The chef’s table at TRU: is it worth it?

NOTE: This review was originally published on a now-defunct food & wine website called Eat. Drink. Repeat. on December 28th, 2005.

TRU to Form

Ask anyone (any foodie that is) what the best restaurants in the world are, and you’re sure to elicit answers that include anything by Thomas Keller or Philipe Bocuuse, eponymous establishments by Gordon Ramsay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or Charlie Trotter, and many others including the sometimes-bizzare nuvo cuisine inspired by Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. Any one of these (and many other) gourmet meccas will cause the most jaded taste buds to swoon, and lighten the wallet… nay, the savings account… by an amount approaching a mortgage payment.

And yet I was consistently stunned that when I spoke with ebullient enthusiasm about my pending reservation at TRU Restaurant in Chicago, I received mostly blank stares. When I quoted the star chef Rick Tramonto, they still lacked recognition. When I finally brought up Gale Gand, the magical pastry chef who stars in the Food Network show Sweet Dreams, I at least got one acknowledgement. I find this apparent lack of knowledge amongst my foodie brethren to be both refreshing…and disturbing.

It has been many years since I lived in Chicago, and TRU opened after my departure. It’s comparatively young age may explain some of the lack of knowledge out there, but in Chicago, TRU is well known. Having opened to and persisted with accolades from reviewers professional and amateur alike (can you guess which category I fit into?), just last year during an admittedly subjective review by renowned Chicago Tribute restaurant columnist Phil Vettel, TRU edged out Trotters in a head-to-head comparison… high praise indeed.

Ever since the opening of TRU, I have wanted to experience a dinner there. What first caught my attention were some of the novel prix fix menus offered which I had read about in a magazine some years ago. Apparently TRU offers a “dessert” degustation, involving several courses of Gale Gands luxurious creations. So, conceivably, you could dine on a traditional Chicago hot dog for dinner, and follow it up with a series of desserts that are so delicious, so enchanting, so beautiful, that you feel as if you may have left the bounds of earth itself… but more on that later.

To make a very long story short, my lovely wife and I met and fell in love in Chicago. Since the birth of our beautiful daughter, we’ve fantasized about returning to the city of our courtship, and spending a pampered weekend there, staying in a fine hotel and eating like royalty. The time arrived this December, and we stayed in a wonderful hotel which may the subject of another review in the future. The pinnacle of our trip, however, was dinner at TRU, and at the kitchen table no less.

Why the kitchen table? Well, why the hell not? We were expecting the best meal we’ve ever had (which says a lot given where we’ve dined) and decided that we wanted to go all the way, so to speak, and have the most outrageous experience TRU could offer. Somewhat unnervingly, however, the kitchen table reservation was considered a “special event” and thus had a non-refundable deposit equal to the entire cost of the meal. This was troublesome because we were flying to Chicago earlier on the same day as our reservation at TRU, and a travel delay from weather or “mechanical difficulty” (the airlines catch-all phrase for things including “Our pilot got drunk last night so he can’t fly and there isn’t anyone else available”) could have prevented us from our experience, but costing us just the same. However, we arrived on time and my fears were unfounded.

We prepared for dinner more than an hour in advance. I didn’t wear a tuxedo, but I certainly considered it. Suffice it to say, formal attire was required, so we got more done up than we would for a jaunt to the local pizza joint. I was a voracious reader about TRU prior to our experience, and more than one review suggested arriving a few minutes early to have a drink at their stylish bar, so we ensured to do so.

TRU is located in a fairly busy section of downtown Chicago, just off Michigan Avenue, the “Miracle Mile” for shopping splendor. The exterior of the restaurant is understated, and it is easy to miss unless you’re looking for it. While the building and the front door leave something to be desired, as soon as you walk in the door, you immediately realize you’ve arrived someplace special. Just through the door is the host station, who takes your name, and attendants swirl about you to collect your coat. It gave me a goodly amount of pleasure to have the host take my name, look into the book, and have his eyes light up upon seeing that we were to dine at the Kitchen table and say “Ahhhh! Yes, Mr. Mehr, welcome to TRU!” Yep, that’s right, we’re all that and a bag of chips buddy!

