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L.20 (2008)

Here is a large excerpt from my blogpost review of L20. You can read the entire review (and see the photos) at the ulterior epicure: [http://ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com/...].

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... the unique thing about L20 is that it’s not unique. It defies comparison with any other fine dining restaurant I’m familiar with or have visited. Yet, it seems to exhibit the behaviors and qualities of all of them. It’s so nondescript, yet all-encompassing that it’s almost a generic farce - an inside-out take on fine dining created for the sheer exercise of replicating such an enterprise. You know what it’s like? It’s like that song from the musical Spamalot, “The Song That Goes Like This.” Well, this is “The Fine Dining Experience that Goes Like This.”

It’s got the right ingredients, the servers (try to) say the right things, the serviceware is gorgeous, the wine list is extensive, and the presentations and compositions haute. L20 feels fine dining.

However, I left wondering how much of what I experienced at L20 was truly original and to the restaurant.

But, “Lettuce” not forget who and what is behind this enterprise. L20 is Chicago’s kingpin restaurateur, Melman, flexing his muscles anew. It’s the latest member of the Lettuce Entertain You group, and entertain, above all else, they do. Upon reflection, it’s sophisticated camp. Theatrics are high; the concepts, lofty; and the investment, extravagant.

It was clear from the very beginning that L20 was meant to dazzle and impress. Even before the restaurant had opened in the space formerly occupied by Ambria in the Belden Stratford apartment building, Chef Laurent Gras & Co. started the hype rolling with a blog which gave previews of the all of the tricked-out gadgets and techniques that would be employed. No expense was or is spared. Every whim was and is indulged.

The 12-course Tasting presented the following progression. You can click on each item to see a picture, or click here to see the entire set. I also supplemented two courses ($25 each) into my tasting. They are identified accordingly.

Amuse Bouche
Peanut Butter Sponge
Wasabi

Tuna
Bonito, Lime Foam

First Course
Geoduck
Citrus, Wasabi

Second Course
Butter Cod
Earl Grey, Orange

Third Course
Tuna
Yuzu, Soy Sauce, Black Olive Emulsion, Olive Oil Emulsion

Fourth Course
Kinmedai
Cherry Wood Scented, Shiso Bud

Supplement
Lamb Tartar
Ebi Shrimp, Pickled Peach, Tarragon

Supplement
Scallop
Sassafras, Hibiscus, Tomato

Fifth Course
Halibut
Espelette, Tomato, King Oyster

Sixth Course
Lobster
Morel, Sea Bean, Foie Gras Emulsion

Seventh Course
Hawaiian Sea Bass
Nicoise, Lemon, Corn Grits, Zucchini

Eighth Course
Black Bass
Shellfish Bouillon, Saffron, Rhode Island Mussels

Ninth Course
Pork Belly
Truffle, Potato

Tenth Course
Shabu Shabu Medai
Kombu Chicken Bouillon, Citrus, Porcini

Pre-Dessert
Carrot-Orange

Carrot-Orange Fizz

Watermelon Ice
Strawberry Juice

Eleventh Course
Mango
Mint

Caramel Filled Donut Holes
Cherry Ice

Twelfth Course
Praline Souffle
Praline

Grand Marnier Souffle

Mignardises
Passion Fruit Marshmallow

Pistachio Macaron

Many have likened L20 to alinea and moto on a broader scale. Although the restaurant’s interior, serviceware, and food looks hyper-modern, I don’t think this is an accurate comparison.

As for the food, I’m sure that Gras and his crew employ more chemicals in their cooking than is readily apparent. However, most of the molecular gastronomy - what little I detected - seemed isolated at the fringes, like the amuse bouche - a Peanut Butter Sponge which was like eating peanut butter-flavored air with a little moist resistance. (You can read how about the technique on the L20 blog.), and the pre-dessert - an orange nugget called “Carrot-Orange” which had the texture of an airy dry meringue and gave off whisps of (presumably) liquid nitrogen. The former was Achatz-like and the latter could have come out of the labs of Homaro Cantu.

Most of the techniques and preparations at L20 seem more straightforward and naturally achieved than either alinea or moto (same with the plating and presentation, which aren’t as “gimmicky” to me as those at alinea and moto), which is why some group L20 with Le Bernardin.

Although L20 bills itself as a serious seafood restaurant, such a comparison doesn’t seem well-placed either. It’s not even because L20 has red meat on its menu. The entire aesthetic and approach to the food is different from Eric Ripert’s at Le Bernardin. Le Bernardin is French with international influences - Coco Chanel to L20’s Japanese-leaning French haute couture styles of Hanae Mori. Flavors and techniques are French, but there’s a dainty Asian style of plating. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon isn’t quite right either, but if one insists on drawing comparisons, it’s a closer approximation.

Perhaps such comparisons are unproductive and pedantic at best.

So, what about the food?

Without my two supplements, the 12-course menu is already a considerable amount of food for $165. Next to alinea’s “tour” ($225 for approx. 25 courses) and moto’s “GTM” ($175 for approx. 15 courses), it’s Chicago’s most expensive dinner. And, at these prices, it rivals the higher-end establishments on both coasts.

There’s no doubt that you get your money’s worth in the amount and quality of the products served. Although early reports indicated that the meal had numerous previews and postludes, they seemed to have trimmed them down to just two amuses bouche, two pre-desserts, and two post-dinner sweets.

But, the more interesting issue is whether, technical execution aside, L20’s tasting menu, as a gastronomic and intellectual experience, justifies the price tag. For the serious client, that’s the index that really counts. Beyond the cost of the food, which I’m sure is covered by the price of the meal, is there “added value?” - a priceless quantity that every serious diner seeks?

Given its heretofore short life, I’m hesitant to pronounce a verdict. But, here is my initial observation about L20’s tasting menu: while there were glimpses of true genius in some of the cooking, there were also gaps filled with somewhat hackneyed conventions.

