If you ask me to recommend one fine dining meal in Chicago right now, I’d recommend Grace without reservation. At Grace, Chef Curtis Duffy continues to hone his signature style, drawing on his prior experience at Trio, Alinea and Avenues. When you eat at Grace, you’re kind of getting a survey course in the evolution of Chicago fine dining over the last decade.
I’ve only been to Tru once, and that was shortly after it opened when then-married chef-couple (chouple?) Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand were in full control of the kitchen. My visit was so long ago that I had a hard time placing it in time, mentally searching for some clue on when it happened. (Was it when one of my dining companions was pregnant with her first or her second child? Was it post-tech bubble or in midst of real estate boom?). Finally, I found the answer on Rick Tramonto’s wiki page (I bet you didn’t know there was one, did you?) and, the answer to the question of when was the last time I dined at Tru is 1999. Yep, 15 years ago.
A lot has happened in Chicago dining over the last 15 years. I barely need to mention that, since then, we’ve had Trio under Achatz and its subsequent incarnation, Alinea; not to mention the influence of “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist” cuisine or whatever your preferred word is for making food more grounded in science lab techniques, which made fine dining more surprising and theatrical. Previously, the defining characteristic of fine dining was elevated service. Post-Alinea and its progeny, people expect to be wow-ed.
Not that Tru circa 1999 under Tramonto and Gand didn’t have its share of the Wow Factor. Remember the caviar staircase? Or the dish served in a bowl with a live goldfish swimming around in it that they gave to you (fish and all) at the end of the night? The Warhol, the synchronized service, and even the purse stand (which I think Tru pioneered in Chicago). Who could forget Gand’s deliberately playful dessert cart at the end of the meal, where diners could select from a variety of childhood favorites — lollipops, cupcakes, caramel corn, etc. — to take home for the night. It was intended to be grand, and, in my opinion, a distinct departure from the comparatively staid Charlie Trotter’s, Les Nomades and Everest.
Fast forward 15 years: Tramonto and Gand have divorced, and they’ve long departed Tru. Tru is still around but any word-of-mouth about it seems drowned out by complaints about Next’s ticketing system, continued Alinea accolades in the wake of earning three Michelin stars, L2O and its seemingly endless chef changes, and Grace in its steady ascendancy to the top echelon of the Chicago fine dining world. If it seems strange to be comparing Tru to pre-Achatz Trio, recall that Tramonto and Gand were at Trio before him, too.
Heeding some friends’ advice that their late meals at Tru under Chef Anthony Martin have returned it to its initial glory, I headed over there for my birthday this week. The restaurant looks pretty much the same as I remember it. The dining room on this Wednesday was only half-full — not terribly surprising for mid-week — but somewhat indicative of where Tru falls on the fine-dining rungs of the ladder. Unlike other restaurants that have concertedly upped their game, Tru seemed to have made a conscious effort to calm things down a bit from the opening glitz.
Overall, service was still pretty flawless, though the imperialistic flourishes have been toned down quite a bit. They still have the purse stand, and the servers are still dressed in black suits. They still offer a caviar course though the staircase is gone. (This is how it is offered now.) While it was unthinkable 15 years ago for a table to not order the caviar course, now I note that only one table did while I was there — perhaps a function of midweek restraint, or maybe post-recession sensibility — I don’t know. (In fact, it may be so out-of-fashion, that Grub Street asked this question in 2009.)
The food — not surprisingly given Chef Martin’s experience – is firmly grounded in French techniques, ingredients and flavors but strikes a balance between strict French food and sometimes-challenging modernist drama. There are no foams, no obvious over-reliance on anti-griddles, immersion circulators, or other modernist devices, and no plating of fifteen ingredients in a line. (I note there was an exploding truffle that was served in a container of dry ice, seemingly the only nod to modern techniques.) Although the plating is a little unorthodox, it’s hardly innovative. The execution and flavors of the food were adroit without hitting the overly rich point that many French restaurants reach one-third of the way through a tasting menu. Cream and butter were not overwhelmingly used, and every dish wasn’t topped with foie gras. Maybe you could ding Tru for the abundance of French truffles on the menu, but these truffles were pristine. There is also Midwestern seasonality to the menu — as evidenced by the red kuri squash soup dish — that was entirely absent in Tru 1999 if my recollection serves. I appreciated the fine selection of half-bottles — an alternative to wine pairings — which included 2006 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone that drank spectacularly.
Some people may view all this as a fatal deficiency of excess or even originality — but unlike the hits-and-misses of Next’s menus, there wasn’t a bad dish in the entire repertoire of savory courses. Here’s the caveat, though: I suspect that the subtlety of Tru is likely to go right over the heads of many overstimulated diners who are accustomed to the theatrics of modern fine dining.
The one thing that distinguishes Tru is its easygoing approachability — many of the dishes and flavors will be familiar to most people. In that regard, Tru 2014 is a refreshing departure from a group of restaurants that are constantly trying to reinvent themselves and challenge diners. I overhead a solo diner at a nearby table tell the server how refreshing Tru’s food was after being mired in mediocre conference food all week. I took it to mean that it was just what she needed at that time. Which is kind of what eating at Tru is — a break from what is going on now to step back into what was going on before then, before-Alinea. As strange as it seems to be advocating going back in time, a reminder of pre-theatrics fine dining — when the meal was meant to be relaxed, enjoyable and delicious — may be just what we need now.