The opening vestibule is small, but it provides almost a tunnel-effect, past the vestibule, there is the bar. It is, in a word, gorgeous. The design of the restaurant is decidedly modern and minimalistic, reminding me of some hotels I’ve visited in Scandinavia. There are a handful of large comfortable seats, and a small, granite topped bar with less than ten stools around its curved arc. We chose a seat at the bar, and ordered glasses of wine. Honestly, I was too excited to pay attention to what we were having, but I think we had a Sancerre and a Riesling, but I can’t remember for sure. What I do remember is the tender of the bar opening the bottles fresh, testing the wine, and then serving us as we gawked about our surroundings. The most striking visuals at TRU include the nearly-two-story illuminated liquor shelves behind the bar, and the fabulous works of original art distributed throughout the restaurant. I won’t take the time to belabor the artwork in this review, although many of the pieces are described on the TRU website.

About halfway through our glass of wine, and at about the point where we were no longer looking around with our mouths open like a couple of fish, our waiter, Frederick, came and collected us. We walked through the swinging doors where the waiters and runners always come and go, those that I have always want to go back and explore behind in fancy restaurants. Past the coffee makers, the hutch holding the Versace china, and into the kitchen. Frankly, the kitchen was a shock. It was not nearly as loud or chaotic as I had expected, and was as neat and organized as my desk… which is saying a lot because I’m pretty strict about how organized I keep my space. I suppose this is not unlike the public’s perception of emergency rooms or police headquarters: the movies make them out to be very different than the actually are.

We then arrived at our own dining room. The kitchen table at TRU is not in the kitchen, per se, but rather in a room immediately off the kitchen, with large picture windows into both the main kitchen and the pastry kitchen on the side. With the door left open, it is easy for the diners at the kitchen table to hear and smell the action in the two kitchens, but still secluded enough to be private and romantic. Perhaps my wife’s favorite feature of the entire evening (not including the food and wine, of course) was the “purse stool” that is provided for the lady diners. Next to each woman’s chair, there is a stool upon which she can place her purse for easy access, and not have fear of it being kicked or forgotten if placed on the floor. Apparently, this is the most amazing thing ever thought of in the world of restaurant customer service, as my wife could not stop talking about it… but don’t let the word out, as I think right now TRU may have a corner on that market.

What began next can only be described as sensory overload. As I started to describe above, there are many different menus to choose at TRU. At the kitchen table, it is the creatively titled “Kitchen Table Selection” of ten courses. As it turns out, those ten courses were represented by two dozen unique dishes! In hindsight, we made a GIGANTIC error in cleaning our plates for the first, oh, 8 courses, because by the time desert came around, we both felt like we were about to explode… but when I describe what we were served, you’ll understand why we were not able to show restraint. Its probably worthwhile to point out that for the Kitchen Table Selection, there is no menu. The Chef’s just make whatever inspires them that evening, and you are totally in their hands and make no decisions. Its quire liberating.

Moments after being seated, we were served an amuse-bouche of acorn squash panna cotta dusted with toasted pumpkin seed brittle. This tiny bite was served in a porcelain spoon, as was a sweet, delicately flavored, pillowy soft morsel that got the evening off to a great start. Shortly thereafter, we were served the Grand Amuse-Bouche, a signature start to a dinner at Tramanto’s restaurants, where four small, fairly different bites are served at the same time. Tramanto is such a fan of the Amuse-Bouche that he has written an entire cookbook on them, one I own and can be found periodically flipping through for inspiration before making a special meal. Our Grand Amuse-Bouche consisted of whipped pecorino goat cheese with port reduction and walnuts (both our favorites), dried fruit salad with apricots, apples, and golden raisins, fresh squeezed apple juice in shot glass, and onion soup with crème and I spice I could never quite put my finger on. Needless to say, the amuse-bouche worked and were just about bouncing off the walls with anticipation for the next course.

Now, allow me to state that I’ll eat anything once, and never pass up the opportunity to try something new. Therefore, there are very few things that I have not had, cuisine wise, but caviar is one of them. Why? Well, I typically attend parties with (at best) good-but-inexpensive wine and cheese or (more often) beer and chips, not bottles of Dom Perignon and tins of beluga. Furthermore, despite an addiction to sushi and experiencing fish eggs in that fashion on a regular basis, I wasn’t about to go drop $100 on a package of them that I wouldn’t be sure I could enjoy on their own. So you can imagine my delight when our third course was Tramonto’s golden Osetra caviar staircase. This is Chef Tramonto’s signature dish. A glass curving, foot-high glass staircase is layered with (top to bottom) Osetra, Salmon, whitefish, and wasabi-infused whitefish roe, followed by traditional accouterments of chopped egg yolk, chopped egg white, chopped capers, and chopped red onions. This was all served with crème fresh and brioche. It was amazing, and I can say now that I would be inclined to buy some for myself to have at home, with the proper wine of course.

