Thursday, June 28, 2012

yusho - chicago, il
2853 north kedzie avenue
chicago, il 60618

aside from our extended tasting at l2o, the meal i was most looking forward to on this chicago trip was definitely yusho. located in avondale, yusho is the recently opened japanese street food inspired restaurant from former charlie trotter's chef de cuisine matthias merges. i suppose after 14 years of working in a super stuffy fine dining environment merges was ready for a change...but about a complete departure from the restaurant he called home for almost a decade and a half. thinking that such a dramatic changing of gears must mean that chef merges has an incredible amount of passion for this new project, i had a feeling that bumping yusho ahead of the publican and the bristol in my small plates restaurant queue would be a good idea.
with reservations made via yusho's own online booking system, carrie and i arrived right at 5pm. and basically had the place to ourselves. walking past the long bar and open kitchen we were seated in the back dining room which features exposed brick walls, an eclectic mix of light fixtures and chairs, and even a film projector showing japanese movies. the menu at yusho is strictly small plates, with roughly 25 choices ranging from $3.25-$18. for drinks, the main focus is cocktails crafted by one time trotter's assistant sommelier alex bachman, however an interesting selection of beer, wine, sake is also available. there will unfortunately be no dish by dish breakdown this time as i do not take notes during meals and simply too much time has passed for me to accurately do justice to what was eaten.
new culture - redemption rye, rhubarb, lemon, vermouth di torino, abbot's bitters
paloma on draught - tequila, mezcal, grapefruit
tuna - taro root, pine nuts, breakfast radish
chicken skin - japanese mustard, garlic, togarashi
octopus - haricot vert, egg yolk, enoki mushrooms
duck breast - hon shemeji mushrooms, scallion
three arrows - whipper snapper whiskey, barolo chinato, fenugreek bitters
cate's esters - lemon hart demerara rum, lime, cane sugar, orange and myrrh bitters
takoyaki - salmon roe, chile, bonito, scallion
2x fried chicken - kanzuri, matcha, lime
sweetbreads - umeboshi bbq sauce, frisee, toasted soy beans
foie gras - kabocha squash, kombu, honey
soft serve - green cardamom, rhubarb, toffee
mochi - ginger, dark chocolate, kaffir lime
kalamansi - peanut, coriander

given the number of dishes we sampled it may sound silly for me to say that there simply were no duds, but it is the honest truth. each and every offering was well prepared and the flavors were spot on, often being unlike anything i had ever tasted before. the progression of the meal was very logical with the lighter dishes coming out first and the pacing was perfect as there were never more than three plates on the table at a time. the dessert menu doesn't look very exciting on paper but nevertheless we ordered all three choices and trust me when i say the sweets at yusho are not to be missed. if you are on the fence about visiting yusho, i urge you to give it a shot as i honestly could not have been happier with my meal there and can't wait to go back again someday to see how the place has progressed. 
Yusho on Urbanspoon

gt fish & oyster - chicago, il
531 north wells street
chicago, il 60654

opened in mid 2011, gt fish & oyster is another member of the boka restaurant group and serves as chef giuseppe tentori's outlet for traditional seafood preparations with the not so occasional occasional twist. located in chicago's river north area, gt fish has become quite the hot spot in its first year, receiving a nod from the michelin guide in the form of a bib gourmand award along with a raving three star review from phil vettel in the chicago tribune.
with the temperature north of one hundred degrees, our walk from hotel 71 was a miserable one, but we covered the distance in good time arriving just prior to our noon reservation. navigating our way through the elaborate glass entryway, we were greeted by a hostess in a particularly bright pair of jeans and were quickly led to our table located in the window of the main dining room.
cocktails for the day were the old money (old forester bourbon, aperol, nux alpina walnut liqueur, allspice) for me and the waitlist (grey goose vodka, st. germain, grapefruit, lime, bitters) for carrie.
my first selection was the tuna poke plated with preserved mango, cucumber, and black sesame. this dish was a fantastic combination of sweet meets spicy, and proved to be my favorite of the meal.
for carrie it was the grilled caesar salad with romaine hearts, cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and oyster croutons. while i initially rolled my eyes when carrie ordered this, the salad was excellent with the breaded and fried oysters serving as croutons really setting it apart from you average caesar offering.
next up were a pair of pork belly sliders with kimchi and peanuts. although tasty enough, the amount of pork was rather small and somewhat lacking in the flavor department. overall these were not worth $4 apiece in my opinion.
for my final savory dish, the lobster mac and cheese was an easy choice. here were have orecchiette pasta with brioche breadcrumbs, sweet english peas, and a generous amount of lobster meat all in a three cheese sauce. this was a hit on all accounts with the pasta being appropriately firm and the sweetness from both the lobster and the peas contrasting nicely with the tangy cheese sauce.
mussels in a roasted tomato sauce with basil and ciabatta bread was carrie's main dish. while the mussels were briny and delicious as expected, the surprise was the surprising level of heat the sauce possessed. this was a good thing for us, and most of it was sopped up with the ciabatta.
for dessert, we opted to split an order of the sticky toffee cake with toffee sauce, pecans, and creme fraiche. this was an excellent dessert as i particularly like the use of the cool and tart creme fraiche against the sweet warmth of the cake.

