An obvious fan of food blogs, French chefs, and seafood I will fully admit that I've been a stalker of Chef Laurent Gras' L2O Blog and Facebook page since shortly after the restaurant actually opened for business - hype, smart marketing, call it what you like - the concept was and still is intriguing and the restaurant's progressive approach to seafood is something to behold as the chef discusses his methods and concepts. Having trained with legends of French Cuisine from Ducasse to Savoy and having already spent time in San Francisco, New York, and Japan it also happens that Gras is an exercise fanatic and competition-level bicyclist who is more than willing to share with the world the way he eats on a daily basis - much healthier than the average chef, for sure. Given his accolades (most recently 4 stars from the Tribune and nominations from The Beard Awards for best new restaurant) plus the above it was an obvious choice to visit L2O after already experiencing Tru, Moto, Spiaggia, Alinea, and Charlie Trotter's - the "veterans" of Chicago's haute dining scene. As a backdrop to the visit - a weekend celebrating my sister's birthday that would also include a U2 concert the following night.
Having contacted the restaurant ahead of our visit to inform them of the special occasion my e-mail was fielded graciously by a Mr. Anthony Cournia (who actually stopped by to say hello during the meal) and service from e-mail to the end of the meal was stellar - on par with the best of the best in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States. Arriving early we valeted the car at the Belden Stratford hotel in Chicago’s Lincoln Park district with ease. Making our way in we took a couple of pictures before entering the restaurant and were promptly greeted by the gorgeous dining room, subtle music, and pleasant hostess - within moments we were led to a nice 4-top where we were seated side-by-side with a full view of the room currently almost empty but soon to be filled with a refined energy (not loud at all - well spaced tables to be sure) and full house.
Greeted shortly after seating by our pleasant yet unobtrusive (think Providence or Alinea versus The French Laundry or Trotter's) server, Kara, our water was filled and the menus were presented and explained - extraordinarily unique rubberized menus featuring "Happy Birthday Erika" on the bottom left that were later signed by Chef Gras. Left to decide between the tete a tete, autumn tasting, or 4-course prix fixe we quickly decided on the tasting with one substitution and one additional item for myself - making sure this was okay with the Chef our server returned shortly and handed us a card describing some of the fishes we'd be experiencing and refilling our water.
Within moments of placing our orders a man emerged from the kitchen with a first unannounced course described as mussel with microgreens, basil, sesame oil. Amusingly the amuse confused my sister who'd never experienced such a thing stating "I thought the first course was salmon?" After explaining the practice to her we both got our first taste of what was to come. Appropriately briny and perfectly trimmed the mussel was well accented by the potent basil yet smoothed out significantly by the hearty oil - simple and intelligent the dish highlighted each ingredient without allowing any specific flavor to overwhelm the others.
Our second amuse (my sister liking this concept of "free" food) was delivered shortly after the first and this time featured a perfect fresh-water shrimp resting in a pool of spicy salsa verde and topped with micro cilantro. Spanish in influence and actually quite hot on the tongue I was impressed that the taste of the shrimp managed to emerge amongst the spices and while I didn't like it as much as the mussel I was suitably impressed by the presentation and quality of the shrimp - a variety I'd never tasted in the past.
Following the amuses the bread server made the first (of many) visits to our table. As many have noted before (including Gras via his blog,) the bread program at L2O is a source of pride and each bread is made freshly in house 2-3 times per dinner service with different options sometimes appearing later in service. During our evening the initial breads included a buttery pain au Lait, a savory Asiago, a crunchy mini baguette, a hearty wheat epi (similar to the version at Bouchon,) and a bitter and rustic country bread - later in the service this selection was joined by the much praised (and absolutely incredible) rosemary croissant - likely as much butter as choux. The butter, served inverted and flipped over at presentation, was a hearty and grassy blend made from local artisan cow's cream - not quite as good as The French Laundry's famed option, but a close runner up - and the quality of breads was hands and feet above that at TFL or Alinea.