And, there were also a few gaffes: the opening volley of geoduck was so uncharacteristically strong-tasting that not even a heavy dousing of lime could chase away the fishiness.

Later, a friend found an eyelash in his dish. Needless to say, it was promptly replaced with apologies.

And, the star of the 9th course, a cut of pork belly, was tough and the top layer of crackling was impenetrably hard. That was a bummer, especially since the accompanying cylinder of caramelized potato (think potato fondant, but glazed instead of crispy on the surface) was exceedingly good. The starchy drum was piped with a creamy filling not unlike the potato emulsion (think Robuchon’s potato puree) that came with another course.

For the price and level of respect that L20 tries to command, these mistakes shouldn’t happen, even if the restaurant has only been opened 2 months.

By and large, the proteins were extremely fresh and, where applicable, perfectly cooked. Halibut was poached to a soft, supple consistency. Likewise, Hawaiian Sea Bass, coated in breadcrumbs, and Black Sea Bass, which came tented under a thin, crisped slice of brioche (a preparation I first encountered a few years ago) on a bed of plump Rhode Island mussels, were treated with expert attention. Sauces were accomplished and seasoning and accents were deftly played (although a rapid succession of aggressively acidic preparations prompted my friend to wonder whether there had been a special on citrus at the market). But, this should all go without having to be said.

And, there’s clearly a high level of thinking going on. A few of the dishes presented unique compositions and combinations, some more successfully than others.

With the exception of the Butter Cod, which was lightly infused with an Earl Grey fragrance and paired with orange (segments, juice, and strips of orange gelatin) and fennel blossoms, the first few raw courses didn’t propose any extraordinary discoveries other than a reminder of how good raw fish can be. This, in itself, is an accomplishment not to be underestimated.

The sashimi slices of butter cod were a good example, as were the small tangled strips of Kinmedai that were topped simply with sea salt and fresh shiso buds. I appreciated the chef’s restraint in preserving the inherently rewarding simplicity of these ingredients.

The same could be said about the last course, Shabu Shabut Medai, which, looking past the drama involved, put the emphasis on the texture and flavor of the fish. Three slices of Medai (big eye snapper) sashimi lined up on a beautifully fashioned wooden bridge with a shiso leaf, some vegetables and porcini mushrooms. Servers set up a mini nuclear power plant-like device which helps keep a bowl of hot chicken-kombu bouillion hot. As the name suggests, you “cook” your Medai sashimi until you achieve the desired shabu shabu stage. There’s also a refreshingly tart and light citrus sauce on the side. The perfect bite (for me) involved wrapping a piece of fish in a shiso leaf for a 5 second dunk and then lightly dressing it with the citrus sauce.

The three most outstanding dishes were the Haawiian Sea Bass, the Lamb Tartar (supplemented) and the Lobster…

Beyond these three dishes, most seemed more focused on “wow factor” than on being meritoriously special in their own right. Indeed, most of the savory dishes were only slightly interesting at best. I didn’t feel like I got anything that I couldn’t also get at another very high end establishment.

The least successful ones seemed like obligatory references to (acknowledgments of?) current trends…

The desserts tended to be more refreshing - which was welcomed after such a long and heavy meal - than dazzling. There was a considerable amount of fruit involved. The “Carrot Orange” was more fun at best, and the underlying “fizz” of the same flavor combination was too syrupy thick to be truly enjoyable. The same complaint could apply to the “Watermelon Ice,” which came with a thick and over-sweet strawberry “juice.”

I couldn’t have the “Mango” – mango panna cotta topped with soft meringue with mango broth poured table-side - which my friends said was “just good,” so I got a bevy of delicate sugar-dusted donut holes filled (almost imperceptibly) with caramel. They were fine. The better half of this dessert was in the bowl beneath the donut holes - a cherry slushy with macerated sweet cherry halves. It was like iced cherry to the nth degree.

On a different tasting menu, the soufflé, which was the final word, literally and figuratively, on the desserts at L20, might have been the piece de resistance. It was textbook.

Tall and proud, it was a fluffy praline cloud loaded up with rich praline cream at the table. Nutty and buttery, this version could not have been improved upon. (My friend’s Grand Marnier soufflé substitution was equally as fantastic – perhaps even more so only for the fact that the sauce contained chunks of orange segments macerated in the liqueur.) Yet, despite the perfect execution, I’m not sure that these soufflés fit well in the tasting progression. The soufflés seemed jarringly out-of-step with the rest of the meal; old school in this new school world.

It’s obvious that the service at L20 has every intention of being excellent, even though, at just past the restaurant’s two-month anniversary, it didn’t quite achieve that level for me.

For example, I had asked if it would be possible to supplement two dishes into the 12-course tasting and have them sized down to fit, proportionally, into my progression. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Or, perhaps my server wasn’t clear when she said that it would not be a problem. Either way, I ended up with two full-sized portions, which was an absurd amount of food on top of what was already a large tasting.

The servers are, no doubt, still trying to feel out the rhythm and dynamics of the dining room, and it’s apparent. At times, the service felt strained and tight. Serious is good, funereal is bad - smug is even worse, and there was a bit of that, too. Although our server was very professional and accommodating, I found the individual annoyingly insincere and aloof.

The one noticeably bright spot on the staff was the wine director, Chantelle Pabros, who came to L20 from the highly acclaimed Ritz Carlton at Buckhead. She was effervescent and patient, even if I didn’t quite agree with her wine suggestion. She helped my friends home in on a bottle and me, a glass. I asked for an oaky white, she brought out Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2006. It tasted of grapefruit, vegetables and petrol. Even though I didn’t quite care for the taste of the wine by itself, I took her word that it would pair nicely with my tasting. In my opinion, it did not strike a chord with any of my 14 courses.

