(Tru dining room: taken from restaurant’s Facebook site)
Having been around for 12 years now, Tru is one of the more iconic fine dining restaurants in Chicago. I had dined there this past November and was underwhelmed by the cuisine, but I was eager to redeem my LEY dining points. Given that I went to Everest about 2 months ago and wasn’t about to return to L2O, I decided to give Tru another chance. For some reason Lettuce Entertain You doesn’t allow people to redeem their points on weekends at L2O, Everest, and Tru (this fact should really be communicated better), so it was with this rationale that I dined there with a friend on Tuesday, April 24.
Tru has a posh décor although it’s not especially subtle since there’s a lot of modern art that veers toward pop art in style. One of the first objects that one sees is a blue, nude Yves Klein sculpture in the lounge. There is also a Warhol silkscreen from his Marilyn series and (among others) another artwork with the geometrical shapes and color palette of a Piet Mondrian painting. The atmosphere is pretty quiet and Fur Elise was playing softly when I arrived. The tall ceilings, track lighting, and curtains masking the dining room from the street give the obvious impression of an art gallery.
After being seated, we were offered our choice of black or white napkins and still or sparkling water. It’s a nice touch that there is no surcharge for sparkling water. One aspect of Tru that captures ones attention is that it is, to my knowledge, the only restaurant in Chicago that still does synchronized service, meaning that even waters are refilled by two separate servers. In a recent discussion about Chicago restaurants with a professor, we agreed that the synchronized service at Tru is so unusual that it constitutes something of an attraction—a visual spectacle in excess of what’s necessary. I think this tone of excess represents something of a structuring motif for the restaurant, manifesting through the choice of napkins, tableside presentations, abundant mignardise selection, and elaborate platings. While one could argue that such service is outdated and even awkward, I think it’s a testament to the restaurant that they are able to integrate the service to the point that it is productively integrated within the overall experience.
We were presented with a few different menu options. There is a 3-course prix-fixe, as well as 6 and 9 course tasting menus. On our previous dinner at Tru, we went with the 6-course tasting and were very disappointed. Also, some of the items on the tasting menus were ones that I’d had (and disliked) at my previous dinner at Tru, so we chose the prix-fixe and added the dessert tasting (essentially, the chef’s choice of three items from the dessert menu) as a supplement. I chose the langoustine as a starter and the salmon for my main course.
The canapé offering was a comte cheese gougere, which was light and pleasant although something of a formality. The bread offerings were baguette, rosemary brioche, flatbread, and pumpernickel/onion, while the butter is sourced from a farm in Vermont. Only the flatbread and brioche are made in house, although I didn’t care for either. The other two offerings are from Red Hen bakery, and the pumpernickel offering had a compelling depth of flavor and was really great.
As an amuse bouche, we were given a vanilla mousse stuffed with lemon/nicoise olive tapenade and a fennel puree. It was refreshing and I was happy that the lemon wasn’t too overwhelming. My main complaint was that the flat surface of the disc plate made it very difficult to actually eat. Generally, I appreciate how Tru gets very creative with their serving vessels as it adds an element of surprise, but in this case it became a hindrance.
My langoustine arrived in a very well-manicured presentation; the dish has been on the menu for quite some time and is pictured on their website. I have had my eye on this dish (literally) since my previous dinner at Tru when I witnessed it getting prepared while receiving a tour of the kitchen. The langoustine is sourced from New Zealand and rests atop an arrangement of two lobster quenelles and a pair of saffron-infused potatoes that are shaped to mimic the quenelles. The interplay between these ingredients made for a nice, subtle variation of orange/pink color tones. The accompanying broth is listed as bouillabaisse, although this was perhaps a misnomer as there was no Mediterranean fish. Still, the tomato-based broth was strengthened by the rich broth from the shellfish. I couldn’t help myself from comparing this to the bouillabaisse at L2O, which was one of the worst dishes I’ve had in a fine dining restaurant (and inexplicably was introduced as the centerpiece of their tasting menu). Where the L2O version basically tasted like overly salty tomato soup, Tru’s bouillabaisse accomplished a difficult balancing act, rich without being overly heavy. This dish was terrific and I would say that it rivals Everest’s signature preparation of lobster with Alsatian white wine and ginger.
Moving on the main courses, mine included a tableside preparation by our captain (picture taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com).