Kicking off the tasting was "Salmon" featuring Line caught salmon, Earl Grey, Ginger Gum, Brioche Crouton, Roe. Reading the description on the blog I assumed we'd receive this dish and was not disappointed. Featuring Earl Grey and sugar cured salmon that is finished in a cold smoker the result dish is as meaty and heavy as one would expect from salmon yet well balanced by accents of pepper, smoke, and bergamot. Accompanying the fish was a cube of gingered brioche and "gumdrop" of ginger topped with a single egg of roe. Intriguingly the gum was largely flavorless until consumed with the roe at which point the salty egg released the potent tones. Well executed and beautifully balanced I found this to be a great opener.
The second dish, "Tuna" was deemed the favorite of the entire meal by my sister. Featuring crimson Ahi cubes each dotted or splashed with either dashi, crunchy black olive, nicoise gelee, or yuzu and topped with "Tuna Snow" (frozen toro run through a snow cone machine) the overall effect was a sampling of at least 5 different flavors of tuna with each maintaining the familiar taste of the fish but accenting it in a new and unexpected manner. The snow itself literally melted in the mouth and gave the dish a silky smooth feel that one does not usually associate with fish.
For course three the listed item was "Tofu" - a texture I tend to avoid (though I do enjoy Tempeh) and as such I requested the chef make a substitution at his whim. The dish my sister received consisted of Tofu, Cucumber, Jalapeno, Shiso, Itogaki and from my one small bite all I can say is that I made a wise choice. Per my sister the dish was actually quite good with the dried tuna interacting well with the spice and minty tones. I was glad she enjoyed it - I enjoyed looking at it.
For my third course I received "Escolar," one of the raw menu items featuring "Escolar Jamon," Espelette, and Ice Lettuce. Featuring three slices of meaty butterfish prepared "ham-style," by curing with espelette pepper. Unexpected for sure, the dry curing of the fish actually mellowed out the rich mackerel-like nature of the fish while texturally very much resembling a quality sliced ham. While largely unnecessary, the crystal ice lettuce did add a degree of contrast and presented a flavor I'd not really experienced - somewhere between endive and cabbage.
Course four was named "Shimaji" and was a new one for myself. Apparently a species of jack-fish imported from near Brazil the extremely rich fish was paired with Red Miso, Breakfast Radish, Daikon, and Soy Salt in what was the most "traditional" of the nights dishes - and also the weakest in both mine and my sister's opinion. While there was nothing wrong with the preparation, I just felt it lacked the inspiration of the other dishes and the bitter/earthy tones of the Breakfast Radish overwhelmed any nuance that may have been offered by the miso. An attractive dish for sure and the last of the "raw" courses, this dish was served with Chopsticks, further emphasizing it's roots in traditional sushi/sashimi.
Dish five "Scallop" was our first foray into Chef Gras' warmed fishes and it was a great success - potentially my favorite part of the tasting menu. Featuring a large and perfectly prepared diver scallop (cooked outside, barely warmed within) accompanied by Blueberries and Blueberry gelee plus Sorrel and finished tableside with a ginger jus each flavor met the tongue and palate with great aplomb yet entirely without overwhelming the other complimentary flavors. Sweet and ripe berries, acidic and leafy sorrel, smooth and spicy ginger, and fleshy but briny scallop were each well represented and a wonderful melange of textures and flavors left us in awe - given the opportunity I could've eaten this by the bowl.
Dish six, entitled "Tagliolini-Lobster," was a suitable follow-up to the Scallop and continued a series of sweet yet savory dishes that marked the midpoint of the menu. A flawless sous-vide tail perched atop chestnut noodles and resting in a salty broth the dish was further enhanced and balanced out by the addition of a bitey yet smooth Port and foie gras reduction. Another exploration of divergent textures and flavors I found the pasta an extremely interesting texture as its al dente texture gave way to a smooth yet nutty note when chewed.