On a positive note, I cannot quit this review without mentioning the bread at L20. It is spectacular. Beyond a few nibbles, I’m generally not a bread-eater in restaurants. However, the selection at L20 was extraordinary. There are the usual suspects; mini baguettes and rustic pain de campagne – both with excellent crumb and crust. But, there were also novelties like creamy pain au lait, flaky pastry buns filled with boquerones, and pain d’epi with bacon. Everything one of them is baked in-house in the same ovens used for baking the desserts and cannelés.

L20 may be the most anticipated and important restaurant opening for Chicago this year. But, on this early visit, the overall operation felt wobbly, if not terribly stilted. The arch and tenor of the tasting menu felt awkward. Portions tended to be over-sized. Getting hung up on repetition (halibut, Hawaiian sea bass, and black sea bass in succession, for example), with appearances of a few non sequiters (like the souffle and the Pork Belly), the progression also seemed to lack cohesion and flow.

Does L20’s food suffer from what some might want to coin as “per se Syndrome?” - that is, technical proficiency without soul. Is it guilty of gimmickry? Is it stuffy? To all of these questions, and more, I answer: perhaps. I need to eat at L20 more consistently to decide.

Melman and Gras may be great at replication, but there needs to be a little more fine-tuning and a heavy injection of personality before I’m convinced that L20 deserves to be declared a fine dining heavyweight. I’ll look forward to returning one day to see how it develops.

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  1. Love the blog and the pictures. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful assessment.

      I just visited L20 last night.... and I must admit that I was disappointed. Perhaps I just shouldn't have visited this restaurant so early in its course..... or perhaps it was because the last time I spent this much money on a meal it was at the French Laundry. And this isn't the French Laundry.

      But of course, I wasn't expecting the French Laundry. But if you are going to charge such astronomical prices, everything really needs to outstanding. And it just wasn't, and it left me feeling irritated by the end of the meal.

      We each had the tasting menu.

      Generally the quality of the fish was excellent and I did enjoy nearly all of the courses. Lots of creativity, clean and simple flavors, beautiful platings.... but sometimes presentation gets a little trying and oh no yet another small pitcher with mystery sauce being poured over my small piece of beautiful fish......... Yes, the pork belly (I agree an nonsequitor... although a nice relief I must admit) was disappointingly dry (after all the raves we were surprised... my friend left most of hers behind!).

      But there really needs to be a touch up on the service ..... At a restaurant of this caliber there should be service that you don't even realize is there because they fall into the woodwork.... anticipating your needs.... quietly refilling what needs to be refilled.... most without even speaking. STOP asking me with every course if there is anything else I need (especially while I am chewing and can't speak...... we aren't at Denny's.... this was done at least 8 times!!) and STOP reaching over my plate while I'm still eating to adjust one of the implements you have put there and DON'T take away my plate when I am still eating and if you are going to put so many new implements with every single course they should be placed exactly where they should be so you can use them so DON'T push things away that I need to use. Watch for the bent tines in the forks.

      I actually can't believe I am complaining about service, because I will go ANYWHERE for good food, regardless of the service. And I'm irritated at myself that I am posting on Chowhound and not giving more details on the food itself. But I think this reflects the fact that this place had very good food at astronomical prices and I guess I deep down didn't feel like it was worth it! If you want to compete with the likes of my favorites for the price (French Laundry in California, Daniel in NYC), I need more. I see this as a potential scary trend for Chicago restaurants. The Alain Ducasse in NYC syndrome.... that we-can-charge-anything-and-they-will-come.... and that didn't work out so well, as I recall. And we aren't NYC yet. Thank goodness. As we don't want to be NYC, do we?

      At the end of our meal, we realized that we would have enjoyed several meals eating tasty sashimi at Uni (Boston) for the same price, and would have been more satisfied.

      Fire away..

      1 Reply
      1. re: violin

        There is no way to write up a short review about L20

        Photos here:
        http://lizziee.wordpress.com/category...

        I have been following L2O’s evolution from Chef Gras’ first blog entry - to say that Laurent Gras is meticulous is an oxymoron. He is obsessed with every single detail in this restaurant.

        As we were early for our 6:15 reservation, we decided to go to the lounge and start the evening with champagne - 2 coupes of Dom Perignon 1999.

        We were then escorted to the small tatami room by our server for the evening, Mona Lisa (real name). After removing our shoes, we entered a small room with sliding doors to ensure absolute privacy. There was no decoration, no flowers, just 3 flickering candles. The private space was appointed with a grass mat floor, yellow cedar sunken table and leather upholstered Zaisu seats. A foot pit allowed for comfortable seating.

        A word of warning ----- If you don't know or like the person you are dining with, do not book this room. The only people you interact with all night is your server and your dining companion.

        Mona (she doesn't use her full name) was terrific. We did get to know her fairly well as the evening progressed and she was engaging, knowledgeable and anticipated our every need. Dressed in a kimono, Mona presented each dish on her knees, in the Japanese fashion. Quite a work-out given that we had 20 different dishes plus a wine pairing of 8 different wines, not finishing until after midnight.

        All dishes were described by Mona in minute detail and hopefully faithfully transcribed.

        First Course - 5 small dishes are presented.
        Mussel with coconut curry gelee, green apple, jalapeno, cilantro salad

        Ishidai (parrot fish), shiso sprinkled with preserved Meyer lemon, smoked
        bonito, grated Sudashi, Heart of palm, Sea trout roe, red ribbon sorrel

        Long-cove oyster, tapioca pearl, rice wine vinegar, sake (frozen in liquid nitrogen

        )

        Tuna/Kampachi, Soy sauce, Yuzu, micro chives, extra virgin olive oil

        Escolar, "served in the style of jamon" (smoked), olive oil emulsion, crystal ice lettuce, Espelette

        Bread is now presented and the butter is churned in house.

        Second Course - Fluke, thinly sliced with thin shreds of shiso topped with Oscetra cviar from the caspian Sea. What set this dish apart was that the fluke had not been treated as tartare. The thin slices of fluke gave the dish texture.

