A Look Inside The Kitchen At Tru, On The Last Night Of Its 18-Year Run
By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 25, 2017 5:00PM
After the last plate had gone out, the kitchen was quiet. Photo by Anthony Todd.
For every moment of its 18 years, Tru helped to define fine dining in Chicago. It wasn't always at the top of every best-of list (especially in its later years), but it was always part of the conversation, a place that every foodie in town either harbored fond memories of or wanted to visit. Tru was a sacred temple of caviar and cheese carts, of perfect and obsessive service, and (I think) of the very last jacket-required dress code in Chicago. When it was announced in September that the restaurant would be closing, I knew it would be the end of an era.
Here's what that last night was like.
Chef Anthony Martin. Photo via Facebook.
A tiny bit of background: I'd been to Tru before, but only as part of a media dinner, never as a "regular" diner. My husband had never set foot in the restaurant, though he'd heard me speak fondly of it. Out of the blue, Chef Anthony Martin invited me in for the final night (and I immediately accepted), but I honestly had no idea what to expect.
At some restaurants, closing weeks are a chance to empty the pantry and, maybe, avoid paying huge bills to purveyors. Menus shorten, wine lists have lots of handwritten crossouts, and half the staff has departed to their next gig. Not here. "It doesn't even feel like the last day," Chef Martin said later in the evening, and if diners hadn't all been wrapped up in a nostalgic haze, they might not have noticed anything was different.
"This feels like a fancy restaurant in a romantic comedy. From the '90s." That is my husband's comment upon entering Tru for the first time, and he isn't wrong. Tru feels like a skillful set designer got the stage direction: "Scene 1: Interior of a very fancy restaurant." The dining room is very white, carpeted (ugh), lit by halogens, and boasts an impressive (and expensive) art collection. Tables are set far enough apart from each other that he and I could be discussing divorce, national security or insider stock tips and no one would be the wiser.
All the caviar. Photo by Anthony Todd.
Tru only offers one prix fixe menu, so the only choices are whether or not to do wine pairings and whether we wanted caviar. Ah, the caviar. Tru's caviar service is legendary, something no other restaurant in Chicago comes even close to matching. Multiple varieties of ultra-premium caviar are served atop a coral sculpture, nestled into the branches. It costs a small fortune, but in exchange you get your caviar urges entirely sated, an experience that I've never had anywhere else. The caviar is just one of the many parts of Tru that are not likely to be replaced, as it's much easier to sell (and to stock) a $150 steak or bottle of champagne than a huge selection of highly perishable fish eggs. But I won't soon forget gorging on caviar, sipping chilled vodka and champagne and feeling, for a few moments, obscenely wealthy.
The tasting menu begins, and it's a cliche, but every single dish is perfect. Is everything the best dish I'd ever had in my life? No, but each dish is precisely, specifically, what it is trying to be. A starter course of smoked sturgeon pearls is a parody of caviar, served in a special tin and made of the fish that caviar is harvested from. A simple celery salad, topped with black burgundy truffles, causees my husband and I to independently exclaim, "This is the best celery dish ever made."
Celery salad at Tru. Photo by Anthony Todd.
Bread service can't just be bread service; the salt is from Australia, the goats' milk butter is from Normandy. Prestige ingredients infuse every dish, reminding me why I'm often annoyed by expensive tasting menus that use cheap ingredients. A curry mussel veloute is like drinking seawater infused with spices, and a dashi flan loaded up with caviar (yes, more caviar) is literally the dictionary definition of savory.
At this point, we are so wrapped up in food happiness that we don't even notice the captain heading our way. "Chef would like to invite you into the kitchen," he murmurs to us, before leading us discretely towards the back of the restaurant. When we enter the bustling kitchen, we find a tiny two-top nestled right next to the expediting area, at the same level as the kitchen counter. This is a secret chefs table that's always been at Tru, but was never promoted. Some food writer friends gossiped afterwards that it had to be secret because maybe, just maybe, it wasn't quite in accord with the health codes. Whatever, we are now in the center of the action.
