A couple of weeks back my husband and I visited Chicago for a bit of a foodie tour with dinners lined up at Moto, L2O and of course, Alinea. After a mammoth meal at the hit-and-miss Moto the first night our stomachs were crying out for a breather and we toyed with the idea of canceling our reservations the following evening at L2O. But we decided to press on, and were certainly glad we did so. L2O, a play on the chemical formula for water with the 'H' for Hydrogen substituted by 'L' for Laurent (Gras), the chef and co-owner. The focus of the restaurant is seafood; and Gras's cuisine fuses modern cooking with traditional French techniques to create elegant dishes with a Japanese aesthetic. Unlike many of his peers (who tend to use mostly seasonal local produce) Gras sources from small artisanal suppliers around the world and unique ingredients such as hirame from the Hokkaido and Kinki prefectures of Japan arrive daily. As the kitchen works with fresh products every day there are no walk-in coolers or extensive dry storage in L2O's kitchen, freeing up space for eight production stations: sashimi, steam, grill, saute, private parties and amuse, dessert, fish break-down, and bread baking.
The restaurant is located within the Belden-Stratford hotel, a 1920s historic building which frankly has seen better days. As we stepped from the hotel's ornate, empire-style furnished lobby into L2O sleek and modern sen wood-paneled interiors it was like being transported in time. We were seated against the wall, facing into the dining room and allowing us to take in the beauty of the large Manzanita branch centrepiece, spray painted gold with tiny orchids in glass vials scattered along it.
Within minutes we were offered a tiny amuse bouche of pita pillow with eggplant puree and parsley - the Arabian flavours of baba ghanoush and flat breads condensed into one bite. The menus followed, and were split into three sections - an à la carte 4-course menu (separated into cold, warm, hot and sweet courses), a 12-course tasting menu and an interesting tête à tête (French for “one on one”) menu where each course features two singular ingredients which chef Gras feels form a perfect union, creating a single note of flavour. Overwhelmed by the choice we looked to our waitress for help deciphering the menu, who obliged, describing the dishes to us in detail. After much deliberation we settled on the 4-course as the dishes that appealed to us on the à la carte were not on the tasting menu, and although we were intrigued by the tête à tête menu we felt it would not showcase the chef's cooking to the fullest. We also ordered an additional foie gras (rare for us as over the years we have come to tire of it) dish to share after seeing it paraded to another table in a glorious cocoon of cotton candy.
After making our choices and ordering a bottle of 1996 Ruinart (which had a delicate toasty bouquet and tasted of pears and grapefruits, with a long biscuity finish), we were presented with a second amuse bouche of somen noodles, fried shrimp and fresh scallions in ponzu. It was a delightful mouthful - the tiny prawns crispy and intensely flavoured, the cold somen noodles refreshing and the tangy ponzu balanced with a hint of chili. Next came the bread selection (8 varieties, all made in-house, as was the accompanying freshly churned butter) for the evening; My husband B, and I both chose a mini croissant and a mini chorizo roll. The roll was nice, but the croissant with its lovely flaky rosemary-scented pastry, was out of this world. Unfortunately the rest of the diners agreed and when the bread basket made its second visit there were none of the buttery treats left.
Our first courses arrived. Mine was a Peeky Toe Crab and Avocado with kaffir lime jelly and lemon oil. The soft, sweet steamed crab hidden within the perfect avocado dome was exceedingly fresh and subtly flavoured with lime leaves. The acidity of the lime jelly and lemon oil helped to brighten this clean and refined dish. Granted, it was not the most inventive of dishes but it was a pleasure nevertheless.
B's selection was an Heirloom Tomato salad of roast tomatoes, pressed tomato concasse, green and yellow heirlooms, huckleberry heirlooms (the dark purple berry-like toms sitting on top) and sorrel. The waitress used liquid nitrogen to make a side sorbet of yellow tomatoes at the table which came out more like a soup and didn't add much to the dish. The salad itself however was expertly seasoned and all the different preparations showcased the main ingredient perfectly. Being partial to an heirloom or two, this was B's highlight of the evening (he still dreams about this dish).
Next were the warm courses. Mine was a Kampachi (yellowtail) with rice cloud, tapioca and a ponzu hibiscus broth. The fish was only very lightly seared, leaving the centre soft and velvety which contrasted nicely with the crunchy rice cloud. The dish was further enhanced by the zesty broth which nicely cut through the oiliness of the fried rice.
The Lamb and Shiro Ebi (sweet white prawn) Tartare with pickled mango that B chose on the other hand, I felt, could have benefited from more textural complexity. The edible flowers, purslane and tarragon did add a little variation, but the lamb, ebi and mango were all soft and mushy. Having said that the the rather surprising combination of raw lamb and shrimp was superb.
The next course was the highly anticipated Seared Foie Gras with asparagus and rhubarb in a tunnel of house-spun cotton candy sprinkled with bee pollen, crystalised butter, pink peppercorns and miniature flowers. After I had stopped picking gleefully at the confectionery like a child, I tried all the elements together and it was a real triumph. The sweet candy and the sour rhubarb, coupled with the delicate spicing of the dish were the perfect foil to the richness of the foie gras.
Onto the hot dishes of Lobster "sauce Américaine" (a rich sauce traditionally made with onions, tomatoes, white wine, brandy, salt, cayenne pepper and butter) and Butter Poached Arctic Char. The lobster was prepared two-ways: the tail poached and the claw fried tempura-style, it was served with steamed squash flower, tellicherry pepper jelly, peaches and purslane. Despite displaying a few modern cooking techniques this was essentially a classical dish, albeit a very delicious one.
B's artic char cooked sous-vide, was meltingly tender and paired beautifully with its champagne butter sauce and accompaniments of chanterelle courgette puree, courgette skin, courgette and gingerwater gelées. Our mains were both pretty substantial and we were beginning to fade when a palette cleanser of Frozen Meyer Lemon marshmallow arrived, the acidity of which perked us up somewhat.
Being rather well-fed at this point we both opted for fruit-based desserts. Mine, a Strawberry and Black Sesame concoction and B's, a celebration of Blueberries and Lychee. On my plate, flanked by fresh strawberries and aloe vera pieces, were three "faux" strawberries, two filled with strawberry sorbet and the other with aloe vera sorbet. These were topped with a black sesame croquant and sat in a pool of strawberry juice dotted with black sesame emulsion. I found it far too "strawberry" - the black sesame and aloe vera did make for a welcome change but there wasn't enough of it to balance out the whole dish for me.
I was rather jealous of B's dessert which was by far the superior of the two, both visually and on the palate. Fragile sugar tubes, one filled with lychee sorbet, another with fresh lychees and the last, with blueberry sorbets, were topped with blueberries, freeze-dried currants, lychee foam, frozen blueberry pearls and yellow curry powder. It was a wonderful marriage of flavours, although the white sesame sponge that came with the dessert was definitely one element too many.
Tea and petits fours of truffles (with delectable liquid vanilla centres) and expertly made canelés rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We left feeling very full, content and well looked after (thanks to the impeccable service which was professional but unstuffy).
Gras is said to define his cuisine by the principles of flavour, aesthetic and perfection (in that order) and everything from the smart, tranquil surroundings, the polished staff, to the accomplished cooking and attractive plating reflect this. It is a wonder how Gras manages to maintain such perfection in the kitchen as well as a detailed educational blog on only 3-5 hours sleep each night. However he does it, more power to him.