L20 (Chicago, IL) – Striving
L2O is a restaurant that is striving to be one of the country’s best. Through the chronicles of his educational blog (linked to judiciously throughout this post), Chef Laurent Gras has put L2O on the national radar as a (slightly) more traditional alternative to Chicago’s infatuation with too modern cooking. L2O mixes Laurent’s French roots with an ample infusion of Japanese ingredients, aesthetics, and philosophy. I don’t remember my meal at Fifth Floor (SF) many years ago, but it is clear that Japan has recently resonated with Gras.
The meal had possibilities that can not be found in most American restaurants. In a country currently obsessed with locality, L2O unabashedly imports seafood and products from across the globe, particularly Japan, in search of the very best. There are many chefs that incorporate Japanese ingredients/dishes/techniques, but very few feel as natural as Gras.1 Other restaurants would come off as forced or diluted, but Gras’s food faithfully pays homage to its influences.
Despite the potential, there were still pitfalls to be found, which may or may not have been attributable to the timing of the meal.2 Some ingredients were not at the level of their provenance and the fish was generally over-cooked for a seafood-themed restaurant (but not a French restaurant!3) Some of the techniques seem to be slapped onto dishes, without regard for how they might truly improve the original ingredients. This effect is surprising considering how careful Gras plans everything, as written in his blog. All of this may come across at nit-picking, but it is a restaurant that should be able to stand up to the criticisms.
The tasting menu is pictured here with a substitution or two. Lighting was decent enough.
Kinmedai – cherry smoked with shiso bud
This was a delicate start full of confidence and finesse. The cold-smoked Kinmedai had a wonderfully light flavor, with just enough pep from the shiso buds. Its light smoky flavor was a strong statement for the beginning of the meal.
Tofu – tomato water, shiso, soy sauce
The tofu was silky and exceedingly light, among the best I’ve eaten. Its essence, for its taste was minimal, was accentuated by a robust and bright tomato water – strong but still pure. As Gras mentions on his blog, the dish fits in perfectly before the sashimi courses – a light introduction to the dishes to come. Also mentioned on the blog, the soy milk presumably came from Kyoto, where tofu and yuba can be an art-form. (Stay tuned for a few Kyoto reviews coming up in a few weeks.)
Tuna – yuzu, soy sauce, olive oil
The tuna, with a nod to Mondrian, fell short of the ambitions of the menu. While the tuna had a nice red color, its flavor was muted at best and slightly fishy at worst. Conceptually, this could have been a strong dish with its soy sauce and yuzu cubes, refreshing takes on standard tuna tartar. If I weren’t so preoccupied with the fish, I may have paid more attention to how the yuzu and olive oil squares burst in the mouth and the sensations they might have produced. The tuna may have been the sustainably-raised Kindai tuna, which I’ve heard great things about, but I did not know to ask.
This dish is also served in variations, including different fish squares.
Shimaaji – red miso, radish, soy salt
The Shimaaji is cured for six to eight hours in the miso. This was a welcome improvement to the last dish – the miso another interesting take on the traditional accompaniments of sashimi. If the red miso looks like dirt, you’re right – it is one of the main ingredients in the various dirts that have popped onto menus across the world.
Halibut – tomato water, tomato film
I expected another raw dish but this was a decent piece of fish. It was slightly overcooked by my preferences, but it did not sacrifice its taste. The tomato film invoked the worst memories from Moto – artificial textures – why are so many chefs infatuated with them? Where the soy and yuzu cubes and red miso fulfilled roles (texture and flavor delivery), there is no discernible reason for the film.
Salmon – corn, cilantro, chorizio broth
This poor salmon was killed twice, in what was probably the most egregious error of the meal. The salmon was overcooked badly and it was dry. The chorizio broth was an interesting pairing, giving the meat a fuller flavor, but the fish was nearly inedible. 4
Lobster – Morel
The “lobster” turned out to be two lobster quenelles – creamy essence of lobster – tucked under the morels. Each bite had a luscious, slightly fatty mouth-feel, with a hint of brine. The morels countered the richness with their (rich) earthiness. Ulterior Epicure wrote that his had foie gras sauce – this was not mentioned by the server, or menu, but it could have accounted for some of the richness. A luxurious and full-flavored complement to the tofu dish earlier.