Dish seven, a segue of sort into the heavier finishing dishes, was the much praised Arctic Char. Coupling the flakey and light fish with a Champagne and Brown Butter broth I felt the dish was very well composed to highlight the trout-like taste while the preparation paid attention to the more "salmonesque" texture by coupling the fish with a zucchini and pea "flan" topped with millimeter thick slices of zucchini skin for texture. Unctuous without being heavy I think this was my second favorite tasting menu item of the night and my sister agreed.
As my sister noted she was starting to feel "a little full" she was fortunately given a break in the action when I received my supplemental dish from the prix fixe menu. Having seen the dish presented to other tables already I have to admit I'd been looking forward to it from the beginning of the meal and when the spacer dish appeared in front of my sister I couldn't help but smile. "Foie Gras, Asparagus, Rhubarb, Bee Pollen, Crystallized Butter" arrived and it was simply a sight to behold - both the dish and the smile on my face. Featuring a large spun-cloud of sweet cotton candy forming a "cave" of sorts over a melody of seared foie, poached asparagus, crunchy rhubarb, rhubarb gel and then covered with bee pollen, edible flowers, and crystallized butter - to date it is my favorite savory presentation of all time and also my favorite foie dish since The French Laundry.
Eating slowly - mostly out of a desire to savor the dish but also because cotton candy is hard to cut with a knife - I think the dish took me a good 25 minutes to consume and while my sister was glad for the break she had to chuckle at my reaction as a lady across the restaurant rose a forkful of cotton to me with a smile as a sort of "toast." Having had cotton candy foie gras at the Bazaar in LA earlier in the year I must say this presentation was vastly superior and worth every penny of the $35 supplement with the perfectly prepared foie gras soaking into the base-layer of the cotton candy and marrying perfectly with the crispy/snappy vegetables - even the bee pollen and flowers added to the dish with their unique tones blending well with the cotton candy to create an aromatic essence on the palate.
Getting back to the program I must admit that I was impressed by the chef's decision for placement of the foie - just prior to beginning the heavier savories. Dish eight, "Halibut," arrived shortly and my first thought was - wow, that is pretty darn big for a tasting portion. Featuring an extraordinary piece of soft and supple halibut atop snappy and sweet white Asparagus, the dish was topped with a "brioche toast chip" and four discs of chorizo gel. While half of the dish was bathed in a smoky chorizo stock, the dish was finished tableside with the addition of a creamy sweet corn puree to the other half. Clearly meant to raise thoughts of the grill I found this dish to be a brilliant balance of vegetal flavors and smoky savories and was additionally impressed by the manner in which the clean halibut was enhanced in one way by the pork stock and in a totally different manner by the corn - the dish ate like two separate dishes in one and the portion allowed one to "mix and match" various flavors and textures quite nicely.
For our ninth dish, “Pork Belly,” I figured it would be met with mixed approval. While I myself love a well prepared pork dish of any sort, my sister generally does not enjoy fatty pork and much prefers bacon textures. Sure enough, the pork belly with crispy Skin fried in duck fat, with Yukon Potato and Black Truffle was delivered as expected – salty, savory, fatty, and flawless. After a bite my sister noted that she would eat the skin but deferred on the rest of the pork and passed it to myself. Feigning an apologetic look I indulged happily on the dish. Potentially a tad over salted with the pork reduction I was pleasantly surprised by the manner in which the earthy tones and aromas of the truffles shined through. While my sister didn’t love the pork, we both agreed that the accompanying potato was a work of genius – essentially a caramelized cylinder of buttery potato paste made crispy on the outside and piped full with creamy emulsion of potato and cream.
Finishing the savories on a lighter note, course 10 was “Hiramasa.” Served raw on a wooden bridge along with accompanying chopsticks and a heated bowl the second jack-fish of our menu was delivered as a traditional Shabu-Shabu with Konbu Chicken Bouillon. Accompanying the fish and broth were sesame bonito sauce, king oyster mushrooms, shiso, and onion. Here the focus was entirely on the texture and flavor of the fish and a “how you like it” approach. Three slices of Amberjack allowed ample opportunity to experiment with varying cooking times, additions to the broth or bite, and textures. While my sister preferred her fish more thoroughly cooked, my ideal turned out to be a piece of fish and a mushroom in a single bite cooked for ~5 seconds and dipped in the sauce. Focusing so much on French and Italian cuisine in recent dining trips I nearly forgot how amazing a simple fresh fish can be.
