My first meal at Tru took place three years ago: same chef, same time of year, same dining companion. That meal has only grown worse in my estimation, lowlighted by a faux caviar course (smoked sturgeon shaped to look like caviar) and a kohlrabi soup that remain two of the most horrifying dishes I’ve had in any restaurant context, fine dining or otherwise—fancy preparations and serviceware (the faux caviar was served in a caviar tin, while the soup was served in its gourd), but each reduced to saltiness and nothing else. An intervening visit in the Spring of 2012, chronicled on this blog, delivered better results, but there were still faulty preparations (a friend’s red meat was dry and the desserts were poor) and nothing that engendered any kind of commitment. It was only after learning of Tru’s whole duck preparation, which actually debuted in 2013, that my friend and I made reservations for an October evening.
The longevity of the chef, Anthony Martin, might signal a kind of stasis, and the restaurant has actually been around since 1999, and so it now slips into the old guard of Chicago fine dining. Still, one of the more interesting developments in Chicago culinaria has been the impulse by old guard restaurants to modernize: Spiaggia is another restaurant that has made even more drastic efforts in this area. In an apparent attempt to keep up with exclusively tasting menu restaurants like Grace, EL Ideas, 42 Grams, and others, Tru has scrapped its 3-course prix fixe and so diners are now locked into tasting menu structures of varying lengths. Martin himself is still quite young and he must feel that an elongated structure is key for his culinary growth. These changes, as well as the duck course, impelled us to return, but questions remained: would Tru remain hamstrung by the conception and execution errors that compromised past visits? And does the dynamism of Martin (and his staff) necessarily correspond with culinary improvement?
Tru is known for its dining room, which boasts pricey Pop, Minimal, and Post-Minimal works by Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Yves Klein, and others. The space feels very much like a museal installation, with pieces rationally disbursed against white walls. On the level of taste politics, I understand this connection: fine art (and its public) corresponds with fine dining (and its public.) At the same time, I don’t think the design logics of the 20th-century museum can be unproblematically applied toward restaurants. When a restaurant feels like the modernist white cube, this presents its own paradox: the white walls of a museum purport to isolate vision in the high-modernist tradition, but this is obviously destabilized when food is served and taste enters the equation. Put differently, it’s all very well for restaurants to display nice artwork on the walls, but this becomes disorienting when the space feels more like a museum and less like a restaurant.
Tru offers three menu lengths: 5-courses, 7, or 12. We went with the seven, in large part because our tasting menu from Fall 2011 was not as successful as the shorter meal from Spring 2012. Two of our courses carried surcharges: the duck cost an extra $40 over the other meat choice (filet of beef), and a foie gras dish was $30 over a squash soup (I wasn’t going down that road after the soup debacle of 2011.)
The first item was a comte gougere. These have been served since before my first meal here.
Next we were deluged with opening bites: this first contained sweet corn in different textures, including freeze-dried, which I suppose allowed them to get away with serving sweet corn post-season. There were burgundy truffles shaved in there, but they didn’t generate much impact.
Other bites included cold foie gras enveloped in a strawberry shell (delicious) and a raw tuna preparation. Very good.
Our first course was dashi custard with California sturgeon caviar and yuzu kushu, a very spicy jelly. This composition signaled that Martin’s eye for style had not evaporated, and the plating and serviceware looked like something I wouldn’t find elsewhere. That couldn’t save this course, though; the yuzu paste wound up overpowering everything else, ruining good caviar. I think my friend liked this more, so one’s mileage may vary depending on heat tolerance.
Next up was an even worse use of luxury ingredients. We were served seared foie gras with chestnut cream, quince, and shaved Alba truffles. I’ve never been fond of seared foie gras since it tends to be quite sweet, and that was the case here as well, although it wasn’t a deal-breaker. The problem lay in layering rich flavors on top of each other: first the foie gras and then the cream and truffle. To my mind, each of those luxury flavors should have anchored a dish on its own, rather than this cluttered concoction. I don’t think the chestnut cream had any business getting involved with either the liver or the truffle. Pairing foie gras with quince made sense, but should have been segregated into its own course. A more dexterous handling of truffle would have foregrounded it simply, with either pasta or risotto. Instead, these first two courses just showcased Martin’s lack of restraint when handling luxury ingredients and this felt like vulgar cooking, with square pegs crammed into round holes in the name of combining expensive foods just for the sake of it.
Between courses, we were served small croissants with black truffle-spiked butter. They were awesome.
Our fish preparation was this monkfish, served with chard, matsutake mushroom broth, and smoked pine nuts. It was good but looked and felt incomplete. This fragmental character reminded of the kinds of dishes that comprised my unsteady marathon meal at Sixteen last January. I don’t really see the point of serving this, especially with a substantial duck course to follow—it just distracted us from the main attraction, even if the fish was nicely prepared.
Before the duck was served, a runner presented us with this photo-op; it was a ‘dummy duck’ and not the one we were to be served, but it was an accurate replica.
