Wednesday, August 3, 2011

L2O: Life After Gras

It seemed too good to be true. One superstar chef (Laurent Gras) paired with Chicago's most prominent restaurateur (Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises) and voilà... Three Michelin Stars later and L2O was the talk of all Chicago. Of course, it was too good to be true. Gras abruptly departed the restaurant.

If Alinea is considered Chicago's preeminent restaurant, then its runner up was once again in question. Shrouded in mystery, relatively few reports surfaced on the status of L2O post Gras, making planning our vacation all the more difficult. Considering how fiercely competitive the industry is, losing a marquee chef such as Gras can be a defining moment for a restaurant; often forcing it into a sink-or-swim situation.

Located inside the lobby of the Belden-Stratford, L2O was fairly empty upon our arrival. Checking in with the hostess, we were led to our table and gave our server our bottle of Dr. Loosen Reisling to be put on ice. While browsing the menus, we confirmed that we could order two different tasting menus, supplementing a few dishes to even out the total number of courses.

To tide us over until our wine was properly chilled, we started with cocktails. MW's Ginjo Flower - Hendrick’s Gin, Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo, Elderflower - was light and refreshing. My L2O Gimlet - Plymouth Gin, Lime Cordial, Aperol - was also nice, and we appreciated the fact that both were finished table side.

Our first amuse bouche was a Salmon Mousse with a Cucumber Gelée, Salmon Roe and Balls of Pickled Cucumber. The mousse had an ultra smooth consistency and was lighter than expected. The salinity from the roe and the acidity of the cucumber were fine contrasts to the refreshing gelée. A nice start.

The second amuse was a miniature "Maine Lobster Roll" with Butter-Poached Maine Lobster, Brioche and a Truffle Vinaigrette. While MW loved how cute the dish was, I was preoccupied by its flavor. The lobster had been wonderfully poached, still delicate and sweet. The vinaigrette, while aromatic, managed to not overpower the flavor of the lobster and I appreciated the attention to detail all the way down to both sides of the brioche roll being toasted, like any proper lobster roll.

Bread service was excellent. In fact, of all the restaurant's we visited in Chicago, L2O had easily the largest and most impressive selection. Choices included: Multi Grain Sesame Bread, a Demi Baguette, a classic Pan Au Lait, a Dijon-Bacon Epi Baguette, a miniature Rosemary Croissant and Multi Grain Bread. Each was served with House-Churned Cow's Milk Butter with Australian Sea Salt.

The first course on the Luxury Tasting Menu was Osetra Caviar with Hirame and Preserved Lemon. The fluke had been chopped into a tartare and was topped with a liberal amount of caviar. The saltiness of the caviar and the preserved lemon helped accent the mild, but fresh, fish.

The Spring Tasting Menu also began with a tartare, Big Eye Tuna Tartare with Hamachi and Yuzu-Soy. The tuna and yellowtail together were an impressive combination, highlighted by the wonderful yuzu-soy dressing.

Next, was a course supplemented to the luxury menu, Hand Cut Tagliolini with a Lobster-Uni Emulsion and Osetra Caviar. Similar to the uni pasta dish we had earlier in the year at Le Bernardin, L2O's was vastly superior. Unlike the previous version, the pasta was properly cooked. But what really stood out to us was the sheer amount of flavor in the lobster-uni emulsion, made even better by the mound of precious caviar.

The following course on the Spring Tasting Menu was Salt Cod with a Potato Emulsion and Olive Oil. Essentially an ultra-refined brandade, this was the best salt cod dish I've ever experienced. The ethereal emulsion contained the essence of salt cod, while the small pools of olive oil and caviar provided additional flavors and textures.

The hits kept rolling with the next course of, King Prawn with Coconut, Green Tomato, Uni and a Jicama Slaw. The brininess of the uni paired wonderfully with the coconut and natural sweetness of the perfectly cooked prawn while the jicama lent the dish a crunchy element.

The Spring Tasting Menu continued with an Asparagus Mushroom Friccassé with White Asparagus Cream. A bed of earthy mushrooms was hidden underneath a tangle of white and green asparagus and topped with a white asparagus cream that delivered a potent 1-2 flavor punch.

