Saturday, October 11, 2008

L2.0, Someday *** L2O *** Chicago

The question constantly abuzz is what is the next new thing, and this summer in Chicago fine dining circles, it appeared that San Francisco Chef Laurent Gras’s new seafood restaurant (in the Ambria space), part of the Lettuce Entertain You Group (now 38 restaurants strong, including Everest) might be that place. Chicago, in truth, does not have a four-star restaurant, like Le Bernardin, that specializes in the aquatic. It still doesn’t.

To review L2O is to calibrate. Chef Gras’s establishment is by no means a failure. They have a superior seafood supplier, the fish is served without fault, and one of the dishes (of four, plus two amuses) is stellar. (Many of those who have raved about L2O indulged in the tasting menu; for our late dinner, we selected the workingman’s four course repast: the Goldman Sachs blue plates special). L2O does not have a poor record, except in competition with Alinea, Trotter, Tru, Avenues, or Everest.

What constitutes four-star dining? Surely decor matters, and I was startled at the casualness of the dining room (it is decorated in tones of cream and brown, reminding me of a suburban corporate lounge. It lacked astonishment). With the exception of a wonderfully complex and evocative sculpture of branches in the entrance (providing Japanese notes, also seen on the menu), the space itself is rather conventional (table settings are impressive). This is satisfactory for a restaurant with modest aspirations, but can this space match Alinea or Everest.

A second feature is the service. At the highest caliber restaurants one blindly places oneself in the hands of consummate professionals: a wine director and skilled server. We trust nothing will go wrong. Of course, things do go wrong – and allowances must be made – but each glitch chips one’s confidence. Our server was quite congenial – friendly, warm, caring – yet, although we were told that we would be able to choose a soufflĂ© that option was not asked when we ordered. Worse, we were not asked about wine service. Where was the sommelier? (This was a weeknight.) But whether present or not, we should not have had to inquire. And wine should not be spilled. Nothing terrible, but L2O has been open long enough for everything to settle into perfection.

And then the food. It is not surprising that L2O is at home with fish, but it is distressing that a restaurant that hopes for national recognition should fumble elsewhere. The fact that many dishes, including the dessert and cheese course is garnished with emerald crystal ice lettuce revealed either a fatal absence of imagination or a terrific deal on these greens. Although some have praised the bread service, I was less taken with the anchovy bread, which served no purpose as an accompaniment to delicate fish or as a match for sweet butter.

Our first amuse was the least engaging starter I have had in some time: had someone eaten this pseudo-molecular creation and pronounced it magnificent? Here was a peanut sponge with wasabi. Granted it was a bit like eating a sponge, but neither the peanut nor the wasabi added much in the way of taste, and the visual appeal was decidedly limited. Do I really want my chef to consider me sponge-worthy?

Better was a second amuse with tuna, tomato, olive foam, and orange gelee. It was a startling combination. The flavors were not perfectly coordinated (olive and orange are not ideal bedfellows), but the tuna was just fine, and it suggested a chef who is testing boundaries.

L2O, Chicago: Tuna Amuse

The four course menu is structured around a raw course, a warm course, and a main course (reminiscent of Le Bernardin), plus a dessert. My raw course was Ishidai (a type of bream, a very mild white fish) with shiso leaf, preserved lemon, trout roe, and heart of palm. The ishidai was wonderful, but it was overwhelmed by the pungency of the shiso and lemon (both wonderful tastes, but would have been better as undertones). Served in four segments, the ingredients had to be unpacked and rearranged to be fully satisfying.

L2O, Chicago: Ishidai, Shiso Leaf, Roe

The second (warm) course was the highlight of this and many meals. A truly memorable dish: a two layered circle of lamb tartar and ebi shrimp with pickled peach and tarragon. This was a combination that could stand up to its accompaniments. It was a supremely wonderful dish – meaty in land and sea - a set of startling contrasts that forced a diner to rethink preconceptions. Sterling.

L2O, Chicago: Lamb Tartar, Ebi Shrimp

The main course was striped bass with shellfish bouillon, saffron, Rhode Island mussels, striped sorrel, and a plank of toasted brioche. The bass was perfectly prepared, the bouillon rich and complex, the mussels, fine. The board of brioche meant that any attempt to conquer this bread led to flying crumbs. It was not the most congenial dish to consume. The ingredients were well composed, but the flavors were not as remarkable as the previous course. It was a more traditional entrée. Does Chef Gras have a distinctive style? These dishes make a theme hard to find.

L2O, Chicago: Striped Bass

Finally there was dessert. Sigh. As the desserts were described, they seemed to have numerous interchangeable parts. One (unordered) choice was Chocolate and Raspberry in fourteen textures. Perhaps it was wonderful, but it seemed pretentious. My selection, with a similar number of parts, was Tomato Strawberry. Nasty. The fact that a recipe for the dish (or something similar) is on the website suggests that someone must have found a black pepper meringue to be inspirational. But is this a marriage for strawberries? Should you wish you can prepare this dessert at home, reach in your cabinet for versawhip, low acyl gellan, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, red food coloring, something called Fizzy, and, oh yes, petite emerald crystal ice lettuce. Bon appetit! Alice Waters, where are you when we need you. In contrast to the locavore crew, I am not ideologically resistant to creations from Dr. Frankenstein’s kitchen, so long as they are toothsome. This dish - a blurred mix of sweet, bitter, and peppery - was a mess. Serve durian and be done with it.

L2O, Chicago: Tomato Strawberry Dessert

My companion ordered the cheese course. No choices and no accompaniments (jams, nuts). But nice cheese.

L2O is not without its moments. The fish is lovely and there are flashes of brilliance, and on other times moments of sheer, unalloyed pleasure (the silky bouillon). I have tried to calibrate my review to capture a restaurant that itself does not always calibrate its dishes. The check certainly indicates that Chef Gras is striving for four-star dining, but the experience itself seems at some distance from those lofty heights. And so we have L2O, waiting, perhaps, for L2.0.

2300 Lincoln Park West (Lincoln Park)

1 comment:

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