Wednesday, June 27, 2012

l2o (2) - chicago, il

l2orestaurant.com
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.


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