Meanwhile, the Brittany Turbot with Yuzu and Black Lime was far and away the best dish on the Luxury Tasting Menu. A filet of impeccably cooked turbot sat in a shallow pool of yuzu and tapioca pearls dusted with black lime zest. Pairing the turbot with the yuzu and lime helped draw out the inherently magnificent flavors of the fish, while the tapioca pearls were a fun textural contrast.

The Braised Foie Gras with Rhubarb, Torchon and Indonesian Peppercorn was the first true disappointment of either menu. A demi glaze was poured table side but neither of us truly appreciated the texture of the braised foie gras. The rhubarb provided a nice tart counterpoint to the rich foie, but neither of us were able to detect the peppercorn. Perhaps in the future we shall stick with seared or torchon foie preparations.

The fifth course of the Luxury Tasting Menu was Maine Lobster with Smoked Foie Gras, Porcini and Vin Jaune. The kitchen was back on track with this dish that featured alternating chunks of foie gras and lobster meat and was topped with shaved porcini mushrooms and stalks of green asparagus. As if the dish wasn't already rich enough, a decadent foie gras sauce was poured table side which imparted even more richness that seemed to accentuate the succulent lobster.

Next on the Spring Tasting Menu was Oxtail Tortellini with Morels, Ramps in a Ginger Consommé. Just like the tagliolini, the tortellini were made in-house and were cooked al dente. These parcels of pasta contained a concentrated oxtail filling that was brought to an entirely new level with the slight spice from the ginger consommé. Paired with meaty morels and fresh ramps, this dish was absolutely killer.

The final savory course on the luxury tasting menu was A11 Waygu with Potato Fondant and Périgord Truffle. Unsurprisingly all too similar to the beef dish served at the LTD JBD dinner by Gras, we were both incredibly underwhelmed by the quality of the beef. The meat was neither flavorful nor meltingly tender, and was not at all similar to the wagyu we've eaten in Japan.

But the kitchen redeemed itself with the Columbia River King Salmon with Young Artichokes and Bordelaise. Never too excited over salmon, we were blown away by this dish. If there was ever a seafood dish that rose to the level of Le Bernardin, this was one of them. The salmon was incredibly cooked and was just flawless with the sweet artichokes and rich bordelaise.

Transitioning into the sweeter portion of our meal, we were first served a Cucumber-Sake Granita with Lime Zest. After consuming course after course involving heavy sauces, the granita with its flawless texture seemed was a welcome sight.

The supplemented Passion Fruit with Kiwi and Sesame Sable arrived in a long-stemmed martini glass. Topped with a passion fruit sorbet and diced kiwi, this parfait of sorts was luxuriously smooth with just enough texture coming via the nutty sesame sable.

Our server finished the Strawberry Sorbet with Rhubarb and Basil by pouring a strawberry soup table side. Featuring the tried and true strawberry-rhubarb combination, this dish was a tad conservative, but nonetheless good.

Finishing our meals were two different soufflés. MW's Praline Soufflé was served with a Hazelnut Anglaise while my Grand Marnier Soufflé featured an Orange Marmalade. Light and fluffy, both soufflés were fine, but not quite as good as the cloud-like one ate last year at Gary Danko.

Settling the bill, we were served three final petits fours: an explosive Banana-Rum Chocolate Bon Bon, a bright Yuzu Macaron and the best Cannalé I've ever had. Sporting a ridiculously caramelized exterior yet retaining a custard-like interior, I savored every last bite of this while sipping a post meal espresso.

There was no question that we had come into this meal with some unanswered questions. Namely, amid all of the turmoil and turnover that L2O had endured recently, was it still deserving of its three Michelin Stars? I feel that question is best left answered by a certain tire company. Many believe stars follow chefs, not restaurants. Our meal was very very good, and while I can't say for certain that the food was any better than Alinea, I can say definitively that we enjoyed our experience more at L2O, demonstrating that there is indeed, life after Gras.

2300 N. Lincoln Park West
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 868-0002

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

L2O (Beldon-Stratford) on Urbanspoon

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