going into our meal at gt fish i will admit that i wasn't anticipating big things as the lunch menu always seemed somewhat boring to me on paper. so with that noted i can easily say that my expectations for the restaurant were not only reached but easily exceeded. with the exception of the pork belly sliders being merely decent everything we tried was well executed and very tasty. if i lived in chicago i would definitely be back for dinner at some point as the menu is much more extensive but being that i only get to the city 3-5 times a year and have over ten dinner only restaurants currently in my always growing "must try queue", i really doubt such a thing will ever occur. even still, this meal along with those past at girl and the goat and balena have certainly instilled a good impression of the boka restaurant group as a whole and i am now thinking maybe a tasting at the group's flagship in lincoln park should be moved up my restaurant list.
GT Fish & Oyster on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

l2o (2) - chicago, il
2300 north lincoln park west
chicago, il 60614

although the explosions in the sky concert at the chicago theater was the catalyst for this particular visit to the windy city, dining as always became my primary concern. knowing that we would have one free evening for an elaborate dinner that would serve as a belated anniversary celebration, the original plan was to give either spiaggia or ria a chance. however, after looking into both restaurants extensively and hearing more bad than good about each of them i began to reconsider. it was then that the thought of another visit to l2o came to me. l2o was the site of carrie and i's second wedding anniversary in 2010 and was our first true fine dining experience. the meal we were served under original chef laurent gras was a revelation for both of us and was what prompted me to start this blog, leading to a whirlwind of fine meals encompassing over thirty michelin stars in less than two years. a return to l2o was made in july of 2011 (again in honor of our anniversary) where we sat in the private tatami room and enjoyed a kasieki inspired menu. this was after the departure of laurent gras, and chef francis brennan and chef de cuisine matthew kirkley were responsible for that excellent meal. since that meal, brennan has moved on and the job of head chef has been passed to kirkley. formerly the sous chef at joel robochoun in las vegas, kirkley was actually on l2o's opening day team in 2008 before moving to ria in the elysian hotel. kirkley returned to l2o in early 2011 as chef de cuisine and was promoted to chef later that year. with reports that l2o under kirkley was on point and my view of the restaurant being an admittedly romanticized one it was decided it was only fitting that our wedding anniversary meal would again be at l2o.
following a lovely cab ride along lake michigan we arrived at the lincoln park located belden-stratford building which houses l2o. walking through the beautiful lobby i had a serious deja vu feeling as i snapped a picture of the restaurant's wooden door before pulling it open and stepping into the contemporary serenity that is l2o. greetings with the host were exchanged along with an anniversary wish before we were led to our table, one that was clearly considered the best in the restaurant. the reason for this was prior to the meal i had communicated with the restaurant via email that was our anniversary and requested a special extended tasting menu instead of one of the two seven course menus typically offered. situated on the right wall of the restaurant, the table was in a marble alcove with spot lights overhead and had a certain v.i.p. feel to it. handling our table for the night was assistant wine director allison frey, who's service style was professional yet extremely warm and friendly without a hint of pretension. with our menu already predetermined, the only decisions we needed to make were in regards to beverages. opting to first start with cocktails, we then told allison what our budget for wine was (very modest), and asked her to help us spend it in the best manner possible. this was a task that she very graciously obliged, putting together an abbreviated wine pairing for us that proved to be very enjoyable and seemed to be a great value.
for our first bites, canapes of filled melons arrived. on the left is cantaloupe filled with foie gras and to the right is honeydew with oyster. although a bit hard to eat as the fruit was slippery and likely to fall apart easily if not handled carefully, these bites were a nice way to start the meal.
for cocktails, i selected the l2o sazerac which was prepared table side and consisted of bulleit rye, st. george absinthe rinse, and smoked sugar. for carrie it was the house aperitif, made with duval-leroy brut champagne, house bitters, and lillet. both drinks were excellent and fit our respective pallets quite well.
while it may seem silly to some, the bread program at l2o was definitely a key factor in my descion to return in lieu of trying someplace new. roughly eight breads are baked in house daily and served with butter made with organic cream from local farms. pictured above is the rosemary croissant, bacon-epi, pain au lait, and demi-baguette. over the course of the meal i easily consumed 10-12 pieces, primarily the pain au lait, croissant, and bacon. also, as gluttonous as it may sound, halfway through the meal we were brought a second helping of butter as the first bowl had been scrapped completely clean. this bread is seriously that good.
mussel tart, garlic, lemon
arabako txakolina, xarmant, 2011

after finishing our cocktails and diving head first into the bread, our first wine was poured and shortly after the meal's first course arrived in the form of mussel mousse on a thin wafer with flavors of garlic and lemon. we were told that this was best eaten in one bite, and obediently popped the entire bite into our mouths simultaneously. while at first i thought the amount of mousse was perhaps too large for one bite (if using a spoon i would likely have taken three bites), i quickly realized that may have been the idea, as the briny mussel flavor absolutely coated the palate and clung there long after everything had been swallowed.
maryland blue crab en gelee, basil, fennel cream
soave classico, gini, "contrada salverenza," 2006

course number two was actually a repeat from our meal in the tatami room last july, but this was no problem as it was a dish i remembered well and really enjoyed. basically this is blue crab layered with a gelee of some sort along with fennel cream and a bit of basil. it was as good as i remembered with an interesting mix of sweetness, salinity, and subtle spice. delicious!