        Third Course - Sashimi Platter - from left to right - Fluke, Ishi-Karei (stone flounder), Ishidai, Suzuki (sea bass) Over the top was a ginger marshmallow. Also on the plate was kinome leaf (prickly ash tree), freeze-dried soy salt, ponzu, mirin dotted with liquid soy ginger gel, grated wasabi and a thin decorately carved slice of heart of palm

        Fourth Course- Lobster Mushroom served 2 ways - poached in butter and grilled topped with chives and nori, browned garlic, garlic bouillon puree. On the left butter powder, middle orange powder, right saffron powder. Nothing is for show on the plate.

        Fifth Course - House-made Tofu (from soy milk from Kyoto), shaved bonito, miso, soy sauce blend, shiso buds, scallion, tomato pulp puree

        Sixth Course - Octopus, peeled and sliced then poached in olive oil, topped with coconut emulsion, soy sal, sea bean

        Seventh Course - Seared Foie Gras with Hamachi, crumbled air-dried, salt-cured Spanish tuna- Mojama, freeze-dried raspberry powder, raspberry with balsamic, tomato foam, raspberry dome, raspberry jus poured on top

        Eighth Course - Tomato gelee with Ebi (shrimp), parsley emuslion, tomato emulsion, freeze-dried tomato, shiso buds

        Ninth Course - Amadai with crispy scales, yuzu butter, grated black lime, sudachi, topiko, beurre blanc sauce

        Tenth Course - Butter poached lobster and warmed uni, Kinome leaf, Lobster and uni emulsion

        11th Course - Pickled Chanterelle mushrooms, rice wine vinegar, salmon roe, sea bean and grapefruit. My notes say this was a palate awakener.

        12th Course - Miyazaki Wagyu beef brushed with soy, sake, braised little gem lettuce, grated sudachi lime, caramelized hearts of palm, pickled beet root, pansies, smoked Murray River salt from Australia.

        13th Course - Dashi with junsai (water lily)

        14th Course - Exotic fruit Consomme, brunoise of mango, pineapple, passion fruit, mango sorbet, lemon grass marshmallows, passion fruit seeds, mint. The consomme consisted of 14 ingredients, basically based on citrus and tropical fruit with black peppercorn, cardamon and mint

        Macaroons, Yuzu, Pistachio

        Considering that we didn't know what would be on the menu and also that it was quite extensive, we decided on a wine pairing. Mona kept raving about the wine director, Chantelle Pabros all evening.

        The wine pairing was excellent, but I do have one criticism. Mona, who is not a wine expert, served and explained all the wines. It would have been so much better to have Chantelle handle this or at the very least to have a printed copy of the wines at the beginning of the meal.

        Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo (first three courses) nice match and good starter...sometimes sake gets a bit boring with the food. This one held up very nicely.

        Kiralyudar Tokaji Sec 2005 (Mushrooms, Tofu)--good Tokaji, not too sweet and cloying, very nice finish, bright and fruity.

        Riesling Spatlese, Max. Ferd. Richter, Erdner Trepchen, Mosel 1988 (Octopus, Foie)--great match, clean, bright and sharp

        Arbois, Grande Elevage, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Rijakaert, 2004 (Ebi, Amadai)--I don't know this wine at all..it was very good and worked well with the food.

        Pinot Blanc Auxerrois, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Schoffit, 2005 (Lobster/Uni)--good, especially with the Uni.

        Obata Shuzo, Manotsuru, Four Diamonds, Junmai Ginjo Genshu, Niigata (Mushroom, Wagyu)--very good match and a nice way to pair with the mushroom and then the meat.

        Szigeti Brut Gruner Veltliner (Dashi)--this was a special sparkling Gruner...very nice.

        Gourmandise Jurancon 1995 Petit Manseng Grape (Mango)--I always enjoy these wines because they are Sauternes like but not as heavy.

        Over-all the pairing was very good. And, at $ 100.00 it was a definite bargain.

        After our meal, Chantelle graciously offered to show us the kitchen. Everyone was busy scrubbing down the kitchen to only what I can compare to as Thomas Keller's standards.

        Final thoughts:
        I think when you evaluate a tatami room meal at L2O you do so based on the totality of the experience, not dish by dish. You feel as if you are suspended in time and the experience becomes a total food and wine immersion. For 6 hours all of our focus was on taste after taste after taste. Each segment was an important part of the whole. Each element of the experience from the silverware to the china to the ambiance has been carefully crafted. In many respects, this is a meal that isn't meant to be dissected or each dish graded. Not having been to Japan, I don't have a reference point re staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan, but I would imagine that is what Chef Gras is attempting to emulate

      2. You asked for an oaky white, and she brought out an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc because she knows more than the person dropping x00 dollars per person.

        Look, I hate overblown oaky wines, and while her selection was probably technically correct, that doesn't make it good service. She's there to cater to her guests wishes. Quite frankly, she seems like one of these pedantic "master" sommelier types who've put themselves on quite an elevated pedestal.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Sam Harmon

          She may know more than the average bear - certainly me, who rarely drinks - but she cannot food my tastebuds. I asked for oaky, and whether or not the wine was oaked or not (and you are correct in noting that Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc is aged in stainless steel), it certainly didn't taste oaky. And I as I said, I didn't care for it. But I didn't say anything because I wanted to see how it would pair with the food. It didn't.

          I'm not sure what bubbly Ms. Pabros intended on achieving with this pairing. If it was to make a perceived know-nothing client bend to her "master"ful whim and whish, well, she failed miserably.

          1. re: ulterior epicure

            pe·dan·tic: /pəˈdæntɪk/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation: [puh-dan-tik]
            –adjective
            1. ostentatious in one's learning.
            2. overly concerned with minute details or formalisms, esp. in teaching.