Which brings me to the second part of our dining experience. I had called ahead and spoken with the Sommelier about our dinner to get his recommendations on wines. He suggested starting with a bottle of white, perhaps a Sancerre (which guided our first glass of wine choice), followed by a red, such as a Burgundy. Upon further discussion, we decided on a tasting where he would pair wines with each of our courses to fully enhance our experience.

The first wine of our tasting was poured with our caviar, Delamotte Brut Champagne NV. Wine Spectator reviewed this in 2005 and gave it an 87. Personally, I think that’s a bit low. I do agree with the WS review of is lack of strength in the middle, but it balanced nicely with the delicacy of the caviar. I’d provide it with 3.5-stars. Score one for the Sommelier.

Four our fourth course, we were served different dishes and different wines. She was served peeky toe crab and horseradish salad, with roasted baby beets, pickled chard, and tarragon coulis. They served this with Naia Verdejo Rueda 2004 (WS: 88, my score 3.5). This combination was nothing short of extraordinary, as crab is one of my wife’s favorite dishes, and the Naia is one of her favorite wines. I began to suspect that the crew in the kitchen had ESP, which would be reinforced as the evening progressed.

I was served seared yellow fin tuna atop olive tapenade, with potato confit, carmillini beans and shaved radish. It reminded me of a deconstructed Nicoise salad, and was delicious. Bolstering the ESP theory, I love olives and my wife hates them, so this dish was perfect for me. It was served with Kamoizumi Komekome Specialty Sake. Yes, sake. This was the second of three items I had never had before this experience. Well, I suppose technically I have had sake previously, but it was the cheap sushi-bar swill that’s served hot and tastes like gasoline. Something I learned only after this experience is that good sake is very pure, and is served chilled like white wine. The Komekome was a delight, acidic and bright, and I could have had about five more glasses. It reminded me of a dry Riesling. I score it at 4-stars.

Our next course was fois gras. Now, there’s some history to fois gras at TRU. Apparently, a year or two back, Charlie Trotter teamed up with an alderman in Chicago to try and make serving fois gras illegal. Well, Tramanto was of the complete opposite opinion (and the one I agree with), which is that the government shouldn’t dictate what you can or can’t eat. Besides, fois gras is dang tasty. Apparently, there was much nashing of teeth and some nasty words were traded between the Chefs. In the end, fois gras was not made illegal, and its now de rigour on Tramanto’s menus….fortunately, his experience with fois gras shows in the preparation, shown in two ways during our dinner.

I received Hudson Valley Fois Gras with vanilla-scented apple puree, apple-macadamia nut salad, and caramel emulsion. The fois gras was done medium rare, and the highly sweet sauce was nicely off-set by my wine, Coteaux du Layon Clos de Ste. Catherine Domaine des Baumard 2001. WS scored this was a 91, and I’d provide it with a rating of 4-stars, as its delicate flavors brought out the apple and vanilla in the dish while cutting the sweetness of the emulsion.

My wife received Hudson Valley Fois Gras with braised celery, celery leaves, raisins, Madeira, and duck jus. Her particular preparation of the fois gras was done more towards medium, which again bolstered my suspicions of some ESP in the kitchen, since she has not been exposed to fois gras often, and I believe would have been less happy if it was less cooked. Her dish was complimented by Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Altenbourg de Bergheim Selection de Grains Nobles Marcel Deiss 1996. Wine spectator rates this wine at 92, and I would give it a 4 if not slightly above for its smooth body, and ability to handle both savory and sweet aspects of her dish.

Next came a course that was “courtesy of the Chef.” My first thought was, well, aren’t all these courtesy of the Chef? Then I understood – this was outside the bounds of the price restrictions of our dinner and wine tasting and therefore effectively a bonus round. The Sommelier brought out a white burgundy that he didn’t show me, and as soon as I tasted it I realized why – it was one of the best wines I’ve ever had. A beautiful, textbook white burgundy, with flavors of earth, butter and crème. I’d give it a 4.5, and it was pushing 5-stars. Sadly, I was so distracted with what happened next, I forgot to ask for the name… although I’m certain it would be out of my normal price range.