Tru's kitchen is not like most restaurant kitchens. Rather than a loud bustle of shouting, clanging and puffs of fire, this kitchen is almost calm. Copper hangs everywhere, while exotic dishes and sculptures (including a whole rack of the caviar servers that I really, really wanted to steal) line the walls. Dishes flow steadily, and Chef Anthony Martin, the strikingly handsome (and strikingly young) executive chef manages the kitchen with quiet authority, though he did insist that he is in charge of the evening's entertainment. "The DJ is the most important job," he laughs. Martin tells us that the restaurant has had a waiting list every night since the closing was announced, but it's clear that this night, the last night, means a lot for the Michelin-starred chef who has run the restaurant since 2010.
As the night moves on, the "lasts" start coming. The last caviar service goes out the door, the last celery salad course is served and the salad station starts packing up for the final time. A chef snaps a clipboard over his knee, happy (at least on some level) to never be ruled by its lists again.
We're still eating as all of this is happening, which causes a sort of sensory and emotional overload. Pampered diners and, simultaneously, participants in an emotional moment that we're only tangentially connected to, we keep moving through the courses. The A5 wagyu beef (with a certificate of authenticity Chef proudly shows off, unlike all those other wagyu fakers in town) is topped with foie gras, black garlic and chanterelle mushrooms for the most decadent tasting menu beef course I've ever had. And black truffle risotto finishes out the savory courses, so rich and gasp-worthy that I'm glad the serving only amounts to a few spoonfuls.
The A5 wagyu dish at Tru. Photo by Anthony Todd.
All the while, Martin keeps everything moving with only minor distractions. So many chefs on this night would be partying and doing shots, but Martin's focus doesn't waver. He's not just wiping down the edges of plates, he's wiping down the edges of serving trays. Edges of trays that there is no way the diner will ever see - but they have to be perfect. That's the essence of this place, and it's going to stay that way till the very last minute.
Chef Martin finishing plates. Photo by Anthony Todd.
But amongst the perfection, he's still joking, playing and teasing—something many fine dining chefs can't manage, or view as distraction. I gossip with him about his biggest regret about the closing (giving up his Lettuce Entertain You employee discount is high on the list), and at the same time he's teasing one of his younger chefs for not recognizing a singer on the stereo. "It's Tom Petty, motherfucker. He died three days ago!"
A server comes rushing in—a four top has loved the foie gras nestled atop the A5 wagyu so much that they want another taste of it. Can Chef make that happen? Of course he can, and small plates of foie quickly head out the door. How much extra foie does this kitchen stock, exactly? My question goes unanswered, but an entire loin of spare cooked A5 wagyu appears on the savory line. "No point in wasting it," Martin says, and chefs start slicing it thin and topping it with the very last can of caviar for what is possibly the most decadent snack every created. The chefs have a well-deserved chow down to celebrate the final night.
Cavair atop A5 Wagyu - how much money is in this picture? Who knows.
The very last black truffle risotto comes off the line, and Tru's savory days are over. "Everyone says it's so bittersweet; it's awesome," Chef Martin exclaims, and I don't think he's gleeful at the closing - more proud that the restaurant went out on top. The pastry chefs are still going, but everyone else is done, their jobs complete and their stations packed up. Blender drinks show up, there may be some minor dipping into the cognac closet (and yes, Tru has a cognac closet) and chefs start to talk about what's next. We could probably stay and keep drinking for hours, but at the end, this isn't our moment—we're customers, and while Tru is all about service, these people deserve an ending that's about them.
As we step down from our seats and shrug our jackets back on, I shake Chef's hand and ask if he has any final thoughts. "This restaurant has to be about making emotion connections with guests. All restaurants should be. I think we did that."
Thus ends Tru. It's unlikely that we'll see anything quite like it again, since this type of corporate, fine-art-encrusted, dress-code-enforcing spot is the antithesis of everything that restaurants are in 2017. Perhaps that's OK, as trends and chefs move on and on and on. But despite that, it's a restaurant that Chicago should never forget. I know I won't.