This was our fourth trip to Chicago for fine dining. The first two were for Alinea in 2010 and Alinea and L20 in 2011, back when L20 had 3 Michelin stars. This past April we had reservations for Grace and Alinea but flew in on a day of massive rains and heavy flooding and arrived about 6 hours later than planned, missing our 9 PM Grace reservation by about 90 minutes.
We really wanted to try Grace so we rescheduled for late July, adding L20 as the ‘plus one’ since they have a new chef and a different cuisine since our last visit.
Brief summary: Grace was good to very good but a few of the courses didn’t work for us because the tastes clashed. L20 was exceptional, with artistically prepared dishes that tasted as good as they look and a terrific wine pairing.
Here are our impressions in more detail.
Grace – we both liked the sharp, distinctive tastes of most dishes. As one reviewer put it, the cuisine features “jolt after jolt of excitement with a menu filled with immense flavor and beauty.”
But there were a few courses where the ingredients fought and the wrong one won, I felt. Overall I was a bit disappointed in my Fauna menu, given our high expectations. My wife however felt the Flora menu was more consistent and she had a higher opinion of Grace than me.
Since most everyone here on Chowhound and at Opentable (and elsewhere) seems to love Grace I’ll try to be very specific in explaining what I didn’t like.
The first amuse was a sliver of king crab with a sphere of melted butter served on a spoon and meant to be taken in one bite – nice idea, but the butter was too thin and not warm enough. Would have been a better dish had the butter been warmer and more concentrated, I feel. Since we had waited 25 minutes for this first app to appear it’s possible it had sat in the kitchen a while and cooled off too much (just guessing).
Second amuse was a sphere of melon juice with caviar on top. The server said to take the sphere in one bite or it would squirt out, so I did, pressing it against the roof of my mouth to crush the caviar. But this burst the sphere and the tart melon juice simply overwhelmed any taste of caviar. I think a better way to eat this would have been to lick off the caviar and crush the eggs in your mouth, then burst the melon sphere as a cleanser.
Similar problems with my first course on the Fauna menu – oyster in a small bowl with passionfruit and kiwi ... I spooned up the oyster with a bit of fruit and all I tasted was the fruit. I think a better way to serve this would be with the oyster separate in a bit of the fruit juice, then follow with the fruit as a palate cleanser.
Once past these first missteps my Fauna menu was pretty good, except the squab had cooled off a bit too much (there was a long wait between each dish). My favorite dishes were the Artichoke, the Miyazaki beef and the Lamb – all good but not really mind blowing.
My criticisms may sound picky, but Chef Duffy has stated that his goal is for Grace to become the best restaurant in the USA. My wife and I think Alinea and Per Se are the best restaurants in the USA and (I just looked it up from old menus) on our five visits to those two we’ve had a total of 91 courses, with nary a hint of a taste mismatch like the three I experienced at Grace in the first two courses. So Grace has to up its game significantly to compete with the big boys.
Prediction: I think Grace might garner two Michelin stars when the ratings come out next fall. One star wouldn’t surprise me if there are many lapses like we experienced, but my gut tells me those were not the norm, given all the praise others have heaped on Grace. I doubt they’ll earn three stars in the first year, but I’m often wrong when it comes to predicting what Michelin will do.
L20 – we almost chose a different second restaurant like Everest or Goosefoot but finally decided on L20 based on some small things, like them providing the wine list on-line or the chef having trained at a Robuchon restaurant and writing an interesting blog, or that on our previous visit they had let us have both a long tasting menu for me and a shorter menu for my wife instead of insisting on both diners ordering the same length menu (this was the decider over Everest, for example).
This time I had the 13 course tasting menu and my wife had the 5 course prix fixe menu. There’s also an amuse bouche to begin and a tray of mignardise to end, plus a small take-home sweet, so you could say the menus are 15 and 7 courses.
My wife had a wine pairing with 6 wines and the longer pairing featured one can of beer (and not even a good beer – Pabst Blue Ribbon :) and ten wines. All the wines were European, often with more minerality than the American wines we usually drink, and all proved to be excellent matches for the food. Actually I think this was the best wine pairing we’ve ever had anywhere.
Here’s a photo of the amuse bouche (all but one of the photos are screen grabs from http://l2orestaurant.com/#!gallery , with my comments added). This was a trio of cantaloupe and melon balls not much larger than cherries, hollowed out and filled with foie gras, caviar and (I think) crab. My initial thought was “I hope the fruit doesn’t drown out the seafood like last night” but that didn’t happen. The taste of these was nicely balanced.
Next up was the ‘Mussel Tart’, which was more of a mussel mousse. The shell is a bit bigger than a tablespoon.
Next for me were two small bites on clear plastic blocks, one with caviar on a cauliflower gelee. I flashed back to the caviar on the melon sphere at Grace and wondered if the tastes would clash but the cauliflower was pretty mellow and soft, allowing the full taste of the caviar to come through.
Then an oyster in a green apple gelee (plus more caviar on celery slices) ... again I flashed back to the unfortunate oyster with kiwi and passionfruit the previous night, especially since this was a really green apple gelee. But chef had dialed down the intensity of the apple taste and I got the full flavor of the oyster, followed by the cleansing of the apple. Finesse.
Here are a couple of my wife’s more artistic early dishes (she was getting one plate for my two):
I don’t want to overstay my welcome here so I’ll omit photos of several more dishes (if anyone wants to see them I’ll post the pics though) – these include crab chips (this is what the beer was paired with, and it worked); a very colorful, artistic dish of striped tortellini, razor clams, zucchini and garlic; a lobster – foie gras torchon dish, and a dessert. The meal also included three savories we don’t have photos of (a beautiful daurade royale with eggplant and squash blossom, king salmon with artichoke, and scottish blue lobster) and four more desserts.
Here are the last two courses I’ll bother showing – first up is Turbot with Grilled Squid and scallion ... the squid tentacles were really delicate (it’s easy to over or under cook this item but these were perfect) and the turbot was flaky and tasty. Not a particularly spectacular visual dish compared to several others, but very tasty.
And the last savory course – Stuffed Quail, Celery Root, Smoked Cherry, 23-Flavor Gastrique. It’s ‘stuffed’ with a block of foie gras and cooked to perfection. This is carved for you at the table (you only get half of it, by the way).
Finish it off with three small desserts and a 12 piece mignardise and you’re done.
I would describe the dishes as ‘balanced’, ‘subtle’, ‘artistic’, ‘finesse’ ... if you want stronger, bolder flavors then you might not like the cuisine, but I thought it was a wonderful meal.
The past four years we’ve had 19 meals at Michelin 3* restaurants and 25 meals at places rated either Michelin 2* or Forbes 5*. This meal at L20 would probably rank in the top 8 or so for us, trailing just a few of the truly elite establishments.
Three predictions: 1) I think L20 will regain the Michelin 3* status it had prior to Laurent Gras leaving. I liked Gras’ cooking but this current incarnation is even more to my liking.
2) I think some day a rich diner will offer chef Kirkley the chance to open his own restaurant with ownership stake. And if the deal is right he’ll probably take it.
3) I think if the trip to this new restaurant requires no more than 3 connecting flights and one camel ride my wife and I will surely go there to dine. This meal was that good.
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