My last meal at L2O was in 2009, in the tatami room under chef Laurent Gras. I’m revisiting the restaurant in the near future and wanted to share a few photos and notes about my experience while the restaurant was still under chef Gras. Our meal at L2O was a back-and-forth mix of traditional Japanese kaiseki with modern French cuisine. The restaurant really shined when it stuck to the simple and authentic Japanese dishes, as chef Gras has a remarkably precise cooking style that highlighted the very subtle flavors found in fish and vegetables. Had I not known about chef Gras, I might have thought he grew up in Japan.

L2O also served some dishes that were a fusion of the two cuisines. This was the restaurant’s most interesting aspect. The richness of butter can really intensify mild flavors, particularly the subdued flavors of mushroom and cooked fish. But at times it seemed like two different chefs were cooking the meal, taking turns between French and Japanese styles. Sometimes their was synergy in the sequence of courses, other times dissonance.

L2O, Chicago - Tatami Room

The atmosphere at L2O was an ethereal experience that transported us to a Tokyo ryokan. The hostess led us through the main dining room into the private tatami room behind sliding rice paper doors. We were asked to take our shoes off before entering. Despite the evening chatter in the dining room, behind these doors everything went silent. Our waitress, with grace and poise, kneeled to floor level to introduce our tasting menu and take our drink order.

Oyster, frozen sake, rice wine vinegar Tuna, tomato, hibiscus, foie gras snow Kinmedai, ohba Escolar Jamón, espelette Shimaaji, red miso, radish, soy salt

We started the meal with a collection of small plates, all served at once. The tuna and foie gras snow stood out, frozen flakes of buttery foie gras contrasting against a subtle acidity from slivers of tomato. The kinmedai, or golden eye bream, was also a favorite, a lean and clean tasting fish minimally seasoned with shiso leaves. This dish was remarkably authentic in its purity.

L2O, Chicago - Fluke, shiso, caviar

Fluke, shiso, caviar - A slate grey disc of raw fluke top heavy with ossetra caviar. A cold, salty, and briny layer caviar seasoned the crisp and clean tasting fluke. A thin layer of shiso added a subtle refreshing flavor, contrasting against the buttery mouthfeel of the sashimi. This dish was as delicious as it was beautiful.

L2O, Chicago - Sashimi platter- fluke, kampachi, kinmedai, shimaaji

Sashimi platter, fluke, kampachi, kinmedai, shimaaji - These four slices of sashimi formed a gradient of fattiness from lean to slightly less lean as well as from white to pink. The fish was served chilled and was outstandingly fresh. This course came straight from Japan, and I loved it.

L2O, Chicago - English pea, nameko

English pea, nameko - Switching gears from traditional Japanese to modern French we were served a creamy warm pea broth with pearls of plump sweet green peas, dotted with small nameko mushrooms. The flavor was vegetal and buttery, and the generous salting really helped bring out the subtle earthy flavor of the mushrooms. This dish was rather unexpected, but an interesting contrast against the light and delicate sashimi courses we had prior.

L2O, Chicago - Tofu, itogaki, white miso

Tofu, itogaki, white miso - A tofu custard covered in flakes of dried bonito with a white miso broth. This was a very interesting mix of east meets west. The dish looked innocently European, almost like a panna cotta, but was dominated with the strong flavor of a dashi broth. I very much enjoyed this course.

L2O, Chicago - octopus, coconut, olive oil, sea bream

Octopus, coconut, olive oil, sea bean - Medallions of octopus covered in a coconut cream drizzled with olive oil and spears of sea bean. This dish seemed out of place at this meal, a little too much like Spanish octopus and olive oil dashed with paprika.

L2O, Chicago - Scallop, champagne

Scallop, champagne - A fat chunk of pan seared scallop in a buttery champagne broth. This dish was delicious. The golden sear on one side of the scallop added a toasted flavor which really brought the dish together. The scallop was basically raw and translucent on the inside maximizing its sweetness.

L2O, Chicago - Lamb tartar, shiro ebi, tarragon, pickled mango

Lamb tartar, shiro ebi, tarragon, pickled mango - Pink lamb tartar laced with pickled mango covered with a layer of sweet raw white shrimp. On the top was a small pile of greens. It's dishes like this that remind me how much I prefer my shellfish and meat served raw. This was a very simple dish that stole the show; with ingredients this fresh, heavy seasoning is not necessary.The pickling process removed the sweetness of the mango and replaced it with a mild acidity that cut through the fatty mouthfeel of the lamb. The white shrimp was the sweetest component of this dish, and when combined with the lamb, created a surf and turf of chewy, sweet meat scattered with crunchy bites of bright mango. The tarragon added an herbal component which helped bring out the flavor of the meat.

L2O, Chicago - Kampachi, yuzu, tapioca, black lime

Kampachi, yuzu, tapioca, black lime - Seared kampachi with a bright, buttery yuzu sauce. Underneath the filet was a pile of translucent pearls of tapioca sprinkled with the rind of black lime. Unfortunately, the fish was overcooked which really dried it out, but it had tremendous potential. I love the way the tapioca picked up the tangy buttery sauce.

L2O, Chicago - Lobster, foie gras, surume ika

Lobster, foie gras, surume ika - A thick lobster tail and scored surume squid resting beneath a foie gras foam. This was incredible, particularly the texture of the squid. Surume ika is a variety of squid that's simultaneously chewy and crispy. When scored, it develops an addicting texture that's a lot like grilled sea cucumber. The rich foie gras foam made the buttery poached lobster tail taste even richer. I loved this dish.

L2O, Chicago - Pickled honshimeji, grapefruit

Pickled honshimeji, grapefruit - A savory, though acidic, palate cleanser of pickled small mushrooms with skinless grapefruit.

L2O, Chicago - Miyazaki wagyu, beef, sake, potato

Miyazaki wagyu, beef, sake, potato - A small cut of heavily marbleized wagyu beef thoroughly cooked so as to maximize the textural contrast between fat and meat. There was nothing particularly wrong with the dish -- it tasted great -- but it was relatively boring compared to some of the previous courses.

L2O, Chicago - Miyazaki wagyu

I rarely find a grilled meat course interesting as part of a tasting. It usually feels forced, as if somewhere in the chain of command someone said, "hey we really need to have a piece of meat in here somewhere." There was nothing particularly interesting or special about this dish, aside from the fatty quality of the meat, which I don't really like anyway. The meal would have been stronger without this.

L2O, Chicago - Dashi broth

Dashi - A small bowl of pure, clear dash broth.

L2O, Chicago - Caramel, manjari, espresso snow

Caramel, manjari, espresso snow - A plum-sized sphere of caramel mousse covered in manjari and espresso snow. The flavor was dominated by the taste of oxidized coffee, which I didn't particularly enjoy.

L2O, Chicago - Caramel, manjari, espresso snow

Macaron - A small lemon macaron marked the end of the meal, a bright and citrusy finale.

L2O, Chicago - Dining room

What made L2O particularly interesting was how each course went back and forth between authentic Japanese fare and modern French cuisine. But overall it seemed like the most successful dishes were the Japanese ones. Also interesting were the courses that blended Japanese with French, such as the pickled honshimeji mushrooms and grapefruit. The purely French dishes were the least interesting.

I can't wait for my upcoming reservation at L2O to see how the restaurant has evolved over the past two years. The concept of French influenced Japanese kaiseki is fascinating, and there aren't enough places that do it successfully here in the US. I believe L2O has the potential to make waves by combining the best of each cuisine, creating something original and new. Only time will tell..

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