This wine was served to compliment Swan Creek Ricotta Gnocchi, with Crème Fraîche & Chives. Beautiful, buttery pillows, I was about to dig in when our waiter asked for just a moment. He stepped out of our dining room, and quickly returned with a special utensil and what appeared to be a fist-sized peeled potato in his hand. All of a sudden, I realized what it was: a fresh white truffle. He proceeded to step to our plates and delicately shave a substantial amount of the fungus atop each of our dishes as my eyes grew wide when I mentally calculated the cost of this one, single course if ordered separately…. I’m glad it was a bonus! Herein resides the third and final “first” of my evening – I had never had fresh truffle until then, and I’d just like to say it lived up to my expectations. I don’t think my budget will allow me to spend several hundred dollars on a mushroom that doesn’t keep, but I will certainly fantasize about that for years to come. Incidentally, it was chewier than I expected, and not surprisingly paired perfectly with the Burgundy.

At this point we were swooning, and were only half way through the dinner. Perhaps sensing that we could use a break, Frederick offered to take us on a tour of the restaurant, which we readily accepted. We departed the kitchen through a separate door, and walked through the dining room eliciting jealous stares from the rest of the diners. Since they were all older and richer than I am or ever will be (well, the richer part anyway), I relished the moment. Frederick walked us around the dining room, pointing out the various pieces of art, showed us the private dining areas, and then took us into the kitchen and introduced us to the staff. I was disappointed to find that Chefs Tramanto and Gand were not at the restaurant that evening, but their teams hummed with energy and efficiency just the same. I comforted myself with the knowledge that the Sous Chefs we met would likely one day head their own award-wining kitchens.

Back at our kitchen table once again, we were served our seventh course. I suppose this could be referred to as the “soup” course, but it was unlike any soup we’ve ever experienced. In this case, they served us both the same wine, the K Vintners Viognier Columbia Valley 2004. Although we were served two very different soups, they both had a nearly-unbelievable level of richness to them, which the viognier cut through nicely. I don’t remember much else about the wine except that I liked it, since I was too stunned by the soups.

Tramonto serves his soups in cups that are shockingly elegant, ornate, and almost Victorian, which is in strong contrast to the modern, minimalistic design of the restaurant. They are hand designed and painted by Versace. I was served Porcini Mushroom Cappuccino, and simply sipping this was like drinking the essence of mushroom. I could try a thousand times and not make something that good. My wife was served what the menu we received at the end of the meal referred to as “Lobster Lobster Bisque.” I expect that was an amusing typo, but it was a fitting name since there was so much lobster in that little cup just a couple of sips was almost overwhelming. We swapped both back and forth, and the cups drained much too quickly.

Next came the fish course. My wife was served roasted Atlantic cod, with endive and bayonne ham gratin, black truffle cream, and beef jus. It was a rich and savory dish, and I was particularly fond of the endive and ham gratin. It was paired with Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2003, a rounder pinot with only a small amount of fruit that I would score at 3.5 – it paired nicely with the cod as it did not particularly stand out.

I was served roasted Escolar, with braised oxtail ragout and spiced carrot puree. This was served with an earthy Barbera d’Alba Sandrone 2003 that had a nice but not overpowering tannic bite. The Barbera highlighted the richness of the oxtail ragout and the meaty texture and flavor of the Escolar.

At this point, we were getting pretty full, and both of us left (much to our dismay) little bits of the fish course on our plates because we wanted to save what little room we had left for the remainder of the meal.

Finally came the “entrée”. Despite the course title, the servings were no larger than before, just more hearty. I was served a grilled prime beef ribeye with redwine-shallot marmalade, confit of wild mushrooms, braised lettuce, and beef jus. This was paired with Pauillac Réserve de la Comtesse 2000, a beautiful Bordeaux rated 90 by WS and 4-stars by me. It had just enough tannins to handle the beef, but the rest of the meal was rather delicate, and the Pauillac did not overpower.

Interestingly, my wife’s entrée was the one “misfire” on the part of TRU. She received Elysian Fields lam loin and chop, with roasted cipollini onions, couscous, pine nuts, and lamb jus. It was served with the RockBlock Syrah Del Rio Vineyard rogue Valley 2001. I’d give the mild wine a 3, and have to say that the dish, while executed flawlessly, didn’t fit with the rest of the meals we had received. I realize that there wasn’t supposed to be a “theme” to our dinner, but yet there was. The majority of our dishes had a New American / French flair, and this dish was decidedly different, even Moroccan in nature. We both agreed that while we have loved this dish, it seemed out of place with the rest of the menu.

