Thursday, July 7, 2011

l2o - chicago, il
2300 north lincoln park west
chicago, il 60614

in june of 2010, carrie and i celebrated our second wedding anniversary at l2o. it was our first time at a restaurant anywhere near its caliber, and our meal at l2o is what prompted me to start this blog. the food we tasted that night and the service we received were unlike anything we had ever experienced before. however, a few months later that i was looking back on the meal and realizing that i wished i remembered more about it. i had been an occasional reader of some of the better food blogs out there (ulterior epicure and kevineats) and decided why not start my own (poor man's) blog to preserve the memories of meals past.

we were originally planning to celebrate our third anniversary at avenues, but for the second time, were unable to secure a reservation the night we needed as the restaurant was closed for a renovation. we considered spiaggia, charlie trotter's, and everest, but ultimately decided to return to l2o so the experience could be properly documented.

l2o, which opened in 2008, is located in the belden stratford hotel situated in chicago's lincoln park neighborhood. the restaurant is part of rich melman's lettuce entertain you restaurant group, which notably contains both tru and everest. the name is a play on the original chef's name (laurent gras) and the chemical formula for water. l2o is a seafood focused restaurant with heavy french and japanese influences.

in the fall of 2010, chef laurent gras left l2o permanently after a six week hiatus, and the events that played our after would make for a great made for tv movie. chef gras and owner rich melman partook in a verbal spat via the media,  with each taking shots at the other. gras stated that melman wanted to take the restaurant in the wrong direction, while melman noted that gras mistreated the front of the house staff, was unwilling to compromise, and needed to become a better quality human being. to add to the controversy, l2o was awarded the michelin guides highest honor (three stars) just fifteen days after gras' departure.

not willing to walk away from his $5.5 million dollar investment, melman hired chef francis brennan to take the helm. brennan was laurent gras' chef de cuisine at l2o when the restaurant opened (although he left shortly after), and also worked under gras at the fifth floor in san francisco prior to l2o's opening. since gras' departure, critics reviews have varied. most notably, jeff ruby commented that brennan's l2o satisfied him in a way he never was before at the restaurant. on the flip side, critic julia kramer gave the new l20 3 out of 5 stars stating that things at l2o are precarious. unphased by all of this, i decided that i would let my (admittedly unrefined) palate make the decision for me.

l2o currently offers four options for dining, a four course prix fixe, an eight course seasonal tasting, a six course luxury ingredient tasting, or a private twelve course japanese kaiseki inspired menu in what is called the tatami room. being that it was in fact our anniversary and we had already dined in l2o's dining room once before, carrie and i booked the tatami room for our meal

upon arriving right on time for our 8:15 reservation, carrie and i were greeted by a friendly young woman dressed in a kimono. the woman, who turned out to be our server, led us through the amazing dining room, up a short flight of stairs, and had us sit down on two wooden blocks to remove our shoes before entering the tatami room.

 the tatami room is a small fully private room with two sliding doors (one for our server and one for us) and a low floor level table made of yellow cedar. diners sit on japanese tatami mats, but there is a great back support as well as a cutout for your feet, so it is extremely comfortable.
with our menu preselected by the chef, drinks were the only decision we needed to make. as usual, cocktails were our first order of business. my choice (pictured right) was the ginger mint julep, made with evan williams single barrel vintage bourbon, ginger beer, and fresh mint. being a lover of ginger beer and bourbon, this coctail was a hit for me. the only problem was the excess of ice, which dilute the flavor rather quickly. i would have preferred the drink to have been served "up". carrie's drink, the mediterranean breeze, featuring grey goose le citron, limoncello, and thyme. this was another successful offering, and i commented that i may have actually preferred hers. in addition to the cocktails, we also opted to split the available wine pairings. this was more than enough wine for both of us, and i (let alone carrie) would have had a hard time trying to keep up had we gone with the full pours.

salmon, cucumber

first up was a salmon and cucumber gelee dotted with roe. the smooth gelee was a light and refreshing opener.

after the gelee, our first round of bread was served. l2o takes its bread program very seriously, and i had been eagerly anticipating this moment since we booked the reservations weeks ago. baked twice per night to ensure perfect temperature and freshness, roughly six breads were available. pictured above is the demi-baguette, pain au lait, rosemary croissant, and an amazing pork belly bread. while the baguette was maybe a notch above average, the other three were incredible. i easily consumed 8-10 pieces total throughout the course of the meal.

hamachi, uni, ginger
jean vesselle, oeil de perdrix, brut rose bouzy, france, nv

basically a single bite, this was a bit of sea urchin wrapped in hamachi and served with a bit of ginger.

madai, ponzu
salmon belly, miso
ahi, grey shallots, ginger
nanbubijin, southern beauty, junmai gingo, iwate, japan

served with sake as opposed to wine, this was our sashimi course for the evening. while i have had sashimi several times before, never have i experienced raw fish of this quality before. each offering was incredible, with the fatty salmon belly being the winner for me. as for the sake, it is not a drink i have often, and i suppose i have not acquired a taste for it yet.

