For our big anniversary dinner, Adam and I went to a Chicago restaurant called L20. This is a restaurant that had been recommended to Adam by some of his super-foodie colleagues, like Greg Hall, the brewmaster at Goose Island. It also happened to be on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show.
L20 is in Lincoln Park inside the Beldon Stratford, a boutique hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Places. We had never heard of the hotel, but the lobby was very cute (see Adam to the left). I imagine the rooms are cute as well.
Overall, L20 was absolutely amazing. It's the kind of place that deserves to be called more than a restaurant, it would be more fair to call it a dining experience. From the moment we opened the big wooden restaurant entry door (to the right), to the moment our server walked us out of the restaurant and hailed us a cab after dinner, every detail of our experience was perfectly executed.
We opened the door to a hostess and a few servers waiting for us. They all said "Happy Anniversary" right away and we were guided to our table. The best way I can describe the ambiance of this place is "modern Zen". The music, the fixtures, the tables and chairs--> it felt like a spa. There is no way to be stressed in this restaurant- every detail whispers "relax, relax". I can't possibly do justice to the beautiful simplicity of this restaurant. I strongly recommend that you take a second to go to their website. Check out the different pages to get a feel for the place. Even if you never intend to go here, the website is still a fun experience within itself. Be sure your computer's sound is on.
L20 is one of those high end restaurants where every single detail is attended to, every water glass is always filled, every course is perfectly plated, every move of the servers is perfectly choreographed. For example, I noticed the server to table ratio is 1:2 and on the rare instances where a party's server is occupied, any other server will swoop in to take their place. When courses are served they are given to both members of each party at exactly the same time- actually, they are even more particular than that- they served me about 2 seconds before Adam, ladies first and all that. After we finished each course, our plates were immediately bussed, any stray crumbs or drops of water were immediately wiped from the table, and cutlery for the next course was laid out.
One of the many details I enjoyed was the blue tint on the bottom of the glasses. I thought this was really cool. Maybe I'm easily amused but that splash of color really added to the look of our table.
On to the food....Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures of the food because it just didn't seem like the kind of place to get out a camera. Hopefully, my descriptions can do the food some kind of justice! (I did borrow some photos from other L20 customers that I found on-line.) Even touching and opening the (personalized) menu was an experience. The paper was this wonderfully strange texture- kind of like fuzzy rubber. Adam said it's called "curious wet", which is a pretty good description. Adam had already decided that we were going to go all out and partake of the Luxury Tasting Menu. I initially balked at the price and wanted to go for the Seasonal Tasting Menu which I'm sure is amazing as well, but I'm glad he talked me into the luxury version- I had some foods that I've never had before. I've been lucky enough to have so many great meals that it takes a special place to offer something new to me- but this place sure did! If I had to be pinned down as to the food type offered at L20, I would say Japanese/French fusion with a focus on seafood. The chef, Laurent Gras, is certainly French.
Here's a quick description of the food from their webpage:
"Collaborating with small artisanal purveyors around the globe, Gras is able to serve unique selections of top-quality ingredients such as hirame from the Hokkaido and Kinki prefectures in Japan, Spanish octopus from the Galicia region of Spain and codfish from Maine. Gras’ fierce attention to detail is felt throughout, as even the bread, naturally leavened, is made in-house as are staples like butter, yogurt and crème fraîche."
Here's a run down of our courses:
Kindai Toro, Ossetra Caviar
Geoduck Ceviche, Citrus
Foie Gras, Watermelon, Pasilla
Cappeli, Ricotta, Ramp
Wild Japanese Hamo Robatayki
Lobster, Hibiscus Mole
Rangers Valley Wagyu, Truffle Emulsion
Bing Cherry, Rainer Cherry
Every course was amazing. Perfectly prepared, absolutely beautiful plating, a truly luxurious array of unique flavors and textures. Here, I'll point out some of the highlights.
