(L2O Dining Room; Taken from Restaurant’s Facebook Page)
L2O is a seafood-centered fine dining restaurant that was founded in 2009. The name refers to the initial of the initial executive chef, Laurent Gras. Under Gras, the restaurant received great acclaim and earned 3 Michelin stars. Immediately after the Michelin designation, Chef Gras quit over a dispute with his chef de cuisine, allegedly over the shabu shabu dish. The chef de cuisine was then promoted to executive chef. However, under Gras’ replacement, the restaurant received a demotion from 3 stars to 1 star. The chef was promptly fired, and a new chef took over in November. Although the restaurant has received considerable acclaim throughout its short existence, it also exudes a sense of turmoil and conflict—an off-putting dynamic that contrasts with the serene ambience of the dining room. The Michelin demotion made it somewhat difficult to know which restaurants with which to compare it—L2O is priced similarly with Charlie Trotter’s and Ria, which each have 2 stars. However, the restaurant is also similar to Everest and TRU in that all are part of the Lettuce Entertain You empire. With those comparisons in mind, I embarked on the experience with an open mind toward accepting the restaurant on its own terms.
Arriving 15 minutes late for my reservation, I apologetically told my dining companion, Rich, that I would order whichever menu format he desired. L2O offers 3 formats: a four-course prix-fixe, a seven-course seasonal tasting menu, and a seven-course singular menu that is unchanging and includes more traditional proteins such as beef and scallops. We went for the more adventurous seasonal tasting and supplemented our order by sharing the shabu shabu dish from the prix-fixe menu. I felt it was strange that the shabu shabu (the restaurant’s signature dish under Chef Gras and the dish for which he left) was relegated to the margins of the prix-fixe menu, since that is the dish that is presumably most anticipated by customers.
As a canapé course, we were first presented with a trio of spherical “fruits of the sea” served on a branch-like vessel similar to the branch structure in the photo at the top of this write-up (picture taken from restaurant’s Facebook photos). The “fruits” were cucumber, cantaloupe/foie gras, and honeydew; they were rich and refreshing but difficult to fully appreciate since they were quite slippery and really should have been consumed with a utensil.
The amuse bouche for the evening was a miniature, 2-bite lobster roll. The texture was surprising since the lobster meat was somewhat chewy while the roll was very soft; I think that the meat came from the knuckle. While this dish was very enjoyable given my love for lobster, I would have preferred if the meat was softer and from the claw with the bun perhaps toasted to provide a chewy texture.
Following the amuse, we were visited by the bread man, who offered six different varieties. L2O takes great pride in their bread program, offering baguette, rye, croissant, semolina, brioche, and a chorizo-filled roll. I most enjoyed the baguette, a relatively textbook offering elevated by the exquisite salted butter that was offered. I had high hopes for the chorizo-filled roll but the meat did not have the smoky depth of flavor associated with chorizo, instead tasting more like standard-issue salami from the supermarket. At any rate, while the baguette was quite enjoyable, none of the offerings were particularly memorable, and I found myself longing for the bread offerings I had enjoyed just one week earlier at Arrows in Ogunquit, ME.
The first proper course was an ahi tuna tartare wrapped in avocado and topped with Kaluga caviar (shown below—this photo and all others were taken from the L2O Facebook site). Tuna tartare is something of an ersatz classic. Therefore, I appreciated the defamiliarization of L2O’s offering—as one can see from the photo, the presentation was highly original. Not especially fond of avocado normally, I really enjoyed the interaction between the fatty tuna and the fatty avocado—very rich. The addition of the caviar was superb, and one of my favorite uses of it that I have had.
The second course consisted of lobster bisque: claw meat accompanied by apples and calvados with the broth of the bisque poured tableside. I found this to be one of the weakest courses of the evening (though it had some competition in this regard), although I appreciated the use of claw meat as I prefer it over the knuckle used in the lobster roll earlier. The course should not have been titled bisque as there was no cream. The broth depended on the calvados in order to impart richness. However, the liquor completely overwhelmed the lobster and apples. I can only imagine that the Calvados had aged longer than the chef expected—it tasted almost rancid.
Transitioning to the more savory portion of the menu, the third proper course consisted of a confit of ocean trout, accompanied by pigeon, carrot stuffed with cabbage, and a pigeon consommé. This course was arguably my favorite of the evening. It was similar to my memorable salmon dish from Topolobampo last fall—pieces of thick yet barely-cooked fish covered by broth. The clash between the cold fish and the hot broth was especially memorable. Given that trout is not normally one of my favorite fishes, I never would have ordered this dish a la carte; the benefit of the tasting menu format is that it challenges one to confront their personal prejudices. Of course, the specific placement of the trout dish on the menu also effects taste—my expectations were low following the bisque, and the efficacy of the broth was enhanced following the disappointing Calvados-spiked broth of the bisque. The importance of course placement demonstrates the manner in which reception of a restaurant meal is governed by a structure of narrative causality.
