The producers of “The Dark Knight” aren’t the only ones moving Gotham to Chicago.
Rich Melman has also done it with L20, Laurent Gras’s new “modern seafood” restaurant in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park neighborhood where I recently had a memorable meal.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most important restaurant openings to happen to Chicago in a long time. Its impact on the city’s culinary scene is probably akin to the advent of TRU, Charlie Trotter’s and alinea in their day.
But, more than any of these restaurants, L20 feels BIG CITY.
It’s slick. It’s sexy. It’s haute. It’s expensive. It coddles (or attempts to). It’s over-the-top in almost every way. L20 would feel just as comfortable in Tokyo as Las Vegas, New York as San Francisco. Just like Gotham, the world that L20 inhibits is interchangeably flexible.
That’s because 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 organic 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.
Peanut Butter Sponge
Bonito, Lime Foam
Earl Grey, Orange
Yuzu, Soy Sauce, Black Olive Emulsion, Olive Oil Emulsion
Cherry Wood Scented, Shiso Bud
Ebi Shrimp, Pickled Peach, Tarragon
Sassafras, Hibiscus, Tomato
Espelette, Tomato, King Oyster
Morel, Sea Bean, Foie Gras Emulsion
Hawaiian Sea Bass
Nicoise, Lemon, Corn Grits, Zucchini
Shellfish Bouillon, Saffron, Rhode Island Mussels
Shabu Shabu Medai
Kombu Chicken Bouillon, Citrus, Porcini
Passion Fruit Marshmallow
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.
Whereas the Hawaiian Sea Bass struck the best balance between sophistication and approachability, the Lamb Tartar – the most visually stunning dish of the evening – was daring and wanton. The Hawaiian sea bass showed all the signs of great inspiration without the pitfalls of being overworked. The fish was sauced with a glossy, salt-dusted black olive sauce ringed in with a tart lemon gel. But, the star of this show was a smooth half-dome of supple white corn grit panna cotta. At moments the combination of flavors and textures seemed Mediterranean, at others, Mexican; it could also have passed as Provencale.
The Lamb Tartar featured a gold-dusted rainbow garden patch rising above a two-tiered carpet of raw meat: on the bottom, magenta minced lamb; the top, exceedingly sweet milky-white tendrils of chopped ebi, or Japanese sweet shrimp, it was every bit as wonderful to behold as it was to eat. Together, the unexpected coupling, with floret cut-outs of pickled peaches and fresh tarragon in tow, had everything to lose, yet managed to shoot the moon. It was spectacular.
While most restaurants cater to diners’ predictable fascination with the silky succulence of butter-poached lobster meat, Gras redefines the experience of eating lobster with two silky Lobster quenelles that were as smooth as custard but that had the bounce of Asian fish/shrimp balls (they looked like egg yolks). They tasted intensely of sweet lobster. Morels contributed a meaty texture to this composition, while a frothy foie gras sauce gave depth to the flavor. The aroma and the flavor hit our table with an impressive weight.
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. For example, the Halibut was a stab toward the Pyranees. The fish was dusted with espelette powder and sided by tubes of translucent tomato gelatin, which, together with the peeled confited cherry tomatoes wrapped within, effected an intense summery tomato-fest. I’m not sure why this course came with *that* over-eager potato puree, which, at L20, is called “potato emulsion.” But, there it was, the baby food-like substance (tasting like 1 part potato, 2 parts sour cream (or crème fraiche), and 10 parts butter) was served in a bowl awkwardly set off to the side by its lonesome. Everyone is serving the stuff, so I guess Gras feels that he needs to as well, even if it doesn’t make sense.
Every chef’s darling, the Pork Belly showed up, as mentioned earlier, in less than fine form. Under normal circumstances, black truffle sauce and a finely caramelized potato would make me excited. But, this version failed to send me anywhere but boredom. Perhaps the lackluster execution of the pork belly had something to do with it. Or, it could be that it was just too rich and heavy for a summer tasting. Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth the calories invested.
Then there was Scallop. Though pretty and perfectly executed, the composition struck me as confused. I have to admit that I generally don’t gravitate toward fruity treatments of fish or meat. And, I didn’t care for this one. Dotted with hibiscus gel, carved rounds of zucchini, tight coils of tart rhubarb, and sauced with savory-sweet sassafras sauce, the lot tasted *pink* – not a flavor profile or color I like on my scallops. The scallops appeared to have been grilled (grill marks), but the texture was something akin to lightly poached: the interior and outside had the same soft consistency.
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 (an unoaked wine). 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 positive 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. Every 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.
Executive Chef Laurent Gras
2300 North Lincoln Park