L2O – Chicago, IL
Being a big foodie dork, it goes without saying that most of my out-of-town trips are planned around restaurants. Eating good food is the cardinal objective, though I strive to try both high and low-end restaurants so that my credit card doesn’t explode. Besides, eating foie gras and truffles all day would not be fun.
Planning trips around meals also has a welcome kickback: not having to figure out sightseeing plans! My friends and I usually finish our meals so stuffed we have no option but to spend the rest of the day/night simply aimlessly walking around, exploring various neighborhoods in hopes our semblance of exercise will ready our stomachs for the next meal.
On my most recent trip to Chicago, the restaurant that dictated my Saturday plans was L2O. Despite only opening in May 2008, L2O has already made an indelible mark on Chicago’s fine dining scene, garnering a slew of prestigious awards in a relatively short timespan. Laurent Gras, the talented chef behind the restaurant, trained in various Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, Paris, and New York before settling in Chicago to open L2O. The restaurant focuses on seafood, and the preparation is an amalgamation of traditional French and Japanese techniques with the occasional nod towards molecular gastronomy– all very appropriate given Chef Gras’ background.
With a choice of three tasting menus, we settled on middle ground: the twelve course tasting menu, which somehow felt like a whole lot more than that! What did Chef Gras serve? Below I’ve focused on the highlights of my meal:
We were first brought a cold poached salmon in dashi gelee. Being cold and light, it was a fitting start to the meal. The fish was sweet and tender, and the crunchy beans added textural contrast to the soft fish and gelee.
Next was a Albacore ceviche with a squash crisp. The fish was prepared like a traditional ceviche, soft and flavorful with a good dose of acidity. However, Gras elected replace both the traditional crunchy corn nuts and the sweet potato with a squash crisp. Very well done.
The last of the raw starters was Seabream with ume (japanese plum), baby shiso, and garlic crisps. This was my favorite raw dish of the night! Ume and shiso are traditional japanese ingredients that often used together, but the fried garlic (not bitter in the least) gave it a unexpected savory kick. Tart, savory, and sweet all at once– this was dish I will likely continue to taste for a long time!
About a quarter of the way through the meal, our server presented us with a choice of breads: mini baguette, brioche, olive bread, and an anchovy croissant. Of course, we sampled all but the anchovy croissant was incredible! So much so that it pushed me and my dining companion over the decorum edge: we asked for not one but three more croissants throughout the night! At one point, our server kindly let me know I was being served the last croissant in the entire restaurant. Oops. A half-eaten croissant is shown below. If only they sold these in giant bags like potato chips…
Another fantastic dish was Chef Gras’ take on the traditional fish taco. The filling is tuna with freeze-dried corn. The “tortilla” is made from agar-agar mixed with with corn bouillon, and the green dab is made from jalapeno.
Very cerebral and I especially enjoyed how Chef reworked a traditional tortilla while still keeping the corn flavor.
One of my favorite dishes of night was seared scallops with caramalized cauliflower in a vanilla passionfruit sauce.
The scallops were excellent; probably the best I’ve ever had! Huge as in hockeypuck-huge and impossibly creamy, sweet, and juicy.
Following the scallops was a salted cod in a potato puree, and it reminded me of Manila and eating bakalaw as a kid :) The puree had a wonderful gooey texture, and the salted cod prevented the dish from getting heavy and monotone. I tried to savor this for as long as possible, though the creaminess of the puree wasn’t making that easy.
Tofu arrived next in a small pool of miso sauce along with some katsuobushi (bonito flakes). My first reaction was– dude I think I can make this at home! Silky tofu, slightly sweet miso, and smoky bonito flakes. It was simple but so satisfying.
This was one of the few duds of the night, but I wanted to include it here anyways. Peeky toe crab in a foie gras soup. The crab was very sweet, so conceptually it was interesting to see a chef use crab to replace the traditional glaze or fruit compote that often accompanies foie gras. In this case however, the foie gras flavors were too muted.
This Deconstructed Green Curry Tai Snapper was so good I remember everything about it despite drinking three bottles of wine!
A coriander-cumin dusted sugar shard sits on top of a butter poached tai fillet. The powder is crumbled red curry and cheese powder. Poaching the tai fillet in butter transformed the often firm texture of tai to silky-soft, as if butter had penetrated deep within its veins. As with almost all the dishes at L2O, each component on the plate was individualistic; but they somehow all melded very well together, resulting in a surprisingly comforting dish. This dish had so many differences in texture and temperature which made for a very enjoyable experience.
There were two more substantial main courses served after the snapper, and while they were technically quite good, they both paled in comparison with the rest of the meal.
To round out our meal, we were served a series of desserts including a fantastic hazelnut souffle and a chocolate dish with soy sauce (tastes way better than it sounds), but the dessert below is what I remember best. This beautiful quenelle of mascarpone sitting on top of raspberries and yuzu sauce was one of the greatest desserts I’ve had in recent memory. It arrived to the table without the sauce; yuzu was then dissolved in light syrup and poured over the mascarpone. Fresh raspberries and tiny spheres of raspberry juice round out the dish. The mix of yuzu and mascarpone was unexpectedly harmonious– creamy, acidic, and sweet all at once. The raspberry spheres popped in your mouth like ikura, which made for a very fun dish to eat.
At the end of this multi-course food marathon spanning what I think was approximately four hours, we sat back, lingered over espressos, and simply soaked in the experience. Despite the overly formal, stilted service at L2O, we couldn’t help but smile ear to ear.
The meal was downright incredible.
My dining companions and I all agreed the food was better Le Bernardin in New York, which many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the country. L2O prides itself on not using seafood distributors, instead receiving shipments directly from fishermen. This fanatical focus on seafood was very apparent throughout the meal. It’s one thing when seafood is fresh; it’s another thing to have the pure flavor of the fish shine through and through. And despite my meal at L2O being almost two months ago, I still remember the creamy sweetness of that scallop, and the delicate flavor of the snapper.
It was close to midnight when we finished, and we were the last customers in the space. Our server thoughtfully called us a cab and off we went. During the cab ride home, I remembered that the Michelin Guide for Chicago was scheduled to be released the following month. Given my experience there, I expected nothing short of three stars.
Many disagreed– a very likely possibliity given Michelin’s notorious stinginess in granting star status. Hell, I still can’t believe Urasawa didn’t get three stars!
But sure enough, when the Michelin Guide came out in the middle of November, L2O was right alongside Alinea as the only two restaurants in Chicago to have received three stars.