Some chefs that are so inextricably linked to specific foods that you wonder if they grew up cooking it their entire lives, eventually perfecting it in their professional cooking careers. Who thinks about Judy Rodgers without Roasted Chicken? Tomohiro Sakata’s yakitori’s is peerless. Scott Conant perfected spaghetti, and I’m pretty sure David Chang’s has cooked enough pork belly to feed a small country. These chefs struck something deep inside me and changed the way I saw a particular dish or ingredient– almost like a food epiphany.
When I first ate at Totoraku years ago, the experience was one of those moments. One dinner made me reconsider what I knew about beef. By the end of the meal, I was certain Totoraku was finest example of Japanese barbeque (yakiniku) outside of Japan.
There’s just one hitch though: it’s likely the hardest reservation in Los Angeles. The front door is locked; the phone number listed on the awning is a fake. Totoraku technically isn’t open to the public and one generally does need to be invited by Chef Kaz Oyama to attain reservation privileges or at least know a regular to get in. However, once you step inside, the door is locked behind you (kinda freaked me out the first time), and the magic begins.
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:
Portland’s best Thai restaurant is owned by the most improbable Thai chef around: a white dude named Andy Ricker.
Chef Ricker’s relationship with Southeast Asian cooking stretches back to the mid-80s. Introduced to the local cuisine of Chang Mai while backpacking, he’s been smitten ever since. These days, he travels back to Thailand every year to learn more about Thai cuisine as well as bring back and implement new ideas in his restaurants.
Pok Pok started out in Ricker’s house as a take-out shack for Kai Yaang, a charcoal-roasted chicken rubbed with garlic and lemongrass. Word of mouth spread, lines started forming, and soon enough his entire home turned into a restaurant! It’s gotten so popular that Ricker’s opened up a Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street, which doubles as a waiting room.
Pok Pok’s menu proved surprisingly difficult for my sister and me to tackle — not to navigate but to settle on a reasonable order for two. There were only about 15 dishes, and we still had a hard time not ordering everything!
So did the restaurant live up to the hype?