Our actual duck was served in two components, delivered simultaneously. The breast was served with caramelized endive and pineapple-ginger chutney. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the shoddy foie gras from two dishes prior: there was evident care here, with everything well thought through. The duck was aged for 8 to 10 days, with the skin containing honey, orange, Dijon mustard, coriander, black pepper, and cumin. This was a marvelous combination, and Martin achieved a perfect skin. I found the temperature to be great (roughly medium-rare); I wouldn’t have minded it cooked a bit less, but I think that might have foreclosed the possibility of crispy skin. The portion was generous, and the thigh meat was included in an apple-potato puree.
This was probably my favorite duck preparation of all time. I also appreciate the Versace plate; this classy preparation reminded me of when Grant Achatz used to serve a traditional course at Alinea, complete with period serviceware, just to break up the progression of more avant-garde preparations; in both cases, the luxury serviceware just brings an extra layer of grandeur.
I feel like this duck course could be a real signature for Martin, although this does raise the question: can a course qualify as a signature dish if it doesn’t actually represent a chef’s style? This duck was remarkable, but it worked against what I see to be Martins’ primary qualities: to be sure, there was the ornamental imperative that defines his compositions, but the tendency to overdo everything was mercifully absent, as this presented clear and intuitive flavors. In most cases, Martin’s preparations taste worse than they look, but this wasn’t the case here. I think Martin would do well to structure his menu around the duck and make it his signature, but I actually see that he’s just taken it off the menu—a real error in judgment as I see it. Also: what will they do with the Versace plates?
We were then presented with the cheese cart. I didn’t see many that interested me and so I went with three soft cheeses, which were nice.
The pre-dessert was verjus sorbet with mint. I have a low mint tolerance and so this wasn’t as refreshing for me.
A basket of madeleines was delivered.
One of the peculiarities of Tru is that Martin presides over both savory and pastry, and it’s not hard to see where most of his energies go (not toward the pastry.) There were only two dessert options, neither of which brought any originality: the first was a “plane” of good dark chocolate, and the other an apple-chestnut strudel. This was an easy choice and I went with the strudel, which was paired with pear sorbet. This was an absolutely uninspired dessert, though; I respect how hard Martin must have to work in order to manage each component of the menu, but also wonder whether he may have been more invested in choosing the serving vessel than crafting a memorable dessert.
The closing bites were much better, with a liquid truffle (not shown), pate de fruit, non-liquid truffle, and canele. All were great. A muffin was given as a nice parting gift.
On my way out, I snapped pictures of a couple artworks, the first a light and space work by Ed Ruscha and the second a statue by Yves Klein.
This meal was certainly successful, highlighted by a duck preparation that was absolutely one of my favorite dishes of 2014. Even so, the excision of the duck also gives me little reason to return, and this meal also evidenced the less savory aspects of Chef Martin’s style: a reticence to let expensive ingredients speak for themselves, a lackluster pastry program, and overaggressive seasoning. I also wonder whether Martin is actually to be commended for his dynamism, a question that really emerges after seeing that the duck has been removed. Why didn’t he just recognize that he’d hit on something really special and continue to serve it? Most tables in the dining room had ordered it and so the interest would seem to be there. In general, I think we have an impulse to reward chefs who are constantly experimenting and in this regard Martin should be lauded, but I might actually prefer the frozen rhythms of restaurants that don’t overhaul their menus (Everest, for example) if it means that I can count on past favorites.
Martin is also part of a cohort of Chicago chefs who spent considerable time at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, with others including Thomas Lents of Sixteen and Matthew Kirkley of L2O. I can’t help but draw similarities between Martin and Lents. I enjoyed this meal more than my dinners at Sixteen, but I think both chefs suffer the same limitations: they select clever serviceware and have great ideas, but overshoot their target and venture into gratuitous complexity. In the case of Lents, I think he executes seafood better than anyone in Chicago, but his talents are undone by wearisome tasting progressions. Martin, meanwhile, would have done well to cap this at 3 courses, without introducing a superfluous monkfish course. I understand that maybe these chefs feel that more courses=a more enjoyable meal, but in both cases diminishing returns materialized.
On a different note, but related at an angle: I was recently curious about the historical context in which Moto was received upon opening and so I browsed the lthforum. Several commenters remarked that Homaru Cantu displayed a firm grounding in classical technique (born out of his background at Charlie Trotter’s), which was occluded rather than enhanced by his experimentation. Moto has since come a long way, and I loved my one meal there. I think Martin and Lents are somewhat like Moto circa 2004; Lents is, in my mind, far more talented with proteins than Martin, but the same struggles to craft a compelling tasting menu manifest across their cooking, to the point that the progressions feel tacky.
To close, I think Tru is in a difficult boat because, as a Michelin 1-star restaurant, it’s both part of and distinct from the 1-star contingent. Part of this group, since Michelin gave it a lone star; and also distinct from this category by virtue of its elevated price point, which begins at $125 (for the 5-course with no upgrades) and can easily cross $200. There is an air of exclusivity to Tru that one doesn’t get from most one star Michelin restaurants, but I can also think of 1-stars whose cuisine I prefer, including Topolobampo, Boka, and North Pond, and it is at that point that a return visit becomes unlikely—that is, unless the duck ever gets resurrected.