tuna, avocado, caviar
coste della sesiarosato, proprieta sperino, rosa del rosa, 2011

following the crab was a dish i had seen in pictures online and was excited to see it placed before me. here we have tuna tartare wrapped in avocado and topped with a dollop of caviar. although both of the dishes main components were relatively mild in flavor and soft in texture, this was still a very tasty dish with the salinity of the caviar creating a necessary contrast.
dumpling, loup de mer, broccoli, scallop sauce, black truffle

next up was a soft and creamy dumpling filled with sweet loup de mer mousse of sorts and served in a scallop sauce with broccoli stems and some shaved black truffle. this was one of my favorite courses with the crunchy broccoli stems working well to create textural contrast against the luxuriously soft and smooth textures of the dumpling, filling, and sauce.
mussels, clams, corn, zucchini, lardo
chablis, 1er cru, vaillons, thierry laffay, 2009

for the meals soup course, we first have rounds of zucchini topped with corn and glassy lardo that was next finished table side with a salty broth containing both mussels and clams. the key to this dish for me was the lardo as it's richness help cut through the salty tinge of the broth.

st. pierre, foie gras, cabbage, matelote
riesling spatlese, 'oestricher doosberg', balthazar ress, rheingau, 1992

st. pierre (also known as john dory) layered with foie gras, plated with cabbage, and finished with metelote sauce was the meal's sixth course. while the foie flavor was less pronounced than i expected, it certainly added an extra degree of savor to the mild yet sweet fish.

bouillabaisse, scorpion fish, loup de mer, mussel, fennel, tomato confit
chateauneuf-du-pape, domaine des senechaux, 2008

kirkley's contemporary take on the traditional french stew was excellent with the loup de mer (which i believe was poached) reminding me of the incredible striped bass i had at le bernardin earlier this year.

butter poached lobster, cepes, potato, clams, hollandaise de mer

one of the meal's largest courses was butter poached lobster with a hollowed out potato filled with mushroom and finished with a hollandaise sauce. this was one of the meals strongest courses with the well cooked tail meat being sweet and snappy on its own or smothered in the hollandaise.
lamb loin, zucchini lattice, sweetbreads, squash blossom
saint-joseph, domaine monier perreol, 2008

starting to feel rather full at this point, the news that this would be our final savory course of the evening was music to my ears. pictured above is lamb loin served with a squash blossom and a zucchini lattice stuffed with sweetbreads. this course was the only one of the night to be served with a red wine, and was a nice change of pace after all the seafood. while the lamb loin was excellent, the star of this dish for me was sweetbread filled zucchini lattice.

served as an intermezzo before the proper desserts was a layered concoction of strawberry sorbet, a mint component of some sort, and chantilly cream. on the side was a delicious shortbread cookie. this sounded pretty basic but was better than i expected with the cooling mint and icy sorbet really doing a great job of refreshing the palette.
lemon tart, rhubarb, basil
colli euganei fior d'arancio, vignalta, 2011

our first actual dessert was a structural marvel consisting of an incredibly thin and crisp phyllo shell housing a lemon cream a sheets of dried rhubarb. on the plate were dots of basil adding just a hint of spice to this otherwise sweet and tart dessert.

praline souffle, hazelnut anglaise

finally, just as in the laurent gras days, the meal ended with a perfectly executed souffle. this time we were brought the long standing praline variety which was cracked open table side and finished with a hazelnut anglaise. although certainly not a creative offering, the two souffles i have eaten at l2o have easily been the best of my life, and will likely always be what i compare future souffles to. i am ashamed to admit that i was unable to finish the entire souffle, but will blame the failure on my seemingly self replenishing bread plate.
to close out the meal, pistachio and yuzu macaroons arrived along the restaurant's famous canale. with carrie being full basically to the point of discomfort, i tackled the entire mignardises tray. while the macaroons were certainly tasty, it was again the canale that (as always) left a lasting impression.

in the days leading up to this meal, i began to feel tinges of regret for electing to book l2o again instead of taking the chance on someplace new. even though i knew the meal would be excellent, i was afraid the overall experience might have a "been there done that" sort of feel to it. looking back on this dinner almost a month later, i am happy to say that this visit was my favorite of the three, and there is no question that the meals we could have had at either ria or spiaggia would have been far inferior. while i am not sure that l2o was ever quite at the three star michelin level, i feel like the restaurant's current one star status does not do them justice and will be very surprised if they aren't bumped up to the two star level this fall. regardless, carrie and i have a soft spot in our hearts for l2o and look forward to returning at some point with the assumption that chef kirkley's cooking is only going to get better.