maryland blue crab en gelee, fennel cream, basil
muscat, bonny doon, ca' del solo estate, monterey california, 2008

beneath the gelee lay a nice portion of maryland blue grab. mixing the crab with the fennel and basil made for a nice sweet and savory interplay that was further enhanced texturally by the cream. superb!

hawaiian hearts of palm, white miso, mint, toasted seasame
nigl, gruner veltliner, freiheit, austria, 2007

served as an intermezzo of sorts, the next dish was a first for me. hearts of palm, which are a vegetable harvested from the soft core of a palm tree. possessing a slightly sweet and grassy flavor, the hearts were enhanced by the miso, mint, and sesame. a decent course, but probably the weakest of the night. the accompanying wine however, was an excellent austrian gruner veltliner that was light and crisp with notes of melon and citrus.

foie gras, hamachi, mojama
fino en rama, alvear, montilla-moriles, spain, 2006

next up was one of my favorite dishes of the meal. all three items on the plate were excellent eaten separately or paired together. the foie was delicate and decadent as expected, and the hamachi was rich and slightly smoky. the real surprise of the dish however was the mojama, which is salt cured tuna. the was reminiscent of ham actually, and had an absolutely huge flavor for such a thin strip of fish.

turbot, yuzu butter, black lime

well...this is embarrassing...i failed to photograph this dish until about halfway through, so this is the best i can do. the turbot was characteristically firm in texture and fairly mild in flavor, and was accented nicely by the citrus flavors of the yuzu and lime.

quinault harvested halibut, manila clams, morels, bonito fumet
chardonnay, belle cote, peter michael, knights valley, sonoma, 2009

following the turbot was halibut, another mild fish. the star of the dish for me were the large morels with their deliciously meaty flavor.

riesling, grand cru, schlossberg, martin schaetzel, alsace, france, 2004

a traditional japanese offering, shabu shabu is a hot pot in which the diner cooks their own meat/seafood. we were presented with a selection of sashimi to cook in a dashi broth.

dashi, noodles

after the sashimi was finished, our server returned with our leftover dashi broth in a bowl with some house made wheat noodles. excellent!

a11 wagyu, maine lobster, potato fondant
saint-julien, chateau branaire-ducru, bordeaux, france, 2004

our final and largest savory course of the evening was one of my most anticipated courses of the evening. here we have a11 wagyu beef in a black truffle emulsion served with maine lobster and potato fondant. simply put, this is the best beef that has ever graced my palate. butter soft and rich, the meat cut easily with a fork, and possessed a flavor unlike any other beef i have ever tasted. the lobster that came alongside the wagyu was really just a bonus for me, but it was excellent nevertheless. the wine for this course, our lone red of the night, was a lovely bordeaux blend (mostly cabernet) with notes of licorice, cranberry, and plum.

raspberry, golden yuzu, mascarpone

our first dessert was a left over from laurent gras, and was a dish we had eaten at our first visit to l2o. this was no problem, as i remembered absolutely loving the dish. visually beautiful, the sweet raspberries, smooth mascarpone, and tart yuzu blend wonderfully together to provide an extremely tasty and refreshing dessert.

manjari, coffee, malted vanilla snow
moscatel soleado, guttierez colosia, dulce, jerez, spain.

our final course of the evening definitely ended things on a positive note. here we have a hard manjari chocolate shell filled with salted caramel sitting atop a pile of frozen malted vanilla snow with a coffee flavored foam. an interesting combination of textures for sure, this final dessert was a hit on all levels.

our final bite at l2o came in the form of an incredible canele made in a beeswax mold. perfectly crisp on the outside and eggy and delicious within, this was an excellent finish to an outstanding meal.

as with most fine dining restaurants, we were presented with a copy of the menu we had eaten along with the corresponding wine pairings.

overall, our experience in l2o's tatami room was wonderful. having a room to ourselves really made the evening special, and all the food was amazing. our server was also very pleasant and down to earth, and we enjoyed conversing with her about the chicago dining scene as well as l2o's transition after gras' departure. this was a nice contrast from our from our first trip to l2o where our server was comically rigid and aloof, and did not make us feel very comfortable. while it is hard to fairly compare this meal to our first one since the dining style as well as menu approach was completely different, i can say that we enjoyed every aspect of this meal more than our first, and would love to come back some day and do it again.
L2O (Beldon-Stratford) on Urbanspoon


  1. i've heard amazing things about this place & your meal looks incredible!! glad you guys had a memorable anniversary!

  2. thanks for the kind words and yes, l2o is completely amazing. btw, i just read your post on graham elliot and trying to work that into a future trip. the foie and rhubarb dish had my mouth watering!