Coming Full Circle: TRU

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.

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Places I like in West Michigan 2014 (Saugatuck-Douglas-Fennville edition)

I have been a part-time resident of this area for 8 years, mostly during the summer and fall months. Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville is the tri-town resort area located on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, with its New England-esque seaside town architecture, attracts the most tourists and has the worst restaurants of the three towns. Adjacent Douglas looks like a Midwestern Americana movie set,  and it’s less congested and has better food and drink options.

Fennville (where my house is) is the rural component of the three — its long agricultural history is apparent with miles of rolling farmland, orchards and vineyards. “Main Street” has become an ubiquitous cliché, but here, the main street literally bisects the sleepy downtown and a working freight train route cross-cuts it perpendicularly. It has only one restaurant of note — and a damn good one at that. When you approach downtown Fennville and see the cars lining the streets — they’re there for one thing and one thing only — Salt of the Earth, the farm-to-table restaurant that spawned from its brilliant progenitor, Journeyman Café, itself a farm-to-table restaurant, albeit more along the lines of Blue Hill in Westchester County, New York. It was the vision of Chef Matt Millar and served fine, ambitious food, and was even reviewed by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel. Alas, it was too ahead of its time to make a go of it. Its replacement, Salt of the Earth, is more casual and serves food that is more budget-friendly, standard-portioned, and the omnipresent pizza on the menu ensures that kids will do fine there, too. Voilà, it just celebrated its 5th birthday.

Some things to keep in mind when you visit the area:

  • You will not find Chicago-caliber restaurants here. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find great Southern BBQ in Thailand, why would you expect the same caliber of trend-setting, high-level dining in an area with a population of less than 10,000? In other words, it’s best to leave the city mindset at home.
  • Having said that, there are a lot of restaurants that are unspeakably — unnecessarily — bad. As in, you could make a better sandwich at home than the one they’re selling on their menu. Or the quality of ingredients is barely human-grade due to sourcing the cheapest stuff from Big Food Supplier. Some small improvements by lots of these restaurants would go a long way toward improving the food offerings.
  • If you like wine, there are several places that have excellent bottles on their wine lists without the mark-up of Chicago restaurants. Drink up.

where to go in Saugatuck

Phil’s Bar & Grille — the locals’ bar is still solid, especially if you stick with their broasted chicken. The secret here is the above-average wine list, which is reasonably-priced, and doesn’t gouge you on the by-the-glass prices.

Uncommon Grounds — go here for coffee and breakfast. They roast their own coffee, do a mean pourover, and their baked goods are fresh and genuinely homemade.

Marro’s *pizza only* Marro’s pizza is in style of Chicago Italian tavern, and it’s quite good. Italian entrees are hit and miss. It closes off-season, so go soon.

Clearbrook Grill *wine only* Go here only to have a good bottle or three from their respectable wine cellar and skip eating. The restaurant with its Colonial-inspired decor might invoke nostalgia in a good sense, and the view out to the golf course is beautiful on a nice day. Clearbrook once had a formal dining space with decent food along with a Wine Spectator-blessed wine cellar, but they were understandably the victims of economic-downturn retrenching. Clearbrook needs to overhaul its menu and charge more for its food and source better ingredients. (If you must eat, order a steak.) The wine cellar remains, the wine is still reasonably priced, and it’s a civilized place to watch a game on TV.

Where to go in Douglas

Everyday People Cafe  — Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, I still think this is the place to go for a “night out” in the area. The menu mostly plays it safe, but the food is generally well-executed by Chef Michael Bild, who oversees a kitchen that often puts out banquet-level covers on summer weekends. More than that, the vibe is fun, there is a verdant outdoor patio in the back, and it’s always crowded, so be prepared to wait for a table. Their burger is fantastic – intensely beefy and appropriately juicy, served simply with pickles and frizzled onions — it’s one of my favorites anywhere. On weekend afternoons, their Bubbles & Bites lunch — including champagne, raw bar and build-your-own-bloody marys —  is one of your best options for a leisurely lunch.

Pizza Mambo — The best pizza in the area — thin-ish crust, tavern cut, and high-quality ingredients. The antipasto salad is an embarrassment of riches with salami, prosciutto, grilled sausage, hunks of parmigiano-reggiano and provolone cheese, giardiniera and a variety of olives.

Farmhouse Deli — Caterer/chef Christine Ferris’ deli is doing a lot of great things in-house, including roasting meats, making soups and carry-out salads, and creating a global assortment of refined sandwiches. This is the area’s more modern version of the Hampton’s infamous Barefoot Contessa. Farmhouse Deli also stocks epicurean groceries, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s great for lunch or for supplementing dinner. Also, it’s one of two places for decent coffee in Douglas (Equal Exchange). (Don’t say I didn’t warn you not to go to Respite, where the default coffee is “flavored.” Last I checked “Cookies on Call” in Douglas was serving Intelligentsia, if you consider that to be decent.)