Aori Ika – sea urchin, kinome
This dish was a substitution from the a la carte menu – highly recommended. The char on the squid, barely there, paired wonderfully with the melted uni sauce. Inadvertently, this dish proved an excellent complement to the lobster quenelle – slightly more substantive, creamy, and redolent of the sea.
Hawaiian Sea Bass – white grits, green olive, lemon
Pork Belly – truffle, potato
The pork belly had a nice crisp top but the truffle jus was a bit flavorless. There is the cranky side of me that wonders why chefs bother serving truffles out of season, or in America for that matter (unless you have the Tennessee Truffle connection!)
Lamb Loin – rhubarb, tomato, cubeb pepper, zucchini
The lamb had that great slightly-gamey flavor that is near-impossible to find in the US. Its accompaniments did not do much for me; and the tomato film detracted greatly from the lamb.
The Medai shabu shabu was a nice way to finish the meal – a soft, clean landing to the gluttony. I wish more restaurants would devise a lighter end to meals. The fish was of the highest quality; so much so, I cooked it for just a second or two. This dish, the actual dish, is more evidence of the attention to detail and no expense spared credo of the restaurant – custom-made just for L20.
This was a mango panna cotta with mango broth poured table-side. I am not a tropical fruit fan but this had an intense mango taste – and I didn’t mind. It was a refreshing and light end to the meal.
The restaurant has ambition and potential but it fell short, on this visit, of my (high) expectations. The seafood, nor the execution, lived up to the full promise. However, there were some great dishes that are among America’s best – the cherry-smoked kinmedai, tofu, lobster, and squid/uni. Many of the seafood dishes have a particular Japanese quality to them. Watching this develop over the next few years could be a rewarding experience (and absolutely warrants a return visit.)
Direct comparisons to the other seafood-based restaurants are fruitless. The fish just isn’t on the level of the top sushi restaurants – Masa, Urasawa, Sawa, and Kuruma Zushi. When compared to the competition of the heavyweight seafood restaurants, the three 5 of them occupy their own niches. Le Bernardin is nouvelle cuisine, light and pure flavors; Providence is the experimental upstart, trying to find a balance between subtle seafood and more avant-garde techniques; and L2O is trying to more seriously integrate Japanese aesthetics into French food.
I enjoyed Alinea more (but that review will never be written thanks to Westvleteren Abt 12 and Trappistes Rochefort 10) but L2O would be my second choice for Chicago dining. In a city pre-occupied with (largely unsuccessful) Martian food, L2O provides a welcome respite. I will return on my next visit to Chicago because the rough edges may already be a thing of the past (remember, this meal was from July.) If the problems disappear, this would be a top-tier restaurant, worthy of travel. The tatami room may also be a memorable experience.
1 – I write this post-Japan. I don’t pretend to understand Japanese cuisine after one visit to Japan but the food at L2O does an admirable job of feeling Japanese. The restaurant itself, its design and atmosphere, is so slick that it becomes yet another banal room that could be placed anywhere in the world where there is a moneyed clientele.
2 – This meal took place in late July – backed-up blogging. The restaurant could be much stronger now that everyone has had a chance to work out any problems.
3 – Ordering fish in French restaurants can leave one frustrated – I bet they even cook their sushi. Of the many high-end French restaurants I’ve visited, only Pierre Gagnaire understood the qualities and interplay of freshness and texture – the rest liked their red meat rawer than their white.
4 – Yes, I should have complained but, on some nights, the last thing one wants to do is to get into an argument with the wait-staff or chef; which inevitably happens whenever I complain. To give you some idea – just think of a scene befitting any Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.
5 – Aqua (San Francisco)? It is not a serious restaurant, despite its two Michelin stars.