Chicago Trip Report Part 1 - L2O, Tru, Alinea, Sprout, Schwa, Topolobampo, Purple Pig and more
This is Part 1 of our recent trip to Chicago from June 13-18 and contains the review of L2O as well as a link to pictures. Hopefully I can release one meal (or more) per day over the next two weeks. Please tell me if you'd like them released as separate threads or as add-ons to this one.
I’ll preface this trip with a brief description of the Chowhounders who took part. My wife and I are a 27 year old Canadian couple, and serious foodies. We both worked in the business in our past lives, but are now both in health care. Our passion for wine likely surpasses even our passion for food, and we are degenerate wine collectors. As a result, you will see a number of tasting notes on the wines we had on the trip, in addition to the food notes.
This trip was an anniversary present for my wife, as I went to Chicago without her last year, and had an amazing time. She has never been, and I definitely owed her one. She is such a huge Grant Achatz fan, and going to Alinea without her was pretty harsh. Thus, I had to go balls out to really make this trip extra special for her. Westjet was also selling $79 flights to Chicago from Calgary, so that helped quite a bit.
This trip report will be posted in parts, and contain non food commentary as well, so you can just skip to each restaurant heading if too boring. Also, I have uploaded photos from the trip as a combination of our own photos of the courses and better quality ones I found on the internet. They are on a photobucket site which I’ll link under each course.
Day 1 - June 13
We landed in Chicago around 5:45 PM on the connecting flight from Vancouver, got on the Blue Line and checked in at the Fairmont Millenium Park around 6:45. Really nice hotel, and the cheapest I could find downtown for this stay. This was because they were having a stay 4 nights, get the 5th free promotion. As a heads up to any staying there in the future, make sure to sign up for the Fairmont President’s Club online. It’s free, takes about 5 minutes, and gives you free gym access, high speed wireless internet, and several other perks (Free Taylor Made club rentals for the golfers out there). It’s a pretty sweet deal. The only downside to the Fairmont might be the location for some people. It is a bit out of the way on Columbus, but still extremely walkable to both the Loop and Magnificent Mile areas. We walked about 6-8 miles each day, walking to Lincoln Park, Old Town, and other areas of the city. This prevented us from really gaining any weight despite our multitude of 5000+ calorie meals, lol.
Okay, onto the meals:
Meal 1 – L2O Restaurant
This was kind of a hilarious way to start the culinary adventure, as wifey is not the biggest fan of fish. She loves shellfish, but isn’t a fan of a lot of fish textures, nor does she like strongly odorous fish. However, I really wanted to go, and I explained that it’s not exactly sashimi we’d be getting here. Regardless, I was crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t start off with a disappointment, and we sure didn’t.
We were greeted by Richard Hanauer, the head sommelier at L2O. Richard turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, and was very informative, both with regards to the food, as well as places to check out in Chicago. He’s another of the great young sommeliers in Chicago, and is super awesome.
I had called ahead and arranged to bring a bottle of 1990 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, as Champagne is the ultimate pairing for the L2O menu. While BYOW at restaurants of L2O’s calibre may be somewhat uncouth, we can only afford to drink the quality of wines we do by bringing our own. Also, we never bring a wine that is on the list, and always call ahead to ensure it is kosher.
The Grande Dame paired excellently with every course on the tasting menu, except the second course, which Richard calls “unpairable”.
We decided on the seven course tasting menu, with the only substitution being a replacement of the pigeon breast course with the butter poached lobster from the standard prix fixe menu.
The first course was a duo of amuses served on an ornate, three tiered brass serving platter. The amuses resembled small apples with stems, one the flavor of oyster, the second cucumber. While the cucumber was good, the oyster was much better, with a great brininess and lasting finish. It also paired wonderfully with the Champagne.
Next came a second amuse bouche, in the form of a garlic chip filled with avocado mussel mousse and topped with a crème fraiche disc, fine herb and minute meyer lemon wedges. This was a lovely bite, with the supreme creaminess of the mussel mousse balanced by the lemony acidity. Again, a superb pairing with the Veuve.
The first course of the tasting menu itself was ahi tuna tartare, avocado, caviar. This was the best presentation of the evening, with the beautiful pink tuna enveloped in an avocado sphere made using a spherical mold. This was topped with caviar (unsure of type) and surrounded with drops of ?chive oil. Cutting through the outer avocado revealed the delicious tuna. The only criticism of this dish would be that it could use a bit more acidity to balance the creaminess of the large amount of avocado and tuna. Overall this was still a highly successful dish.
Course two would be mussels, clams, corn, zucchini and lardo. This dish was presented as a soup course, with a rich broth containing mussels, clams and small zucchini rounds topped with corn and wrapped in rich lardo. The lardo provided flavor, balance and body to the dish, and the dish would have been much weaker without the lardo. The broth was of medium weight, the mussels and clams were very good, but not spectacular. Overall a successful dish, with the zucchini lardo rounds standing out more than the seafood itself.
Going back to the wine pairing situation, this dish is a near impossible match for wine because of the huge number of flavors between the broth, seafood, zucchini, corn and lardo. We kind of avoided drinking for this course.
The third course was agnolotti, artichoke, ricotta and clarified barigoule. The barigoule was a clear wine and water broth containing two plump, rich, ricotta filled agnolotti. These were the highlight of the dish and exploded with flavor on the palate. The artichoke had a flavor reminiscent of French fries, which was unexpected but delicious. While the flavors were excellent, the presentation was slightly lacking in that the entire dish was brown and montone. Again a great dish overall.
