31 August 2010

L2O, Chicago - Restaurant Review

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and, after three blissful weeks in the magnificent city of Chicago that included, among others, meals at Alinea, Moto, and Topolobampo, it was time to leave. For our final blowout dinner we headed to Lincoln Park to chef Laurent Gras's exciting restaurant, L2O.

Frenchman Gras opened L2O in 2008 and brought with him an impressive résumé, having worked with culinary legends such as Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Alain Senderens, who between them have accumulated an astonishing 27 Michelin stars. The restaurant's name is a twist on the chemical formula for water and, as this might suggest, the focus here is on seafood. In particular, chef Gras focuses on preparing seafood with strong influences from Japan, and this extends to adopting the Japanese trait of an almost obsessive attention to detail.

The restaurant is rather incongruously located in the dated and stuffy Belden-Stratford Hotel. A modern looking wooden door leads off the main lobby into the restaurant. Contrary to the rest of the hotel, the inside of the restaurant is an exercise in sleek and modern interior design, and is a truly stunning dining room. Quiet, soothing music is piped over the speakers. Such is Gras's attention to detail that he worked with Buddha Bar NYC resident DJ, Timka, to provide a soundtrack for L2O that reflects the changing seasons. He even commissioned Riedel to custom-make water glasses that are just the right shade of blue.

Mrs. Nibbler and I were warmly greeted and seated at a quiet corner table. We sat side-by-side, giving us a perfect vantage over the beautiful dining room. Before seeing the menus, the first amuse bouche arrived to ease us into the evening. This was a succulent lobe of lobster, I can't quite remember how it was prepared, but suffice it to say that it was delicious.

L2O offers three menus: a seasonal 12-course tasting menu; a 10-course tasting menu that incorporates luxury ingredients such as foie gras, lobster, and caviar; and a 4-course prix fixe menu (L2O also has Tatami rooms for private dining that offer Kaiseki-style menus). Given that we had spent the last three weeks eating our way round Chicago, Mrs. Nibbler and I were starting to feel a bit like foie gras geese. So, we opted for the smaller four-course à la carte menu, which is just as well as this turned out to be nine courses.
Amuse Bouche 1: Lobster
After we ordered, the second amuse bouche arrived. This was a lightly set olive oil custard with an espelette pepper emulsion. It was light and creamy, with a mild chilli twang to it. Both amuse bouches were a really fantastic way to start the meal.
Amuse Bouche 2: Olive Oil Custard with Espelette Emulsion
At this point I should also mention the bread. Bread is taken very seriously at L2O and is baked once before the dinner service and again halfway through. Mrs. Nibbler and I selected some excellent pain de campagne and a Yukon Gold potato and garlic bread (although sadly none of their famed rosemary croissants were available that night). Both were moist in the middle with wonderfully crispy crusts. These were served with salted butter made in-house from grass-fed cows' cream, which had a deliciously full, almost cheesy flavour.
Pain de Campagne, and Yukon Gold Potato and Garlic bread
For her first course, Mrs. Nibbler opted for the cryptically titled "Eighteen Flavours of Summer". As its name suggests this is a seasonal dish and it was an extraordinary presentation of different preparations of summer fruits and vegetable. It included an avocado and jalapeno sorbet, radishes, asparagus with asparagus sorbet, a tomato sorbet, beetroot, and watermelon. This was such a spectacular dish, vibrant in colour and bursting with fresh summer flavours.
Eighteen Flavours of Summer
For my first course I also had a visually spectacular dish of tuna with tomatoes, hibiscus, and foie gras 'snow'. Tuna sashimi had been cut into neat cubes, each topped with a slightly smaller cube of a tomato and hibiscus jelly. Accompanying this were some pearls of olive oil gel and flakes of frozen foie gras. When I saw this dish on the menu I knew I had to try it, as it was such an unusual combination of flavours. It worked fantastically well and I loved the way the foie gras snow just melted and dissolved on your tongue. Visually, this dish also had such a satisfying sense of geometry and order to it.
Tuna, Tomato, Hibiscus, Foie Gras Snow
For her second course, Mrs. Nibbler opted for a dish of octopus. Octopus is first peeled and frozen to tenderise it and then cooked slowly in olive oil. It is served with a coconut sauce and freeze-dried soy sauce powder. This was a delicious dish, the tender, but meaty, octopus combined well with the soft, silky coconut sauce. Although a somewhat unconventional combination of ingredients, it was really very good. In fact, it reminded me of a similar dish by Ferran Adrià that I had at La Alqueria in the El Bulli Hotel a few years ago; there, squid ravioli was filled with coconut milk and it too worked very well indeed.
Octopus, Coconut, Olive oil
For my second course I had grilled prawns served with pappardelle pasta in a rich and creamy tomato and saffron sauce. This was garnished with small discs of courgette and tempura-style courgette flowers. This was a fairly heavy dish but I enjoyed it immensely, the pasta in particular was stunning - paper thin and toothsome. The dish was, however, not without fault; the prawns had been over salted and the courgette flower tempura was a little oily - I remember the tempura I had in Japan being impossibly crisp and almost grease-less.
Prawn, Saffron, Pappardelle, Zucchini blossom, Tomato
For my main course I chose a very decadent version of surf and turf - wagyu beef and lobster served with potatoes, mushrooms and a truffle and foie gras emulsion. I had originally wanted to order the kampachi with yuzu and caviar (with a whopping $75 supplement) but this was already sold out, even though we were dining at 7:30pm. I should have trusted my instinct and gone for another fish dish as the wagyu, although perfectly cooked, was not as tender as I have had in the past, and a couple of the potatoes needed to have been cooked for longer. The lobster however was divine and it paired beautifully with the intoxicating and impossibly rich foie gras and truffle sauce.
Rangers Valley Wagyu Beef, Lobster, Foie Gras-Truffle Emulsion, Potato, Mushroom
Since our arrival in Chicago, Mrs. Nibbler had had a craving for lobster that she had not yet managed to itch. So naturally for her main course she chose lobster (tail and claw) that was poached in butter and served with a thermidor sauce, squares of a peach jelly and purslane. This was a stunning mix of flavours; the sweet lobster meat was offset by the slightly sour purslane and the acidity of the peach, while the creamy sauce provided a perfect bridge to bring everything together.
Lobster, Sauce Thermidor, Peach, Purslane
Before dessert, we were served a small palate cleanser of a meyer lemon frozen marshmallow. It had a cold, silky consistency and was very light and refreshing. Just perfect.