            I hear that she's young so maybe a little maturity and seasoning will help. Hopefully, she's not too wrapped up into that whole "Master Sommelier" program or I wouldn't hold out much hope for a little humility and nuance in how she approaches her job.

            Here's how the conversation should have gone.

            Sommelier: What were your thoughts on a wine selection, sir?

            Guest: I like big, oaky whites.

            Sommelier: A crisper, unoaked wine might be a better pairing.

            Guest: No, I really prefer oaky whites.

            Sommelier: I have several that will work just fine (goes off to fetch oaky white wine).

        2. The reports above were posted shortly after L2O opened. Now, seven months later, we can see how things have settled in.

          This past Sunday night I had dinner at L2O, the Laurent Gras restaurant, for my first time. I thought it was excellent, particularly for the atmosphere and level of service, perhaps more so than the food.

          We had a drink in the "bar" area (it's really more of a lounge area with a couple of tables, where you can order drinks; no bar was visible). They have a bar menu including drinks as well as starters and desserts, for those who wish to go there for less than a full meal.

          The décor of the dining room is breathtakingly contemporary, just an exquisite space. Those who dined there in its previous guise as Ambria will be shocked at the transformation. On this Sunday evening, about 40 percent of the tables were occupied during dinner. (I have no idea whether that's considered busy or not for a Sunday evening.)

          One surprise was that I expected the attire to be more dressy than it was; the Opentable listing says "jacket preferred" but about half the gentlemen were not wearing jackets, even with diners wearing jeans and collarless pullovers at a couple of tables. One dining companion and I discussed our displeasure at this discrepancy, and noted that a restaurant should either enforce whatever dress code they want to dictate (for example, by advising diners when making their reservations), or else describe the actual attire accurately (such as in the Opentable listing, which would be more accurate if it described it as "dressy casual"). Either way, there would be no surprises.

          The menu offers "good news and bad news" and requires some explanation. It was similar (although not quite identical) to the version on their website. The good news is that it offers tremendous flexibility, as the server was happy to note. On the left is a six course "tete a tete" tasting menu for $90 and a twelve course tasting menu for $165. There are a few specific "singular" items shown on the left with two prices, the first an upcharge when substituted on one of the multi-course menus, the second the price when ordered on a standalone basis. Souffles are shown because they require ordering at the same time as the other courses; other desserts can be ordered later. Upon our request, the server was happy to bring us the dessert menu at the same time, to help us decide whether or not to order the souffles. (This really ought to be mandatory for places that require the advance ordering of souffles.) On the right side of the menu is their four course menu ($110), which all six of us ordered. The four-course menu was grouped as "raw" (I think some of these items were apparently better described as cold rather than raw), "warm", and "main".

          The server also noted that they can be very flexible in ordering; for example, an extra course can be added to one of the multi-course menus (for an additional charge, of course). Our server also confirmed, when we asked, that one could order two warm starters rather than one raw and one warm. Not shown on the website version is the fact that three of the items on the four-course menu involved upcharges: the lobster dish shown on the website was an extra $10, a "surf and turf" item for an extra $40, and I forget the third. Personally, I found the lobster upcharge rather odd, because lobster is not all that expensive right now (and on a $110 menu, why "nickel and dime" with a $10 upcharge?). OTOH the seared foie gras starter did not have an upcharge, which was a good thing.

          One thing I find frustrating is that the menu descriptions really don't do the dishes justice; you can't get a sense of what the dish is really like from the listing of a few ingredients on the menu. Most of the dishes were elaborate and exquisite, but you might never know it from the menu! For example, the foie gras starter is described as "foie gras, port, cocoa nibs, apple, celery", which sounds like a fairly standard foie gras preparation. What it actually consisted of was a nice-sized piece of seared foie gras, on a bed of celery. (Yummy - but wait, there's more!) Alongside it were half a dozen half-inch cubes of apple, and each one was topped with a very spicy chocolate sauce - very unusual and creative and delicious - who knew? (But wait, there's more!) The dish was also served with a scoop of what I think was pear sorbet - who knew? (But wait, there's more!) The cocoa nibs were crunchy chips that provided a nice counterpoint to the soft foie gras; I've had cocoa nibs before, but these were bigger and better (not huge, but not tiny like the ones I've had).

          Another illustration of how much the menu falls short in adequately describing the dishes is the short rib, described on the menu as "short rib, cabernet sauvignon, huckleberry, black trumpet". Most restaurants braise short ribs and serve them. What L2O does is, they braise the short rib and form it (boneless) into a long thin rectangle, and then grill it. It was very good - properly tender on the inside, and ever so slightly crispy on the outside edge (although it could have even been more so); however, the flavor seemed somewhat overly salty. There were three elements of cabernet sauvignon in the dish: a sauce on one side of the short rib, a gelee on the other side, and an evanescent foam on top (over the black trumpet mushrooms which topped the short rib). The result was a visual treat which you wouldn't necessarily have expected from the menu description.

          One of the delights of the meal were the five complimentary small dishes that were brought without being ordered. (I understand one served before the main course is properly called an amuse bouche, whereas one after the main course is a mignardise.) After we ordered, the staff brought out the first, a delicious smoked salmon croque monsieur. The second followed shortly: tuna tartare topped with a savory granite. Between the mains and desserts, we were served a meyer lemon marshmallow sorbet. Following the desserts, we were served two different amuse desserts: a passionfruit marshmallow, followed by a "canelé", a small pastry that I had never had before (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canelé ) which was one of my favorite items of the entire dinner.

          Bread service was interesting, with six different kinds of miniature bread/rolls, all very good (notably the rosemary croissants). They were not warm, but they were so small that warming really isn't appropriate, since they wouldn't stay warm and it would only dry them out. They came by a couple of times with refills, without having to ask.