Once again my sister noted she was getting pretty full – and once again I informed her that we had a minimum of two courses…and likely more to come. Sure enough, shortly after collecting our Hiramasa plates a young lady emerged from the kitchen with our first “pre-dessert “ a 1 inch cylinder of Chocolate Ganache with Olive Oil and Soy sauce. Sweet, savory, smooth – wonderful. I can honestly say I consume more soy sauce than the average person and I’d never thought before to pair it with chocolate – in the future I will most certainly do so.
Pre-dessert number two was substantially larger than the first and easily could’ve served as a dessert itself – described as a Floating Island, with Honey, Pollen Crisp, and Limoncello the dish featured a crisp and tangy meringue with subtle floral notes floating in a pool of light honey and creamy limoncello. Adding further texture and flavor was a crispy chip that tasted like a bee pollen peanut brittle. Personally, I’d not have minded at all of this masterpiece was served as a dessert itself – it was possibly the best floating island I’ve ever tasted.
The first proper dessert, “Raspberry,” was visually stunning – I’m still not sure whether it was the lighting, the accoutrements, or the combination of the two but the dish glinted and glowed like nothing I’ve ever eaten. Featuring fresh raspberries, raspberry pearls, Mascarpone Ice cream, White Chocolate, flaked gold, and Yuzu consome the dessert married the fructose sweetness of the fruit with the smoothness of the mascarpone while finding a balance with the creamy crisp of chocolate and the acidic bite of the yuzu. With each bite offering a somewhat different experience I quite liked the dish, though not quite as much as the item that preceded it.
The final dish, a soufflé simply entitled “Praline-praline” was flawless – the best soufflé I’ve ever tasted, topping the more “famous” versions at Gary Danko and Le Cirque as well as my previous favorite at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT. Standing tall the fluffy cloud of sugar and egg was opened tableside and filled with rich praline and dark rum cream. Showing great technical skill this dish admittedly felt a tad out of place given the progressive style of Gras menu, but given his range – from “mg” technique to traditional Shabu-Shabu I thought the dish was a fitting close – and I thought it a second time as I finished my sister’s portion because she was nearing a food-coma.
Collecting our dishes our server was all smiles at our very satisfied looks and she stated we were “not quite finished.” Approximately 5 minutes passed and she once again emerged from the kitchen with our mignardises – a traditional French Canele prepared in beeswax, a Brown Butter and Caramel Macaron, and for my sister a small piece of Chocolate ganache with a candle. With a glazed over smile my sister blew out her candle and the server stated she’d take our menus to the chef for a signature and bring the bill whenever we were ready. Starting with the ganache we were both struck by how savory the chocolate was – that is until later when we were informed that It was Amadei 75% cocoa. Second, the macaron was perfect with its crisp and buttery shell giving way to a creamy interior – every bit as good as those at La Maison du Chocolat in NYC. Finally, the canele – sublime. Without a doubt the best I’ve ever experienced, topping another Chicago landmark (TRU) with its crunchy caramelized sugar exterior giving way to a yolky cream interior that seemed just barely cooked.
Paying our bill we each made a stop in the restroom to check out the fish tanks and then made our way to the door accompanied by our server who offered to take pictures. Chatting with her on the way out I was quite impressed by her descriptions of Chef Gras’ attention to detail – literally everything from the amuses to the mignardises, the music to the tables and chairs, even the cleaning schedule. Continuing with us all the way to the front of the hotel we found our car waiting and Kara wished us a good evening and presented us with our signed menus. A wonderful experience from start to finish and amongst my top 5 meals all time – all the better to have shared it with my sister on a weekend dedicated to her birthday.