There are so many choices for dinner in Chicago on Saturday night, but I was eager to visit L20 and taste Laurent Gras’s cooking again. I first came across him in New York, a decade ago, when he was executive chef of Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, his first kitchen after 13 years as Alain Ducasse’s right-hand man, gathering three Michelin stars in Monte Carlo and Paris. His food then was extraordinary, ethereal, meticulous, deconstructed to such a degree that elements of the same dish were brought separately to the table. A shellfish composition, for example, featured a juicy, stir-fried lobster tail on an emulsion made from its coral, alongside tiny, soft, flavourful quenelles of crab mousseline. Sweet crab crisps, fragile as tissue, had their own napkin-wrapped vessel while a third bowl held samphire and slivers of geoduck in a clear, golden lime-and-clam consommé. It sounds precious, but the flavours were vivid and true, their relationships irrefutably valid.
The next time I tasted Gras’s food was here in Toronto in 2004 when he was a guest chef at Susur, swapping courses with Susur Lee and generally astonishing the room. By then, he was based in San Francisco, wowing the critics at Fifth Floor. He started building L20 in 2007 as a collaboration with restaurateur Richard Melman – and now here we are, three years later, opening the heavy dark-wood door in the lobby of the Belden Stratford hotel in posh Lincoln Park, eager to be amazed.
We are on time but the restaurant is not ready for us so we are guided into the bar. The décor is all very chic in its carefully shadow-barred glow – a forest of ebony columns and white leather chairs, high-tension steel wire and pale natural wood, frosted glass panels and caramel-coloured sofas – timeless, elegant and as instantly forgettable as the murmuring non-music that teases our ears. I order a glass of bone-dry, ascetically mineral Assyrtiko from Santorini as a telling comment on the chilly welcome but the gesture goes unnoticed.
To table – and our first glimpse of the menu. Chef Gras has become bewitched by Japan, it seems. L20 is a restaurant with a decidedly Japanese sensibility and an infatuation with the sea, a thousand miles from Chicago. A folded card lists the day’s fresh fish – even American flounder and Australian Yellowtail are translated into Japanese – though the menu names only the ingredients in each dish, not how they are prepared or any hint of their relationship. There is a 12-course seasonal tasting menu and a 10-course “luxury ingredient” menu featuring Italian ossetra caviar, wild hamo, Rangers Valley wagyu beef, etcetera… The waiter tells us that Chef “allows” two people to have different tasting menus if they wish – that “allows” immediately raises our hackles. But I remember Gras advising me to order à la carte all those years ago in New York, so that’s how we go…
I’m so tempted to cut to the chase. Instead, let me describe some of what we ate, choosing the dishes because they exemplify what was best and what was bizarre about our meal. As you can see from the picture, the appetizer entitled “eighteen flavours of summer” is a technically dazzling tour de force of tiny, overwrought vegetable jewels. Some items are brilliant – tempura avocado, for instance, or a super-intense apple-jalapeño sorbet; others are merely finicky or over too quickly to leave much impression. Do I sound like a bumpkin if I suggest that five or six flavours of summer might have been more impressive?
Pan-seared foie gras is another disappointment. The waiter sets down the dish then goes into realtor mode, spending so long describing its salient features that the liver is cold by the time we broach its perfect but now-congealed surface. And its delicately lipoidal flavour is lost beneath the flamboyant courtiers that crowd around it – steamed scallions, balsamic dots, fresh raspberries with tatsoi greens, guanaca chocolate goo, cylinders of caramelized phyllo, a raspberry foam turned to semifreddo by long tableside whisking in a tumbler of liquid nitrogen. The waiter seems slightly disappointed that we have seen the trick before.
Lamb tartare layered with raw shrimp is salted to the point of bitterness, its purslane garland decorated with edible gold leaf like some Bollywood dessert. By the time our main courses come we are wishing we had gone to Schwa instead.
I admit it – I chose my main course because it had an actual verb in the verbiage – “Tai snapper – green curry deconstructed.” It reminded me of Peacock Alley. The snapper itself was magnificent – a perfect, plump, heavy, moist, juicy fillet of flaky white fish with more flavour than one usually finds in members of the snapper clan. Around it were brussels sprout leaves, coconut turned to silken powder and rice turned to foam, a very sweet coriander tuile with a crudely chewy texture, green dots of chili, brown dots of ginger, another bit of fun with liquid nitrogen, this time turning cilantro foam into a sort of petrified effervescent macaroon… So many magical silver bells and gilded whistles – but it was the fish that proved the highlight of the evening.
After that came the pre-desserts and the desserts, the molecular tricks suddenly seeming far more acceptable and normal. After all, we have been used to such games from confectioners since Escoffier was a lad. Best of the lot was a pre-dessert of frozen meyer lemon and ginger marshmallow in an egg cup. I could have eaten a tub of it.
Zooming back to the Drake hotel in a cab, we dissected the evening. L20 is three years old but it seems much older. This sort of cooking is very dated now – as is the style of service, so tight-lipped, precious and admonitory. The descriptions of the dishes had been learned by rote (the waiter knew the foam was cilantro, but not that cilantro and coriander are one and the same) and there was a sense they had also been cooked by rote, with extraordinary discipline and precision but very little joy. Laurent Gras seems to be urging his customers towards some kind of classic kaiseki experience, but it isn’t working. Japanese cooking constantly seeks to reveal the essence (actual, sensual, metaphorical and spiritual) of a particular ingredient. Everything the chef does is dedicated to that end. Tonight seemed much more about the worship of technique – even to the point of camouflage. It reminded me of a performance of a Shakespeare play where the actors become so involved in perfectly delivering the verse that they forget about the plot altogether.
Next up, Alinea – another temple of technique.
L2O is located at 2300 Lincoln Park West (at Belden Avenue) in the Belden Stratford and serves dinner six nights a week: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6:00PM-10:00PM, Friday 6:00PM-11:00PM, Saturday from 5:00PM-11:00PM and Sunday from 6:00PM-9:00PM. Heaven help you if you’re hungry at 9:05PM on the Sabbath. For reservations call 773-868-0002.