          One minor but noticeable glitch was a bottle of white wine we ordered, and arrived insufficiently chilled. The server seemed flustered, and although she was happy to bring an ice bucket to chill the wine, we wondered whether perhaps on other nights of the week, they may have a sommelier who might have realized the problem before actually serving the wine...?

          Some random impressions of other dishes I had/tried during dinner... The diver scallops were good, and prepared exactly as we requested ("cooked through"). The lobster bisque was excellent, with a couple of nice chunks of lobster and a couple of small lobster quenelles in it. In the skate preparation, the soy flavoring tended to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the skate. The arctic char was quite mild in flavor, almost bland.

          Of the ordered desserts, the souffles are definitely the way to go; they were quite ample in size for individual souffles, and incredibly light. The two ingredients in the menu description ("praline, praline" or "orange, Grand Marnier") refer to the souffle and the sauce, respectively. I had the "chocolate surprise", which was a small rectangular shape filled with several different mousses of different consistencies, and I also tried the passionfruit mousse which had a bit of ginger flavor to it; both were good, but both were also too small in portion size (they could have easily been twice as large without anyone possibly thinking they were particularly generous).

          I wasn't entirely thrilled that the restaurant applied an automatic 20 percent tip to the bill. I can understand the need to do so for large parties; I just don't think a party of six should qualify. However, the service was consistently excellent (friendly, knowledgeable, and unobtrusive, as the finest service should be) and the amount was warranted; I just prefer to make that decision myself.

          L2O is an excellent restaurant, and deserves the acclaim it has received (including four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide in its first year); it's worth considering for a special occasion. However, it's a somewhat different approach from the rest of the pantheon of Chicago's finest and most expensive restaurants (e.g. Alinea, Everest, Avenues, Trotter's, TRU, Spiaggia, NoMI). At those other restaurants, you're likely to look back at dinner and recall how wonderful everything was, but especially the food, perhaps making you recall about how such-and-such dish was the best you've ever had. L2O is not "all about the food" - at least, not nearly as much as those other high-end places. I would instead describe it as a DELIGHTFUL EXPERIENCE rather than SPECTACULAR FOOD, with the delight arising primarily from the gorgeous surroundings and service. THAT'S what makes L2O a very special place.

          L2O
          2300 North Lincoln Park West
          Chicago 60614
          773-868-0002
          www.l2orestaurant.com

          26 Replies
          1. re: nsxtasy

            There's an article about L2O in today's New York Times:
            www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/dining/06n... (free subscription may or may not be required to view it)

            The review is consistent with my own experience reported above. Many dishes are excellent, and it's a delightful space. But there are misses along with the hits, and the service is not entirely smooth and flawless either. (Although I didn't mention it above, I had the same experience with having to ask to see the dessert menu when pressed about ordering the dessert souffles in advance.)

            1. re: nsxtasy

              In another topic, I was asked why I did not recommend L2O to a visitor from out of town, instead of the other high-end restaurants around Chicago. The reason is, I don't think L2O compares well against those other expensive places - particularly for the food, and to a lesser extent for the service as well. Every time I've eaten at Avenues, or Everest, or Spiaggia, everything has been *perfect*, with one delicious food dish after another, and service that is exquisite. The dinner I had at L2O was a GOOD dinner, but it was far from perfect; some dishes were excellent, some (such as the skate) were just okay, and I was disappointed in the oversalted short ribs. The service was generally friendly and efficient, and there were no major screw-ups, but there were also way too many little things that added up to a less than perfect experience - the flub with the wine, the souffle ordering issue, the attire issue, the tipping issue, etc. I still had a very good dinner, but it was on the level I would expect from one of our casual fine dining restaurants, at $80-100/pp inclusive. If I'm going to spend $200+/pp, I expect a meal in which every dish is superb, and in which the service is impeccable. That's what I've experienced at other places in that price range. And that's not what I experienced at L2O. So it's not that L2O was BAD; it wasn't. It's just that the food and service were not up to the standards set by other places in that high price bracket. And I would make the same recommendation to locals who have never been to the other high-end places; try the others FIRST.

              But if you live in the Chicago area, and you enjoy fine dining, then you probably *should* go to L2O, and try it for yourself. After all, such individuals have probably already been to the other top tables around town, maybe even lucky enough to go several times to some of them. And you probably are curious about the food, or maybe curious about how the space looks different from the dark woods which characterized it in its previous live as home to Ambria (and it's VERY different now). So by all means, go! Maybe you'll love it; maybe you won't. But it's worth trying; I just wouldn't try it until you've already been to those other places, which can then serve as a benchmark for comparison.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Have you tried the Kaiseki option at L20? If so, how does it compare to Chicago's top restaurants?

                1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                  I've not done the kaiseki, but I'd place the L2O tasting at #4 on my list in the US (1-3 being Alinea, The French Laundry, and Per Se respectively.)

                  1. re: uhockey

                    Thanks for the reply. I'll be in Chicago in May and am doing the tour at Alinea but also trying to narrow down two or three more choices for the other dinners I will be spending there. L20's Kaiseki sounds interesting but I'm curious about some other alternatives in comparison to it such as Tru's kitchen table and Avenue's Chef's Bar. First world problems, I know.

                    My best meal in North America has previously been an extended tasting at Per Se so I'm interested to see how it stacks up.

                    Keep up the good reviews and thanks again for your input.

                    1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                      I rank my extended tasting at Per Se as #3 - but honestly, when you get to my top five it is fractional. That said, Alinea was 1/2 the price of my meals at TFL and Per Se while L2O was the same price as Alinea after I added a course.

                      1. re: uhockey

                        You and I are very different restaurant diners. None of your top three would even make into my top 20. Neither would L.20.

                        1. re: ulterior epicure

                          Ok, UE, you raised my curiosity. What are your top 3 (or 5 or 10 or 20) restaurants?