Course four would be an outstanding bouillabaisse of scorpion fish, daurade, mussel, loup de mer (not listed on the menu), fennel and tomato confit. This was the second or third favorite course of the night, primarily because of the multiple great techniques used in cooking the fish, and the rich, intense broth of the bouillabaisse. The daurade skin was seared providing a wonderful crunch to contrast against the softness of the tomato confit and supple broth. The loup de mer was poached or cooked sous vide, giving a creamier texture, while the scorpion fish was thick and meaty much like a halibut. The broth was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted in a bouillabaisse, and seasoned perfectly. Overall a spectacular dish, with incredible balance and finish.
The fifth course was a substitution of butter poached lobster, cepes, potato, clams and hollandaise de mer. This dish was from the regular prix fixe menu (normally a $20 supplement) and replaced the tasting menu dish of pigeon breast, foie gras, turnip, apicius and sweet potato. Wifey and I are not the hugest of foie eaters. I enjoy it, but it does not agree with her, so I sometimes avoid it as well.
Furthermore, neither of us can imagine the pigeon being better as this was the best course of the night. The lobster tail coated in rich yet light hollandaise was amazing, and paired supremely well with the potato puree and mushrooms. Matching it with the richness and slightly briny quality of the Grande Dame, this was a home run. We basically licked off our plates.
Next came an intermezzo in the form of a three layered shot glass, conjuring up images of the Guy Savoy Colors of Caviar dish. The bottom layer was strawberry sorbet, the middle a bright mint granita and topped with Chantilly cream. This was refreshing and flavourful, a great palate cleanser to prime us for the dessert courses.
The first dessert was lemon tart, rhubarb, basil. This was one of the prettiest presentations of the night, with the lemon tart itself formed from light Phyllo pastry and resembling a tower with multiple spires around its perimeter. The center was filled with an airy lemon cream, and topped with thin sheets of dried rhubarb. Small drops of basil oil adorned the plate around the tart tower. Thus, this was nothing like the typical heavy lemon tart and thick custard, but a beautiful, light dessert. The flavors were again outstanding, with the only criticism being the crunchiness of the several layers of Phyllo being a bit too hard in certain spots, especially the tart base.
The final course was the Grand Marnier soufflé with orange. It was a well made soufflé, standing tall as it was brought to the table, and not falling for a few minutes while we chatted up our server. While very flavourful and as good or better than the Grand Marnier soufflés at Les Nomades and Le Cirque, it was not transcendental and certainly not an overly creative dish.
Following dinner were mignardises, a small vanilla macaroon and a Cannelais de Bordeaux. Both were good, but nothing to write home about.
Our after dinner drinks were a vintage Pu-Erh tea for Camille and a Rooibos for me. The Pu-Erh was a lovely digestif and perfect after dinner tea. The Rooibos was sweeter and while good, less suitable as a digestif. Thanks to our server, Hector, for the excellent suggestion of Pu-Erh.
Regarding the wine, the 1990 Veuve La Grande Dame is a great wine, from arguably the greatest of all vintages in Champagne. While we almost despise the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and NV wines, the Grande Dame is consistently of very high quality, and is a lovely medium plus weight Champagne.
The 90 Grande Dame is in its peak drinking window currently, and the 750s will be on the decline soon, depending on storage conditions. The magnums are drinking very well right now, and the last magnum I had was much fresher than the 750s of the past 2 years. I would say drink up.
This particular bottle showed a hint of premox on the nose, with a slight oyster briny character to it. It opened up over the evening and had a strong core of lemon, apple, cinnamon and touches of marzipan and brioche. The light Chardonnay flavors were strong on the attack, with mid palate cinnamon and brioche, and a strong finish of the marzipan and full body of the pinot grapes in the blend. The acidity was brilliant, one of the strongest qualities of the wine. Overall the finish was a bit lacking compared with other bottles, about 20 seconds.
We drank the wine from Chablis glasses as opposed to flutes, at Richard’s suggestion. I think it does well from both stems.
Service was professional, courteous and became more relaxed (in a good way) as the night went on. Richard took us on a tour of the kitchen and ridiculous Champagne cellar, which contains pretty much every Krug and Dom Perignon ever made, from the Clos d’Ambonnay to the Clos de Mesnil to the Krug Collection. The Champagne selection is amazing, albeit the average price is probably well over $1000/bottle. Still worth it ☺.
Overall our experience at L2O was fantastic, with all courses ranging from very good to spectacular, and no real misses on the menu. The night was definitely improved by Richard, and for the seafood lovers out there, L2O is worth a trip.
My meal at L2o last December was in the tatami room which I highly recommend to anyone visiting the restaurant. The tatami menu is slightly longer with items not found in the main dining room and the service was simply amazing. Having eaten at several starred restaurants of all levels I can say without doubt that the Michelin inspectors made a mistake by awarding only 1 star.
Thanks. While it was great, I would not give L2O three stars, probably one, maybe two. Although excellent, it was far surpassed by the meals at Tru (1 star) and no where near the quality of Alinea (3 stars).
I was shocked to find out Tru was only 1 star after the meal there, as it was considerably better than meals at Trotter's (one of Chicago's two 2 stars with Ria). Currently L2O is listed as a 1 star, was it a 3 when under Laurent Gras?
This is just my opinion, and will all be detailed in the later reviews. Overall the Michelin Guide is pretty f@!& up IMHO.