As you can imagine, we were now stuffed beyond compare. We ordered a round of desert wines (Ramos Pinto 30-year tawny port for me, WS 90, my score 4-Stars; and Sauternes Chateau Guiraud 1989 for my wife, WS 92, my score 4.5-stars), and patted our bellies wondering what was next.

Next was cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. We are cheese fanatics. Frederick rolled in a cart loaded with fifteen different types of cheeses, five each from cow, goat and sheep milk, along with a selection of breads and crackers. Against our better judgment, we each had several. My wife had a fresh sheep pecorino which was firm yet yielding, a Wisconsin cow cheddar, and a sharp blue goat similar to gorgonzola. I had a super soft and creamy cow cheese from France that practically ran off the plate when it warmed up, a French goat cheese with strong citrus notes on the end, and a blue sheep cheese that reminded me in texture and flavor of Stilton.

About to burst, Frederick cleared our plates of the cheese course, and whisked in a palette cleanser. I’ve experienced a few of these in my time, and they are always tasty and fun, but this topped all prior: a shot of cherry limeade for each of us, clearing the savory flavors away and making us smile with thoughts of our respective childhoods, all at once.

Next began an all-out assault from the pastry kitchen. We were each given a plate, and each plate had not one, not two, but three different disserts in all. We aggressively shared so there no sense in delineating who got what. The deserts included: vanilla bread pudding with raspberries, warm chocolate pudding with orange crème fresh, banana cake and banana ice cream (her favorite), mini-chocolate bundt cake and vanilla ice cream (my favorite), frozen lemon custard, and, for the life of us, we cannot remember the sixth, which I’m sure was great but just not as good as the rest.

As we were dueling with our spoons over this overwhelming spread, Frederick brought in two soufflés, one chocolate with graham and marshmallow toping so it tasted like an uptown smore, and one crème cheese with raspberry coulis. Both made my eyes roll back into my head.

Then Frederick walks in, with these eight desserts still in front of us, and sets in front of each of us a small root-beer float. Apparently, Chef Gand makes (brews?) her own root beer, and these little floats were a frivolous and fun ending to dessert.

Did I say end. Not quite yet! Despite the fact that we couldn’t clear half of the desserts away (and this made us both very upset), and despite the fact that when we look into each other’s eyes we saw not a twinkle of love but a needle pegging “Full” on a tank gage, Frederick then wheeled in a tray, three tiers high with at least a dozen different cookies, pastries and lollipops. Yes, lollipops. TRU makes their own lollipops in different flavors, the two offered during our visit were lemon almond and cherry vanilla. On the tray, I recall the ginger snaps in particular, but everything else escapes me I was so overwhelmed. My wife claimed to be to full to choose any… which concerned me a little since these types of finger desserts are among her favorites. I had Frederick pick a few and put them on her plate anyway.

Then, something that just about made my wife cry… after pushing out the cart of cookies and pastries, Frederick returned with the mignardises. He held a three-tier platter with at least ten different kinds of hand-made chocolates. Honestly, I think I actually saw her eyes get misty because she was too full to have any. I was too, but in the spirit of gluttony, had one of each… although I only managed a nibble on most of them. My wife lamented her state to Frederick, and he kindly boxed up a few chocolates in a TRU branded chocolate box, which makes me believe that this situation happens quite regularly.

Three hours after our arrival, we were finally finished. I was fortunate to have a head full of wine and the majority of my body’s blood content focusing on digesting, as this insulated my brain from the shock of the near-mortgage-payment size bill upon arrival… but I can honestly say it was worth it. We won’t be doing it any time again soon unless I win the lottery, but it was an experience I will never forget.

As we departed and claimed our coats at the vestibule, we were handed tiny cakes wrapped in clear cellophane with a small card tied to them. The cakes were canneles, a treat that originated in Bordeaux. The card read, “We hope these canneles will help the memory of last night’s dinner linger, like the thought of a breathtaking encounter or great love affair,” and was signed by the Chefs. The canneles and the chocolates did their job, and we have yet to stop talking about our experience at TRU.

My score? 12 courses, 15 wines , 25 dishes, all of it practically perfect. 5-Stars without hesitation.

TRU Restaurant
676 N. St. Clair Street
Chicago, IL 60611