The salmon was transferred from the cedar plank onto a dill sauce that was poured tableside. Accompaniments included white asparagus, heirloom potatoes, purple fingerling potatoes, and a meyer lemon sauce. Certainly, the tableside presentation added some drama and the plating was aesthetically quite impressive. The cedar and dill added an olfactory interplay that engaged me before even trying it. I readily admit that a great-looking presentation and pungent scent can influence how a dish tastes. However, one of my major critiques from my previous meal at Tru was the discrepancy between the impressive presentations and the disappointing taste of the cuisine, which veered between bland and salty, making me feel as though the presentation was a big tease. I remember having a chilled kohlrabi soup that was stunningly served in the actual root but was salty to the point of being inedible. Thankfully, this was delicious; I’m always wary of overcooked salmon but this was very soft and the dill sauce was outstanding.
My companion ordered the fallow deer, which suffered from being both overcooked and an overly lean cut. After some adjudication, he sent the deer back and, per the captain’s recommendation, selected the Wagyu short rib. As I had already completed the salmon, the kitchen sent me a helping of the short rib, which was paired with hollowed apple, jus of the bone, and an apple and jalapeno puree. Unfortunately, the short rib was shockingly lean for Wagyu (I’m grateful that I went with seafood for both of my courses), leading to a discussion with our captain concerning their Wagyu sourcing. He said that they source it domestically from Nebraska, which made sense as I found the domestic Wagyu at both Husk and Acadia to be overly lean as well.
Transitioning to the desserts, a runner dropped off a bowl of powdered madeilenes to munch on during the dessert tasting. The pre-dessert was a wedge of pineapple, with a mango and passionfruit puree—very successful in cleansing the palette after the heavy short rib course.
The first actual dessert was an orange-ginger gelee with orange supremes and an orange-ginger sorbet that rested on candied ginger. This was refreshing and the ginger helped distinguish it from the citrus palate cleanser.
Our second dessert involved rhubarb, goat yogurt sorbet, vanilla oil, strawberry, and strawberry gelee. While tasty, I found this to be redundant after the first dessert, which was also citrus-themed. The strange progression makes me wonder whether it would make more sense to design a standard dessert tasting menu that is separate from the a la carte desserts, as it definitely felt as though the dessert progression was determined on the spot. In some ways, a dessert tasting is even trickier to construct than a regular tasting menu since they are less popular. A typical tasting menu starts out with shellfish or raw fish, transitioning into heavier fish and meat and then ending with dessert; in a dessert tasting, the conventions are less firmly established. Still, a meal is a relational structure and a restaurant has to think in terms of the meal’s progression as a narrative where courses build off of each other.
Thankfully transitioning to heavier desserts, the third item featured a honey crisp apple beignet paired with vanilla ice cream. I had expected the donut itself to be honey and apple flavored, and was pleasantly surprised when instead the donut was honey flavored and filled with apple. At this point in the tasting I was looking for a more robust dessert and the apple filling supplied some needed heft.
The final dessert was a root beer float, which was described as having been devised by former co-owner Gale Gand, who our captain informed us still exerts some influence over the pastry program (although desserts are mainly in the hands of executive chef Anthony Martin. An iconic soda shop staple, I found the root beer float to cohere quite nicely with the pomp and pop art of Tru’s ambience. I only wish that the dessert tasting had been infused with the sense of drama engendered by the décor and the earlier tableside preparations. The disappointment of the dessert tasting was surprising since one of the reasons that I was drawn toward the tasting supplement was that I held such low expectations for the main courses and figured that the pastry program must be the restaurant’s strength—as it turned out, it was the other way around. This dinner definitely testified to the strong role that expectations play in the restaurant experience.
Tru’s mignardise program is my favorite in Chicago, mainly because of their terrific caneles, of which I had two. To my knowledge, Tru is the only restaurant in Chicago that offers a mignardise cart, but I find it to be in line with the restaurant’s general sense of opulence and excess. The mignardise presentation would be uncomfortable and out of place at most restaurants in Chicago, but Tru has established an ambience that supports it. As a final treat, we were also given liquid butterscotch truffles, and (while exiting) a take-home gift in the form of a raspberry-filled financier.
In addition to capably working in synch with one another, the staff was intuitive and accommodating. They handled the episode involving my companion’s deer with finesse. As a thoughtful apologetic gesture for the deer, we were not charged for the dessert tasting supplement—apparently, culinary execution errors correspond with monetary gain.
This meal at Tru occurred in the middle of a seven-day stretch that also involved meals at Moto and Ria. Even though I do not find Tru as compelling as either of the other two, I was pleasantly surprised by the meal and actually now feel it offers the most cohesive dining experience of the triad of Lettuce Entertain You fine dining restaurants. If I went out to dinner only in order to eat than I would choose Everest, but the synchronized service, cuisine, and décor achieve a synergy that Everest doesn’t quite match. Given Chef Martin’s youth, it’s also possible that there’s a good deal of upside to the cuisine; as Martin continues to refine his style, it will be exciting to see how the restaurant evolves.