For dessert, Mrs. Nibbler had the "chocolate surprise", which was presented as a rectangular box of chocolate with perfect 90-degree angles. I wish I had taken a picture of the inside of the chocolate box as it was filled with a multitude of sweet goodness that included caramelised almonds rolled in cocoa butter, milk chocolate mousse, dark toffee, and caramelised almond mousse with a touch of Murray salt. The small blob of chocolate sauce was garnished with gold leaf, giving this dish a rich and opulent feel. It was delicious.
Chocolate Surprise: Guanaja, Praline, Almond
I had a similar dish for dessert, but here I was presented with a Valrhona Manjari chocolate egg that had a remarkable velvet texture to it. The egg was filled with an impossibly airy salted caramel mousse and was served with a malt 'snow' and a caramel foam with a just a hint of coffee. This was also a spectacular dessert, both in taste and presentation.
Caramel, Manjari, Malt Snow, Hint of Coffee
We rounded off dinner with some delicious Intelligentsia espresso coffee and some petit fours of apricot macaroons with saffron, and passion fruit and ginger marshmallows. I love macaroons and L2O's versions are as perfect as the ones I buy from Ladurée, although there was perhaps a bit too much saffron in this one for my liking, overwhelming the flavour of apricot and leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Petit Fours: Apricot Macaroon with Saffron, Passion Fruit and Ginger Marshmallow
Although a relatively new addition to the high-end of the Chicago dining scene, L2O has already made its mark, and is more than a welcome addition to the already excellent list of restaurants in Chi-town. Chef Gras serves beautiful, light, and inventive food. He seems to have such knowledge and mastery of the raw ingredients that go into a dish, having an almost instinctive feel for how to combine flavours. The service at L2O was without fault and it hummed along like a well-oiled Michelin-starred machine. I enjoyed a monumentally good dinner here, but it wasn't without a couple of small, niggling faults. I feel there's much more to come from Gras, the sheer precision of his Japanese-influenced cooking combined with his impressive classical experience in some of the world's best restaurants should lead him to greater things indeed. Watch this space.

UPDATE 16.11.2010: Well if you did watch this space, you will have seen that L2O was awarded Michelin's highest complement of three stars in their inaugural guide to Chicago (the only other recipient of three stars in the city was the sublime Alinea – see my reviews here and here). In a bizarre twist though, it was announced that Laurent Gras left L2O suddenly at the beginning of November 2010, ostensibly for a temporary leave of absence. No motive was given, other than the generic "for personal reasons," and it is unclear whether Gras will return. I do hope we see him back in a kitchen in the not too distant future as his is a precocious talent for cooking. I'm not sure what this means for the three stars, as typically Michelin have a habit of removing stars when a chef leaves a restaurant. So again, we watch this space!

UPDATE 18.11.2010: As was my suspicion, Laurent Gras has indeed decided to part company with L2O, citing irreconcilable differences with owner Rich Melman. Gras plans to set up a new venture in NYC that will focus more on casual dining. L2O's Chef de Cuisine Francis Brennan, who worked with Gras for years and helped set up the restaurant, will take over the reigns. I wish him the best of luck, as never has the phrase "out of the frying pan, into the fire" been more appropriate.

UPDATE 10.11.2011: It was announced that Brennan would be leaving L2O to be replaced by Matthew Kirkley (28) who used to work under Brennan and Gras. Judging from this interview, it looks like Kirkley will be making some changes to the L2O menu.

UPDATE 15.11.2011: L2O was docked two stars in the 2012 edition of the Chicago Michelin guide following the departure of chef Laurent Gras just over a year ago. The restaurant now holds one star in the guide, leaving Alinea as the city's sole three-star restaurant.

UPDATE 13.11.2012: The restaurant was awarded its second Michelin star in the 2013 edition of the guide rouge.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       9 / 10
Ambiance:   9 / 10

2300 N. Lincoln Park West
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: +1 773-868-0002

L2o on Urbanspoon


  1. I KNEW we shoulda stuck to the a la carte rather than gone for the tasting menu ...

  2. After 3 weeks of seemingly non-stop eating in Chicago, we couldn't face another tasting menu! But it seems like we really missed out on the green curry and the raspberries (and of course the Kuato pudding).

    I know what you mean about the filing cabinets, although I wasn't brave enough to sneak a peek inside, but they were just plain weird.

  3. Two of us dined at L2O for my birthday and my impression is that the experience was more presentation than substance. The food was well prepared but the portions were on the small side and nothing that I would describe as memorable. They also had a very young staff who were all pleasant and helpful but nevertheless seemed somewhat inexperienced considering the venue and cost.