Over the last 10 years or so, Mrs. Hackknife and I have been privileged enough to dine at many of Chicago's finest restaurants, including some that are no longer with us, like Charlie Trotter's, Courtright's, Spring, Great Lake Pizza, and Hot Doug's (the world's best encased meats purveyor). Since its opening in 2008, however, one top establishment had eluded us; that is, L2O, the haute-dining seafood jewel of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), regarded as one of the top places in America to experience artful, impeccably-prepared dishes of the ocean's bounty (or the lake, for that matter - L2O stands for "Lake to Ocean"). For a top restaurant, L2O has had something of a tumultuous history. Superstar French chef Laurent Gras provided the early blueprint and inspiration for its success (he used to create blog postings with step-by-step instructions and fascinating pictures of behind-the-scenes prep work in the kitchen - I miss those), eventually propelling the venture to an enviable 3 stars in the inaugural Michelin Guidebook for Chicago. This height of achievement would normally be cause for celebration; unfortunately, Chef Gras abruptly announced his departure from LEYE the day after, citing "creative differences" with founder Rich Melman (it was later revealed that the notoriously prickly and meticulous chef had clashed with staff/ownership over accommodating various customer requests and future menu direction). The restaurant dropped down to 1 Michelin Star under new chef Francis Brennan (who subsequently moved on a few months later to Do-Rite Donuts, LEYE's entry into the gourmet breakfast pastry business), gained one of those back when current chef Matthew Kirkley stepped in, and remained at a high, if not a bit more relaxed (no more "dining on the Death Star" as he put it), gastronomic level until LEYE decided to close the restaurant at the end of 2014 as current diners' palates are trending away from fussy tasting menus. It was this announcement in late October that spurred me in a panic to jump on Open Table and reserve us a spot there while in town for Christmas before the remaining tables got snapped up.
The restaurant is located in the historic Belden-Stratford Building at 2300 N. Lincoln Park West (across the street from the north end of the Lincoln Park Zoo), a highfalutin part of an-already upscale neighborhood. When you enter the lobby, you're immediately struck by the thought that you're inside a top-notch hotel (which it had been for most of its life, converting over to luxury apartments in 2011). We had no problem finding LEYE's other eatery here, Mon Ami Gabi (just follow the happy hour crowd), but L2O's front door is discreetly off to the side, with no signage to tip visitors off to the culinary fireworks within. The hushed dining room features a lot of beige and glass and curtains of stuff, vaguely modern, vaguely Asian, and a tad outdated ("makes me think of the 1990s", said Mrs. H.). With the whole operation winding down to its last two weeks, the a la carte menu had been eliminated, leaving the 12-course tasting menu as the only dining choice (and we were fine with that).
First up was an amuse bouche, a fancy crab and rice cracker dusted with Old Bay seasoning. Tasty and gone within 3 seconds.
Our servers brought out homemade rolls and a sculpture of ribboned butter that was beautiful to behold, but not so much fun to spread.
The initial course listed on our menu was called a "pomme soufflee" or potato puff, filled with salt cod and topped with a blend of ground coffee and bergamot orange oil.
Next up was a single, elegant Kusshi oyster encased in a gel of green apple and Noilly Prat Vermouth. Sadly, none of the remaining decoration was edible.
The oyster was followed by three fresh ocean trout rolls (topped with ginger squares, maybe?) garnished with little orbs of citrus confit and chartreuse liqueur, with footprints of thyme prancing across the plate.
An amazing dish of ahi tuna covered in avocado slices and topped with black caviar came after, with some gel globes of indeterminate origin in the foreground (I apologize for my lack of detail on some of these courses - my flavor memory fails me).
This was one of my favorite dishes of the night, a Spanish-style croquette (made me think of something Jose Andres would do) consisting of periwinkle, Iberico ham, and pumpernickel, crowned with watercress.
Another home run followed, a sublime bowl of galinette (a Mediterranean fish used in Provencal cuisine) topped with black licorice (made to resemble caviar), garnished with crithmum (or sea fennel), and resting in an emulsion of heavenly crab butter.
More perfection ensued, this time in a version of matelote, a seafood stew from the French region of Lorraine that's sometimes referred to as "fisherman's coq au vin". This stew is usually made with freshwater fish; however, L2O's rendition places St. Pierre (or John Dory) filet in a broth of red wine with roasted red onions and shaved royal trumpet mushrooms (full disclosure - I have no idea what the pink items in the photo are).
Our last savory course was good, but not on a par with the three that preceded it, in my opinion. Here, crescent moon-shaped pieces of Maine lobster were covered in beurre d'algues, a seaweed-infused, umami-loaded butter produced by a Paris-based buttermaker (is that a word? buttermonger?) named Jean-Yves Bordier. Next to the lobster were a pair of butternut squash cylinders topped with what appeared to be edible "clamshell" shards and nuggets of actual clam. The concept on this one eluded me and the dish felt a bit disjointed.
Apparently, the pastry chef was working overtime these last few weeks as we received four desserts, plus mignardises at the end of the meal. First up was a curious creation of apricot granita, black lime, frothy marshmallow, and genepi (a liqueur similar to chartreuse - they sure like their French liqueurs here) in a jar, which I took to be something of a palate cleanser.
Here's that chartreuse again, this time loaded into a cream puff that rested on a bed of rock sugar.
The next dessert was a step up in complexity and appearance, a vibrant disc of lime parfait topped with cara cara orange sorbet and flanked by dollops of tarragon meringue and avocado mousse in various geometric forms.
Our final (and my favorite) dessert reminded me of the most elegant and deconstructed Kit Kat that I'm ever likely to encounter - two long bars of chocolate propped up a dollop of olive oil ice cream, which was sandwiched between brioche wafers, with the whole plate sporting a few drops of lemon creme.
As much as I'd love to describe in detail the many mignardises that we were served (in nesting-type boxes, no less), including wonderful macarons and cookies of dizzying intricacies, I can only provide a photo and my word that they were delicious, even two days later (no mean feat for macarons, which tend to get stale quickly - I wonder what alchemy made that possible?)
Although the meal was expensive, the missus and I both agreed it was worth the experience and we were glad to have dined here before the final call. I hope that we encounter some of these standout dishes again (they'd probably exist in a slightly revised format) in a future time/place/culinary universe...