L’Etoile (and Sanford?) aside, Madison and Milwaukee don’t offer much along the lines of world-class dining. You’ve got to go to Chicago for that. For Ross’ birthday, we did. The list of places in Chicago that I’d like to try but haven’t yet is decently large. Alinea, Trotter’s, and Tru were at the top of that list. Ross had mentioned Tru a few times, so I checked OpenTable and was able to easily get a table a few weeks out.
Not wanting to drive down to Chicago and back the same day, especially after a fancy dinner, I turned the event into a weekend trip. I used some Marriott points to book a room at the Blackstone, which is downtown near Millennium Park. We drove down Saturday morning and stopped at Superdawg, my first time there, for lunch along the way. We then checked into the hotel, got into our fancy clothes, and caught a cab to the restaurant.
Tru lives in the ground floor of a large, nondescript building across from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The restaurant’s entrance is very dark and black, and no fewer than three people greeted us there. Without hesitation, the staff wished Ross a happy birthday and took us to the table.
The dining room was very austere: black carpeting and seats against white tablecloths and walls. Tables were spaced far apart, and diners kept their conversations to a murmur. An abudance of formally-dressed waitstaff stood throughout the room like prison guards at watchtowers looking for escapees, or a dropped fork.
Our waitress greeted us and offered options from a small, yet incredibly overpriced list of pre-dinner cocktails. An example: $18 for a “punch” of Pernod, Bacardi rum, and orange. Not even top shelf rum and it’s $18? Not having heard any rave reviews of their cocktails, and wanting to focus on wine anyway, we opted out and began reviewing the menu.
Their menu offers a number of prix fixe tastings (called collections) as well as a la carte options. For any of the tasting courses, they offer the option to swap it out with something from the a la carte menu as well. We opted for the grand collection at $110. Our waitress inquired about food allergies or aversions and we both replied that we’d prefer not to have any onion. The grand collection included a course of onion-poached fish and we asked what could be done about that. We were offered a choice from the a la carte menu and both settled on the same non-onion fish course from that.
Not wanting to get a single bottle of wine to cover a six course meal, we inquired about how wine pairings for each course might work. Often enough, restaurants offer a set price for such things. Not Tru. Their sommelier pairs half glasses of wine with each course and the price is whatever it turns out to be at the end. Oddly enough, as we received each glass of wine later on, it was mentioned that these were the regular pairings for each couse. Why not give that price ahead of time if you know what it will cost? I certainly wasn’t there to save money, but when you don’t want to spend $100/person on wine, why not at least say “No problem, our recommended pairings for your selection is about $50/person”?
The first bit of food brought out was a sphere of cauliflower, sea trout roe, and salty-sweet orange. It was my first time trying a “sphere”, and it was quite interesting. Served simply on a spoon, with waitstaff standing by to collect it, the sphere was a orb of gelatin (?) wrapped around a pureed cauliflower broth. It exploded in my mouth and was kind of fun to eat. I can’t say the taste was amazing, but it was an interesting way to serve such a thing.
The amuse bouche was a simple mound of “nigella seed” cured salmon, cucumber gelee, cucumber skin emulsion, and candied lemon peel. The cucumber gelee had mild cucumber flavor, yet the cucumber skin emulsion, despite its deep color, didn’t offer any sort of flavor. The salmon, while of good quality, had a straightforward salmon flavor with just a hint of saltiness. Altogether, it was a satisfying couple bites, but nothing noteworthy or really amazing to set the tone for the rest of the meal.
The first real course was smoked sturgeon “caviar”, avocado, and hazelnut. Beautifully presented in a caviar tin atop a mound of salt, the dish had two problems: 1) no one took the time to explain what the dish was, especially the “caviar” part 2) it tasted strongly of onion. The top was some sort of cheese-textured white goo, and the bottom was pureed avocado with flavors I can only describe as resembling guacamole with red onions.
Ross, not wanting to be a whiner, ate his. I, on the other hand, not wanting to have a single course to regret, mentioned the strong onion flavor to the waitress. She apologized and said that the dish was not to have any onion in it. She came back a few minutes later to admit that the avodcado does include shallots, oops, her mistake, and that it’s usually not such a strong flavor so the chef might have been a little heavy handed tonight.
As a peace offering, we were given a replacement first course (directly from the chef’s collection menu) and paired wine. This time it was a frog leg with roasted garlic, carrot, and watercress. The frog leg was fried, seemingly in panko, and placed atop cubes of carrot. The whole thing was swimming in a pond of watercress puruee, with dollops of roasted garlic puree acting as islands. I’ve not had frog leg before, so I was excited at the prospect. Disapointingly, the frog leg was fried. To me, that’s an incredibly boring, perhaps safety-net way of serving frog leg. Maybe they don’t want to scare diners away by serving it in a manner which allows you to truly taste the meat. The watercress puree was actually good, but I’m not sure the garlic islands were necessary. Overall, I can now say I’ve tried frog legs, however I can’t say they did anything special to it to make me want more.
The next course was a disaster all around. Perhaps each element of the dish was excellent by itself, but everything together was a mess. The menu calls it “peeky to crab salad, prosciutto, pequillo, cantaloupe-cava-consomme.” I love crab, I don’t get to eat it enough, so this was something to look forward to. The consomme was great alone. I would eat a bowl of it on a hot day. It was also very sweet, like a dessert. The grab, was sweet too, which is usually a good thing. The problem was, the consomme was much sweeter than the crab. When you ate everything together, all you tasted was the soup. Why bother serving crab, the focus of the dish, when you can’t even taste it? The accents of prosciutto and pepper sauce were there, but equally untastable as a result of the sweet broth.
