When we arrived at TRU, we were whisked off through the kitchen to the Chef's Table. It was enclosed in a small room just large enough to seat 8 people. The room had windows along 3 walls, 2 facing the kitchen and 1 facing the street. We really weren't given much of a tour of the kitchen, but I'm sure they would have provided us with one if we would have asked. I didn't ask because I thought they might have that planned for later - they didn't. No big deal though.
The kitchen table is slightly disappointing in the fact that you really can't see a whole lot of action without standing up. The windows are at too high of a level to really see what's going on outside and full length windows wouldn't resolve the issue either because the other side of the wall is being utilized as you can imagine. The only real way to rectify the line of sight issue would be to elevate the room and I don't foresee that happening anytime soon.
The reason I mention all of this is because it brings up an interesting problem. How do you integrate a kitchen table that can seat 8 people without: the kitchen being crowded, the guest being uncomfortable, the guest feeling imposing or secluded, or diminishing the feel of being part of the action? Both of the tables available at Charlie Trotter's seem to fail at the ideal. One table is in the corner of their kitchen which I think would be hot and crowded, while the other table is in a completely separate room with closed circuit TV's (admittedly I'm not sure how this setup works). Honestly, the best implementation I've seen of a kitchen table was at Buca di Beppo. They had a small nook in their kitchen which held a 'U' shaped bench with a square table. The bench was elevated, so you had to step up and slide in. This would never work in a fine dining establishment because of the service issues it would create, but it was a good design for that restaurant.
Speaking of service, our service at TRU was pretty interesting. It wasn't always flawless and elegant, but it was informative. Our attendant...um, hold that thought while I digress for a moment...
What do you call "waiters" in a place like TRU, Charlie Trotter's or The French Laundry? You usually have several people waiting on you and there are occasions when you'll only see your "waiter" for a total of 10 minutes during the 4 hours you're there. Other people are bringing your food, describing it to you, answering your questions, filling your drinks and what not. I feel that if the person who took your order is not doing at least 75% of the work throughout the night, then they are not a waiter. A Steward? An Attendant? Maybe even an Assistant or Caretaker? Hand out business cards that say 'Culinary Custodian'? And yes, I put my question marks outside my quotes, but that's another rant. For now I'm going to stick with Attendant until I hear a good reason to do otherwise. Now back to our post...
So, where was I? If memory serves me right ,<nod>Iron Chef</nod> ahhh, yes, our attendant. So our attendant was a vast source of information with deep knowledge of food, having worked in the kitchens for 5+ years. He knew all the small details and was able to answer every question we threw at him. He was a tough cookie to crack though. We tried to get him to drop his guard and relax a bit with us, but other than a few canned jokes he tossed out, he just wouldn't show us his non-"Michelin-three-star-wanna-be" facade. Kind of disappointing, because some times we just like joking around with the wait staff and we know he has this ability because we could see him harassing the kitchen staff while waiting for us to finish our current courses. Foiled again by those pesky 2-way windows :-)
Oh, speaking of the kitchen's bane of the 2-way window, my wife caught the kitchen staff pointing, chattering and snickering at us several times due to our (my) insistence on taking a copious amount of pictures of our experience. Granted, she does have a bit of an imagination about such things, but she's also far more observant of surrounding people then I am, so I have the inclination to believe her. However, I did get weird looks from our waiter, I mean "attendant", when I stood up and got closer to the cheese cart to photograph it. So much so, that it made me uneasy to do the same for the Petit Fours Cart, thus the blurry picture. Though, the reason I entirely forgot to photograph the chocolate cart that came after that was because I was too busy enjoying my espresso lollipop.
I guess I should start talking about the food now. Early in our meal our attendant asked us where else we had been. We told him where we had been, what we liked, what we didn't, etc, etc... Of course he asked us what had been our favorite up to that point and we told him Charlie Trotter's. He made the expected comment hoping to change that. I have to say they didn't start strong. But to be fair, they didn't start weak, it's just that we had seen most of their early tricks:
Cucumber Mint Juice - seemed like almost every restaurant in Chicago was doing this one;
Vermont butter with lots 'O fat - both my wife and I thought immediately of the French Laundry;
Sweet Potato Sorbet as an Amuse - reminded me of the Salmon cone at the French Laundry because of the way it was served;
Watermelon w/ Balsamic and The Caviar Staircase - I own the Amuse Bouche book that Tramonto wrote, so these were not a surprise;
Fighting Fish Bowl - again expected because I'm an information whore and I had scoured the net for pics and reviews before we went.
Don't get me wrong, those were great, the Caviar Staircase in particular. I just wasn't wowed, so it wasn't pushing through that barrier to be crowned the Best of Chicago in our minds. That was until...
I'm not sure if it was the Souffles or the Homemade Rootbeer Float - which ever one I tried first - the other was just confirmation of that decision. It's hard to describe just how good their desserts are and how deserving Gale Gand is of the praise she receives. I was disappointed that the Bread Pudding wasn't a little more dense and custardy-french-toast like, which is what I'm used to, but everything else was pretty amazing. The cart of Petit Fours and Chocolate just pushed everything else to an almost bliss state. We just couldn't stop smiling.
Other highlights of the meal include the Espresso-Roasted Quail, Watermelon-Mint Shooters, the Cheese Cart and the Caviar Staircase which I mentioned before (especially the Wasabi infused Tobiko). What's really neat is the fact that they have about 140 dishes in their arsenal, so you could easily go back several times and never have the same dish twice. Maybe even coming up with your own ultimate menu after you've been there a dozen times!
The last bit I'll mention is about their dining room. We only saw the dining room as we were leaving, but it's beautiful. Extremely elegant, modern yet classic with some great artwork. They have taken time and put a lot of money into making the entire experience seem like a piece of art itself. Right down to the bathroom sink.
TRU - Make a Reservation
Chicago, IL (Gold Coast/Streeterville)
676 North Saint Clair
Chicago, IL 60611
Hours of Operation
Monday - Thursday: 5:30pm - 10:00pm
Friday - Saturday: 5:00pm - 11:00pm
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