                          1. re: chicgail

                            @ chicgail (I'm assuming you're both a chick and chic? The reason I ask is that I know a person who uses "chic" to mean "chick." Despite many protests from friends, he refuses to acknowledge the difference is more than minor. But I digress).

                            I knew someone would ask. I can't say that I could give a definitive list, but let me try. In no particular order:

                            1. The Sportsman, Seasalter, U.K.
                            2. Manresa, Los Gatos, California
                            3. L'Arnsbourg, Baerenthal, France
                            4. Jean Georges, New York, N.Y.
                            5. ubuntu, Napa, Ca. (n.b., there has been a chef change since I've been, so its status is questionable.)
                            6. Le Bernardin, New York, N.Y.
                            7. Eleven Madison Park, New York, N.Y.
                            8. Sushi Yasuda, New York, N.Y.
                            9. frasca food + wine, Boulder, California
                            10. St. John, London, U.K.
                            11. Corton, New York, N.Y.
                            12. Tim's Kitchen, Macau
                            13. Obauer, Werfen, Austria
                            14. Gaig, Barcelona, Spain
                            15. Alex, Las Vegas, Nevada
                            16. Alan Wong, Honolulu, Hawa'ii
                            17. l'Arpege, Paris, France
                            18. Vie, Western Springs, Illinois
                            19. bluestem, Kansas City, Missouri
                            20. avec, Chicago, Illinois

                            I'm sure this list is subject to change, from time to time. But, as I demonstrate here, I could easily come up with twenty restaurants I'd much rather revisit than to return to any of uhockey's top three (or L.20).

                            1. re: ulterior epicure

                              Wow, I've been to six of the restaurants in that list of twenty, all within the past few years, and there's only one of those (Le Bernardin) that I would even consider for my top twenty. Even that would only be at best a maybe.

                              If anyone is interested in seeing Restaurant Magazine's opinion of the top 100 restaurants in the world, go to http://www.theworlds50best.com/awards... Alinea, at #10 (and deservedly so, IMHO) is the only one in Chicago, although Charlie Trotter's has also appeared on that list in recent years.

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                @ nsxtasy: Okay, well, I change my mind. Sub in Pavillon Ledoyen and vetri ristorante for numbers 18 and 20. Does that change things?

                                And, for what it's worth, I tend to find "The World's Best..." list terribly insular and lopsided. That being said, I do need to get back to Charlie Trotter's. I wonder if anything has changed since 2004...

                                1. re: ulterior epicure

                                  >> Okay, well, I change my mind. Sub in Pavillon Ledoyen and vetri ristorante for numbers 18 and 20. Does that change things?

                                  Yes. It reduces the number I've dined at down to four. :)

                                  >> And, for what it's worth, I tend to find "The World's Best..." list terribly insular and lopsided.

                                  Oh, I agree. The US-based entries are horribly New York-centric. They also omitted anything in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States.

                                  >> That being said, I do need to get back to Charlie Trotter's. I wonder if anything has changed since 2004...

                                  Charlie has done a magnificent job of evolving over time. I'm sure you'll find it has changed significantly.

                              2. re: ulterior epicure

                                Indeed we differ greatly in our tastes - judging from your list it appears you prefer simplistic (not to say "simple," but rather a few superb ingredients expertly prepared as opposed to a large elaborate dish with 10-20 ingredients) while I tend to fany more ornate dishes.

                                I've been to 6 of the restaurants on your list and would place Le Bernardin at 15 and Alex at 16, but none of the others. While I will fully admit that the food at Manresa was sublime, I found the service so lackluster that it actually brought the meal down while the food at Vie was good but the service downright poor. I admittedly need to go back to EMP as I only did a lunch there and I've no need to go back to Jean Georges - nothing about it "wowed" me, though it was nice.

                                I certainly need to get out of the States (aside from Canada) in the near future as there are a number of places on your list that are high on my places to try.

                                As always, your insight, website, and opinions are appreciated, even if not agreed with. :-)

                                1. re: uhockey

                                  >> you prefer simplistic (not to say "simple," but rather a few superb ingredients expertly prepared as opposed to a large elaborate dish with 10-20 ingredients) while I tend to fany more ornate dishes.

                                  To me, this conundrum is at the heart of any attempt to rank high-end restaurants. Some of them specialize in tasting menus consisting of small portions of 10-20 or more courses, while others offer primarily the more common a la carte menu in which 3-4 courses are normally selected (although dining with those who share allows the tasting of many more dishes than that). Some of the very best meals I've ever had were ordered a la carte from restaurants that don't have national reputations, like Michael and Tallgrass. For a restaurant to reach that pantheon of "best ever", virtually every dish must be not only interesting, but also exceedingly delicious, which doesn't always occur even at the best of the places with reputations and lengthy tasting menus (although some do succeed magnificently, like Alinea).

                                  Similarly, there's the element of creativity; do you assign a higher rating strictly because the dishes are different from anywhere else, or do you give higher emphasis when a taste is just spectacular, even if it's not all that unusual a dish? Is one aspect sufficient even if the other is lacking? (Both are important to me.)

                                  What I've found is that restaurants which are highly regarded are almost always "good enough", meaning that I like the taste of the dishes presented and I eat everything, but they're not "great", meaning that every bite I take makes me want to scream, "WOW! This is DELICIOUS!!!" And a restaurant aspiring to a national reputation and with high prices (say, $200/pp or more, with tax/tip and only moderate wine/alcohol) ought to be "great", not merely "good enough". I don't mind all that much when I find food that's only "pretty good" at a moderately-priced restaurant like Avec; at that price level, that's to be expected. However, I feel cheated when I am spending big bucks at a place like L2O and nothing but one tiny complimentary canele really wows me.

                                  All in all, I know when I've had a wonderful meal, because for days and sometimes even weeks thereafter, I'm still thinking about the meal and some of the dishes. This may not make it one of the best in my life, but it's usually good enough to place it in the top ten for the year. This year, I've already had two such meals: at Inovasi in Lake Bluff, north of Chicago (I still think about their wonderful pork shoulder, and pork is not normally one of my favorites) and at Animal in Los Angeles (they do a wonderful seared foie gras, which they serve over a biscuit with maple sausage gravy).

