By all accounts, Charlie Trotter should be as fond of Vegas as PETA is of prime rib. His eponymous restaurant flamed out famously in 1995, after 15 months in the MGM Grand. Bloodied but unbowed, he maintained his flagship in Chicago while (apparently) plotting a return to the High Desert whenever the time was right for a return bout. He doesn’t seem to have the empire-building urges of many of his colleagues---Cabo San Lucas houses his only other outpost---so when word got out that the Palazzo was granting him a rematch, gourmands and bean-counters alike wondered if he was punch drunk. Open almost two weeks now, Restaurant Charlie is primarily seafood-focused and has a "sky loft" chef's table perched above the kitchen for optimum viewing, while Bar Charlie seats only 18 for sushi, Trotter-style (tasting menus only). Our Vegas operative John Curtas grabbed Trotter for a Q & A just two days into the new ventures.
John Curtas: It was a sad day for local gourmands when you pulled up stakes here in 1995. The smart money said we’d never see you again. What happened then and now?
Charlie Trotter: We started out as an all-comp restaurant for high rollers exclusively. It really went much smoother than people think it did. Sure, there were occasional requests for prime ribs and baked potatoes, but we handled them and it was never an issue as got reported at the time.
JC: The rumors were that no one could touch the sacred food of such a renowned chef (serving only rigid, degustation menus every night), and you balked at the low-to-middlebrow tastes of the casino crowd and couldn’t take it anymore.
CT: The real issue was a new management team took over the MGM and wanted to double our size (from 65 seats), change our menu, eliminate the tasting menu and add more “basic” food like meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs, and we did balk at that. But until that happened, we were happy. I was the one who talked Emeril into opening in the MGM. I had a 10 year contract to be there and was happy with it right up until the point that (the Food and Beverage people) began wanting to tell me what I should serve. They ended up buying me out of my deal after 15 months, so I was happy with that too.
JC: So how is this time going to be different?
CT: We’ve had lots of offers over the years; the Bellagio, Wynn, but nothing seemed like a good fit until now. Rob Goldstein (President of the Venetian) is a passionate food guy and he and his people really seem to understand what we’re trying to do. Bar Charlie will revisit some of our ideas from 14 years ago, and the main restaurant will be a la carte, so I guess we’re trying two concepts in one this time.
JC: And if I’d like a silky-smooth, Sauterne-poached slab of foie gras?..?
CT: Look, I’m the most libertarian guy you’ll ever meet. I really am a live and let live person?.not a polemic about foie gras, smoking in restaurants or anything else. Eight years ago we just decided not to serve it and a couple of reporters came in, we said we just weren’t doing it anymore, and then they went out and got other chef’s reactions to create the “controversy.” I also stopped people from smoking in my restaurant 20 years ago, and that was controversial then too?.even though we didn’t make any announcements about it?.it was just something we decided we didn’t want in our environment. What other people eat and what other restaurants serve is their business not mine.