Mechanically, the dish didn’t work out either. The crab was flaked and mounded beneath a disc of prosciutto, which had pepper sauce and a green herb atop it. The dish was bigger than just a single bite, and you want to taste everything together, but prosciutto is difficult to cut. As a result, the prosciutto falls into the broth and gets coated in sugar and the pepper sauce atop dissolves.
“House-made porcini tagliatelle, condensed tomato, asparagus cream, parmasan” was the third course. Yes, my printed menu they give to take home says “parmasan”. The aspargus cream was unique, although a bit under seasoned. The tagliatelle was laughably delicate and soft. It fell apart into a mush when preparing bites. The condensed tomato was floating, similar to the garlic in the frog leg dish, in an island amid the asparagus. Because of the way it was served, I’m not sure I even tasted it. The parmesan, albeit of good quality, got lost in the asparagus puree. Stylistically, similar to previous dishes, the featured item was served amid a pond of puree just like the crab and frog leg dishes. For us, that made three dishes in a row served in that manner.
Somehow we don’t have a picture of the fish course. Remember, we had swapped out the onion-poached fish for something else. Instead we opted for the “Hawaiian ahi a la plancha, radish, leek, sauce provencale”. The tuna was shaped like a slice of Spam. The edges were seared white, and the middle was still slightly pink. Maybe I’m too much in the mindset that tuna should be eaten raw, but the fish was dry and oddly textured. In fact, it had very little flavor. The sauce provided all the flavor. And luckily there was sauce because the fish was underseasoned – perhaps not seasoned at all.
Finally a dish we could rave about (only 5 courses in!). “Duet of lamb, daikon, watermelon radish, olive, star anis” was presented on a long rectangular plate. The right side was a medallion of lamb, topped with, if I remember correctly, confit lamb. Both were topped with the same sauce. I’m unsure why they decided to serve two styles of lamb but sauce them the same, though. In any case, both preparations were perfectly cooked and tasted great. The olives were more of a tapanade, and provided a salty flavor, while the radish paired better visually than by its flavor.
I should mentioned that between courses we were offered an array of breads. Each extremely good. I’d say better than most of the courses we ate. Just before the lamb course we were offered some more bread. Ross took some and put it on his plate. Within seconds, waitstaff appeared, and without a single word removed the bread plate (no bites taken of the bread) and butter and cleaned up the table. The lamb came out and suddenly bread plates and butter reappeared. Minutes later a waiter came to offer more bread, and Ross chose exactly what he had just ten minutes before. Was it poor coordination or being overly formal, I’m not sure.
Now we moved on to the desser courses. Since Rick Tramanto seemed to have failed with his portion of the meal, we were hoping Gale Gand could make up for it with hers. The first dessert was a small bite of mandarin gelee, mandarin curd, and blackberry. Eaten altogether, it was excellent. Acidic, creamy, chewy, you name it, this bite had it.
The formal dessert was excellent as well. An almond-violet mousse served atop lemon sponge. The mousse was soft and airy, with a deservingly-strong almond flavor. The lemon spone was a good complement as it provided some citrus flavor but didn’t overpower. The whole dish went well with the coffee (a blend from Intelligentsia). I skipped the photo of this as it was too blurry to make out.
Between this and the final round of desserts, the waiters discreetly brought out a small bite of chocolate cake with three candles in it. Written on the plate in white chocolate was a birthday wish for Ross. It was a nice touch, and wasn’t tacky by any means.
A more exciting part of the meal had to be the mignardises. The waitress rolled a small cart over and described each of the 8 bite-sized treats on it. Asked which we wanted, we responded one of each. While I don’t remember the details of each one, I can say that you won’t be disappointed with any. Gale definitely lived up to her reputation with these.
I mentioned wine above but didn’t mention any details throughout. The pairings went decently well, but I can’t say the selections were perfect. You expect the wine to bring the food to a different level, and I can’t say that was the case at all. One course I can specifically remember was a slightly too sweet riesling being served with the tagliatelle. For certain, each wine was good on its own, however only two stood out with the food: Passopisciaro from Sicily served with the lamb and the dessert wine served with the mousse.
The dessert wine was a moscato d’asti that had been “aromatized” by the sommelier. His trick, he had let us know earlier, was adding a few drops of Peychaud’s bitters to the glass before pouring. Having forgotten this, we were close to sending our glasses back when we noticed a bit of liquid in our supposedly clean glasses before the wine was served. In any case, it’s not often wine gets mixed with anything, but this blend was acceptable. It gave a bit of savoryness and complexity to an otherwise simply sweet and bubbly wine. Give it a shot next time you buy some asti.
While not directly related to the food, I should mention the bathroom fail. They tried to get all fancy with their sink and faucets. The “sink” was a long flat slab of glass angled downward towards the wall, where water would drain out of sight. It had no edges or “sides” to it. The problem was that the faucet wasn’t placed high enough above the slab of glass. As a result, you can barely get your hands underneath to wash them. In fact, the cuffs of my jacket ended up getting wet because of how you have to maneuver to get under the faucet. For a restaurant that requires a jacket, which all have long sleeves, this isn’t a good thing.
Overall, as you can tell, I was disappointed. I was hoping for a top 10 meal and got something along the lines of a top 100. The food was OK, but nowhere near revolutionary or life changing. The service was over attentive yet mistakes were made. The menu you take home not only included a misspelling, but neglected to indicate we got a replacement first course. Maybe it was just just our luck that night, who knows. I won’t be heading back at least until I’ve exhausted the list of other fine dining establishments in Chicago.
To make matters worse, I had a top 2 meal at Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA recently. Service there was attentive, but not overbearing. The food was amazing, unique, and not floating in rafts of green puree, and the wines elevated the food to another level. Having something like that to compare my Tru meal to only helps to justify everything I wrote above.