scenario. “But I understand that perception. I still think what we do is as cutting-edge as it’s ever been. If you want to compare it to molecular gastronomy, that, to me, is apples and oranges. But if you served our food in a very different context, people would say:’This is wild! This is unbelievable!’”

Trotter burst on the national food scene with what was then cutting-edge cuisine when he opened in 1987. While predecessors — notably Louis Szathmary at The Bakery and Jean Banchet at Le Francais — had already put Chicago on the emerging foodie map, they were European traditionalists. Trotter was the first restaurateur to attract attention to our city from a standpoint of American innovation.

The Times’ judgment of Trotter’s as erstwhile seems based on three things: When Michelin issued its first restaurant guide in the fall, they gave Charlie Trotter’s only two stars, reserving their highest honors for Alinea and L2O; the chef’s expansion plans for restaurants outside the Chicago area have all fallen through; and, mainly, because “Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore.”

I have to wonder if that’s because Trotter doesn’t seem to be seeking the limelight. He often seems to fly under the radar deliberately. When he opened his restaurant, for example, the chef didn’t feel it necessary to put a noticeable sign outside. There still isn’t one. Nearly all of the scanty publicity I’ve seen from Trotter’s restaurant in recent years has been devoted to charitable efforts.

And if he has qualms about urging into the starkly elegant confines of his dining room — a hushed temple of fine dining where decorative frills are omitted lest they detract from worshipful contemplation of the contents of plates — the photo-snapping bloggers and cellphone-wielding tweeters who are largely conducting the “national food conversation” today, or pushing his costly dining experience during these straitened times, who can fault him?

Trotter has never been shy about self-promotion when he’s wanted it, though, and I don’t doubt that if he wanted buzz he could get it.

What do you think? Have Charlie Trotter and his restaurant become irrelevant? Or has he still got what it takes?

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Meanwhile, we bid a fond farewell to another longtime local culinary figure, Carol Haddix, who is retiring tomorrow after 34 years with the Chicago Tribune’s food section. In her parting column, Carol noted the changes she’s seen in both foodways and their reporting. I can’t help but agree with her comment:

It’s sad to see the diminishing food sections of today and the corresponding shrinking advertising that support them, just when it seems as if food is on more people’s minds than ever before.

Her retirement marks the end of an era in more ways than one.