WayPoint Restaurant — located behind M&M Blue Star cafe, it is a decent option for a classic, diner-style fry-up breakfast in Douglas. Order carefully (don’t do eggs benedict or anything that strays too far from short-order diner fare), and you’ll do fine. I would get coffee elsewhere first and bring it with you to the restaurant lest you’d prefer to drink Gordon Food Service’s finest. No ambiance to speak of, unless you think eating in the waiting room of your dentist in the 1980s counts as adequate restaurant ambiance.

Petter Wine Gallery — go here to drink wine. Unlike most places that reserve their best bottles for their bottle lists, PWG opens bottles that retail between $18- $50 to taste or drink by the glass. The wine bar is located in an interesting art gallery–a unique setting for a glass of wine or two. The wine shop also offers some of the best retail bottles in the area — including a great selection of European and California bottles — if you want to splurge for a barbeque or picnic.

Where to go in Fennville

Salt of the Earth — pretty much the only game in town. Committed to responsible, quality, and local sourcing. Chef Matthew Pietsch — who has comparatively elevated kitchen experience for the area — is genuinely talented. Unfortunately, the pizza, which was once stellar years ago, has undergone so many changes that the most recent incarnation is not worth ordering (the crust is now too doughy). Lately, the best thing Salt of the Earth is doing is brunch — housemade sausage, farm-fresh eggs, and house-baked bread and jam made from local fruit ensure that breakfast will be a winner. Again, bring coffee with you — or better yet — have a breakfast cocktail, as the coffee served here by Contreras Coffee is bitter beyond drinkability. (The terrible coffee here is a serious deficiency that I wish the restaurant would correct.) Concerts on Tuesdays in summer and Sundays in the off-season attract some of the area’s best folk, country and bluegrass acts, and are well-worth attending even if you’re not sold on that type of music. Don’t forget to visit the garden off of Main Street that supplies the restaurant with some of their food.

Crane’s Pie Pantry & Bakery— Skip the restaurant in Crane’s Orchards and head straight for the adjacent bakery. Go here for their homey, decidedly non-fussy pie and ice cream (the apple butter version is particularly good), and freshly made and ridiculously cheap apple cider donuts (sixty cents apiece). I also recommend their Apple Butter bread (do you sense a theme here?). The orchards or Gary Crane’s farm across the street are both great places to pick tree fruits like peaches and more apples varieties than you can imagine.

Earl’s Farm Market — go here for U-pick or We-pick berries and South Haven’s popular Sherman’s ice cream. The on-site bakery carries good, unpretentious pies and cookies. These are the type of baked goods your grandmother would make (assuming your grandmother doesn’t give a hoot about the fat content of the butter and likes the flakiness given of shortening to a crust).

The Tasting Room at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery — La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen goats are raised here, milked at nearby Windshadow Farm, and between the two farms, they create some of the most fantastic goat cheese you’ll taste. Sample the varieties here on the farm.

Local Products Worth Picking Up

Palazzolo’s Gelato — once served in one form or another at the ultra-snooty former bakery Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago. The gelato is made in Fennville and can be found in grocery stores in the area, including Fernwood 1891, a general store/art studio in downtown Fennville that carries the most varieties. (You can also buy Evergreen Lane cheese here too.)

SeedySalt bread — One of the farmers/bakers at Kismet Bakery was purportedly the inventor of local cult favorite bread, SeedySalt, back when it was served at the Journeyman Café. It’s a sourdough bread topped with, as the name suggests, a variety of seeds and coarse French sea salt and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s really good. Available at Kismet Farm or Summertime Market on Blue Star Highway in Douglas. You can find the facsimile of SeedySalt made by Salt of the Earth at various grocery stores in the area or at the restaurant. The two are virtually indistinguishable, flavor-wise, but I think the superior bread-making skills at Kismet give it the edge.

Earl’s Farm Market 5-pepper hot sauce — Available at Summertime Market in Douglas and Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. Medium-hot and a little sweet, the variety of peppers suggest a Hungarian-style hot sauce rather than a Southern barrel-aged Tabasco.

Evergreen Lane Creamery cheese — Available retail throughout the area, including Farmhouse Deli, Fernwood 1891 and Summertime Market.

American Spoon Foods — Available lots of places, I know, but the shop in downtown Saugatuck carries some staples that should make it to your cottage or on to your picnic table: Whole-Seed Mustard is made with Michigan Sparkling wine, which sweetens the intense bite of the mustard seeds and causes them to burst on your tongue as you eat it; the concentrated, complex Dried Chile Salsa is a great accompaniment to eggs, meat and almost anything savory; and the Leelanau Apricot Preserves, made with Leelanau Peninsula apricots (the best I’ve ever had in Michigan) is more pleasantly tart than the cloying apricot jam made with California apricots.

BBQ wines at Fenn Valley Winery — It seems strange recommending reds from a Michigan winery, but a consistently reliable, non-vintage fruity red called “Capriccio” made by Fenn Valley (it is even sold by the liter box, it’s so unpretentious) will be a thousand times more enjoyable with your smoked barbeque meats than the high-alcohol, raisin-y, oft-recommended California Zinfandels. For something more substantial, I like the Meritage, a dry red blend of locally-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.