Representing the only meat course of the menu, the fourth course was titled “Tripes a la mode de caen.” Having never encountered tripe in a French context, I was surprised to see it paired with carrot, bacon, and a Normandy cider accompaniment. I took one sip of the cider but found it completely overwhelming and similar to spiced rum. However, the “solid” component of the course was satisying, although the flavor of the components was uniformly smoky when bereft of the bitterness of the cider.
Presented as the centerpiece of the tasting menu, the final savory course of the tasting menu was bouillabaisse (shown below, taken from the L2O website.) I appreciate the food runner’s attempt to inject a sense of drama into the tasting menu by calling it the “centerpiece” but I do not feel that the dish earned the title. The bouillabaisse was too structurally similar to the trout dish, and the lobster bisque had also held a brothy consistency. For a “centerpiece dish” I feel that a large filet of fish should have been used, similar to the Dover sole at Ria. The presentation was very classical, with Mediterranean fish (loup de mer, daurade), as well as razor clams, fennel, and tomato confit. I felt that the broth was not rich enough, and indeed we corroborated that there was no discernible taste of saffron in the broth. I do feel that the combination of tomato and saffron has become somewhat ubiquitous on restaurant menus, although the dish was lacking in explosive flavor. The broth was really no different from tomato soup. Apparently, the captain had been eavesdropping on our conversation, since when he cleared our plates he inexplicably made a sarcastic comment. This was very unnerving, and I certainly did not appreciate the feeling that I was being censored and could not speak my mind. We were not loud or obnoxious in our discussion and certainly warranted more compassionate service.
Following the disappointing dish (and service) we progressed to the shabu shabu. The ingredients combined traditional Japanese accompaniments (abalone, kampachi, dashi,) with foie gras. The elaborate presentation of the cooking pot placed on the table was very dramatic and would have made a more appropriate final savory course than the bouillabaisse. However, the foie gras and fish were served on a bed of shaved ice, and there was (ridiculously enough) a large seashell on the plate. This was without a doubt one of the tackiest presentations I’ve ever encountered in a fine dining context. Needless to say, my companion compared this unfavorably to the shabu shabu preparation under Laurent Gras. I “cooked” the abalone and hirame in the broth for roughly ten seconds. Anticipating the abalone to be mild in taste, I was discouraged to detect a somewhat bitter taste. I actually chose to consume the foie gras without the broth as I prefer it cold. Following consumption of the protein components each of our pots were refurbished with whole wheat noodles, which were made in house. I generally abhor whole wheat noodles, although the feathery consistency nicely utilized the graininess of the wheat.
Transitioning to the desert courses, we were given an acidic sorbet that was (I believe) yuzu flavored. Resting atop the sorbet was shaved lime ice—a dark green color that is more often found in carnival sno-cones rather than in fine dining. The lime worked nicely, aggressive in a manner necessary in mediating the more muted flavor of the sorbet.
The first dessert was titled “fromage blanc, calvados caramel, brioche, apple.” The current pastry chef at L2O was formerly at Ria; I was looking forward to tasting her newest efforts, and was not disappointed. This dish resembled a trifle and was one of my favorite desserts in recent memory—it was actually very similar to the “coffee service” at Moto. The calvados tasted very boozy and actually similar to brandy—it nicely complimented the caramel and apple without overwhelming them.
The final dessert course was a praline soufflé with hazelnut anglaise. While the hazelnut flavor was intense and satisfying, I would have appreciated a thicker crust—the texture was overly soft and somewhat mushy. Moreover, soufflés are very unoriginal, and given that the soufflé has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception, I have to believe that the soufflé’s placement on the menu has been imposed from the restaurant’s management. While I certainly enjoyed the taste of the dish, I feel that it makes the menu an unsteady mix between modernized and classical French, especially since the soufflé had fairly customary flavors. The soufflé felt like a gesture toward an already existing culturally (and culinary) prestigious dish rather than a building block in the foundation of its own culinary style.
Along with the check came two mignardises: a rum-flavored canele and a chocolate macaron. Having newly registered for a LEY card, we encountered rude service when we attempted to each present cards. The captain reprimanded us, stating that next time we should let them know beforehand when we wanted to present two separate LEY cards. His rudeness was especially egregious given that I had specifically requested separate checks, which (had they remembered to give us separate checks) would have alleviated the issue in the first place. At any rate, the customer is always right, and our request was issued politely and did not warrant rudeness.
I am glad that I visited L2O as it is an important restaurant within the Chicago dining landscape. While the price and distasteful service ensure that I will not return, the tuna, trout, and calvados/caramel dessert were satisfying. Overall, however, this was not an inspiring meal and a number of other courses—most notably, the bisque, bouillabaisse, shabu shabu and soufflé—were conservative and/or undermined the potential for originality of the menu. The continuous changes in the kitchen staff perhaps contributes to the menu’s lack of assertion. I do feel that L2O’s Michelin demotion is fair and accurate; the cuisine is superior to the majority of the Michelin 1-star restaurants, but notably inferior to Ria and Charlie Trotter’s (both of which received 2 stars) as well as Everest, which received 1 star. In a city noted for its culinary dynamism, L2O seems suspended in a state of stasis and incoherence, with notably innovative dishes undermined by other dishes that either exhibited flawed execution or seemed uninspired.