                                  1. re: nsxtasy

                                    Good reading. Could not agree more with your p.o.v., and Inovasi is superb. Worth a train ride from the city (Olgilvy - 1 hour) and as you literally can walk one block to Inovasi. Cute little town! Schedule in advance and make your life easy.

                                    -----
                                    Inovasi Restaurant
                                    28 E. Center Ave, Lake Bluff, IL 60044

                                  2. re: uhockey

                                    Not to be snide, but surely when you prefer food that twists, evaporates, explodes, and shatters unnaturally, the supporting cast of chemical ingredients far exceeds that which is necessary in - oh, say - a nicely grilled piece of meat.

                                    That aside, I can't deny the fact that I like dishes that focus on "a few superb ingredients expertly prepared." But I fail to see how you could say that the food at per se or The French Laundry, or even L.20 is any more or less "ornate" than the food at Corton, or Eleven Madison Park, or ubuntu, or Pavillon Ledoyen, or Obauer, or Alex. A different style, perhaps, but more or less ornate? Of course, I'd tend to agree that restaurants like Sushi Yasuda, Jean Georges, and l'Arpege are a particularly minimalist in the number of ingredients on the plate; an efficiency I find unbelievably impressive and rewarding.

                                    And while you might place le Bernardin at 15 and Alex 16 on your list, please note that my list above was not in any particular order.

                                    1. re: ulterior epicure

                                      I have to respectfully disagree with your point of view, although I used to subscribe to it. Alinea totally changed my point of view and perspective. It's not about food exploding or evaporating or shattering unnaturally; it's actually how the "chemical ingredients" enhance what's already there (it may not be true for all molecular gastronomy, but at Alinea, that's what happens).

                                      Which is not to say that brilliant technique applied to really beautiful food isn't also an art and a science, it's just not the whole picture.

                                      1. re: chicgail

                                        @ chicgail: So noted. Alas, I'm still waiting for my "aha" moment with alinea. I've been twice and neither time did the brilliance of the fare catch. However, I'd be a fool to deny the fact that it has for the vast majority who've eaten there.

                                        Of all the "molecular gastronomy" experiences I've had, The Fat Duck has come the closest to showing me a different side of the "whole picture."

                                  3. re: ulterior epicure

                                    First of all, I'll accept chic or chick or Chicago on that screen name.

                                    Secondly, I really don't know how you rank restaurants. I've eaten in some of the finest and most expensive restaurants in the world whose offerings were rivaled by little local dumps (a recent diner in Texarkana for example).

                                    What was your criteria for choosing these (I could probably come up with the 20 restaurants I've enjoyed most), and for ranking them (to me that's the impossible part)?

                                    1. re: chicgail

                                      @ chicgail. Of course - Chicago.

                                      You'll note in my post above, I specifically stated that my list of restaurants was listed "in no particular order."

                                      1. re: ulterior epicure

                                        Got that there is no particular order. Sorry I didn't see that in the first place, but I don't think I could choose 20. Or 50. So many different approaches. So many different ways of preparing food. So many different kinds of wonderful food -- from Thailand to Paris to Texarkana. How can you single them out?

                                    2. re: ulterior epicure

                                      Re: UE's top 20 List

                                      A very varied and international list (admittedly I've only been to the ones located in NYC and Chicago). I think ranking of restaurants can differ significantly depending on whether it is based on food alone or the overall experience. Moreover, in addition to the obvious differences in personal tastes, I also think that subconscious bias (built upon minute details or first impression) can affect one's overall perception significantly yet undetectably.

                                      For example, I absolutely loved my lunch experience at Jean Georges. I thought the food was superb. But I am not sure my overall perception would be the same if the lunch prix fixe was $60 rather than $28. I am not saying that price necessarily affects how you find the food tastes. I am merely saying that seemingly unrelated things (ex. a pleasant date or difficult reservation process) may affect one's perception.

                                      As such, I loved my experience at Alinea. I thought it was fun without compromising the flavors of the food. At a similar prices, i think Alinea is both creative and tasty, while Charlie Trotter's is creative (somewhat) but not-tasty. What Trotter is doing just doesn't work for me - flavor-wise. Having never been to El Bulli or Fat Duck, take it for what it's worth when I say that I think I don't need ground-breaking, revolutionary ideas to make me appreciate fun and creative efforts. Everything is relative.

                                      That said, I do rank L2O lower than top restaurants (in my mind) like Alinea, Daniel, and Jean Georges. I loved L2O's seafood dishes, bread service, and dessert. But the pork belly dish (served with flavorless truffle) and his red meat dishes (a sub for the pork belly dish as required) were below underwhelming. I do think, however, that L2O is better than Tru (in terms of food) and much better than Charlie Trotter's. IMHO.

                                      1. re: mountsac

                                        @ mountsac: Excellent point you make. I should know better than to post "lists" up anymore without all the usual disclaimers and whatnot that I do on my blog. Yes, expectation is huge part of the take-away.

                                        FWIW, I would agree with your placement of L20 in relation to TRU and Trotter's (for the food only).

                                  4. re: ulterior epicure

                                    So it goes - and thus the importance of the subjective experience in the beauty of all arts, the culinary sort included.

                                2. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                                  Tru's kitchen table is a small room just off the kitchen. It isn't actually in the kitchen like Trotter's kitchen table (done that too). I would recommend it. I haven't been to Avenue's since Graham Elliott Bowles left so I can't speak to that.

                                  I do think that L2O is definitely on the same level as other "elite" Chicago restaurants.

                                  1. re: HoosierFoodie

                                    Thanks for the feedback. I ended up booking a tatami room with the kaiseki menu.