Course 2: Kindai Toro, Ossetra Caviar
This was my favorite for many reasons. It was also Adam's favorite, so it must have been the best! I have never had it before (you'll see why when you read the story of the fish), it was so delicious, and the story is so cool! So Kindai is a type of blue fin tuna that the L20 blog describes as "the ultimate combination of sustainability and exquisite taste". It is produced by the Kinki University Fisheries Culture and Nursery Center in Japan. The tuna are born in university labs which means their environment is impeccably maintained (no pollution) and they are not taken from the ocean (no risk of depopulation). The university uses a low population-density farming method giving the fish plenty of room to exercise. They are not only organically raised but they actually have a record of everything each fish has ever eaten since birth. Each fish comes to the States with its own certificate of authenticity. The goal of the Kinki university is to "bring to market the most pristine product ever cultivated". These fish are so special and so rare that only 2-3 pieces of Kindai are imported into the US every week. Seriously, this is some special fish.
And if this story isn't enough to make you salivate, we got to have 'toro' which is the belly of the blue fin tuna, which is the best part. After the server told us the story of the Kindai, I wondered if any food could live up to such hype. Well, it did. The fish melted in my mouth. It tasted like good, clean protein, with just a hint of sweet fishy taste. The caviar was incredible. It had the texture of bone marrow (soft, buttery) but with it's own wonderful salty flavor. Like little flavor packed bites of joy. I've never had really high-end caviar before. I now understand why people spend so much money on the stuff!
Course 3: Geoduck Ceviche, Citrus: This was another item I had never tried. The geoduck clam is the largest burrowing clam in the world, averaging 3 lbs (but can be up to 15 lbs and 2 meters long). They are native to the Pacific coast of US and Canada and have a life expectancy of 146 years! Geoduck is a delicacy mostly enjoyed in the US, Japan and China. Because of its large size, geoduck can be very hard to cook. It was very thick, but somehow still pleasing. I could easily imagine that it would be chewy, however, if prepared imperfectly. The citrus added a nice lightness in contrast to the density of the meat itself.
Course 4: Foie Gras, Watermelon (rehydrated), Pasilla
Alright guys and gals. I know all the controversy about Foie Gras in Chicago. On some level I agree w/ PETA and friends that it is totally not cool to force feed poor innocent ducks to make a fatty, delicious treat for humans to consume. Heck, I don't even eat veal because I feel so bad about the baby cows being confined. But this foie gras was beyond delicious. It was like a duck meat marshmallow. Fluffy and meat are not two words that I would usually put together, but in this case I would. And the rehydrated watermelon was a perfect accompaniment- added a nice, sweet, crunch. (Rehydrating food is when it is dehydrated, then some water is added back to create a denser, more flavor concentrated version of the food.)
Course 6: Wild Japanese Hamo Robatayki
When Adam tried this course, he said, "wow this tastes like eel!". And he was correct. Hamo is the japanese word for pike eel. This particular species is known as the "fish of a thousand bones" because it has so many bones that requires due diligence on the part of the chef to remove. According to L20 the chef must "mince the flesh widthwise every 1/16th of an inch to cut and break down all the tiny bones". They must do this with a special "hamokiri" knife. It requires lots of practice to cut the bones without cutting the skin and loin. I don't think we'll be making this ourselves at home anytime soon! The Hamo is a seasonal summer delicacy in parts of Japan. This was Adam's 2nd favorite course.
Course 9: Rangers Valley Wagyu, Truffle Emulsion
I was initially introduced to wagyu beef by my brother who is an excellent cook and is a foodie in his own right. He has the sometimes difficult task of being a small town foodie- he has most recently lived in Meridian, Mississippi (actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure he ever found any gourmet destinations there), then Whidbey Island, Washington (there is some good food to be had there) and now lives in Cherry Point, North Carolina. But he appreciates a good meal and seeks them out. For one of my birthdays, he sent me some Wagyu beef. Wagyu refers to a breed (or group of breeds) of cattle that produce particularly well marbelled, tender and juicy cuts of meat.
The Wagyu at L20 was definitely up to snuff and the truffle emulsion really added to the deliciousness. I've had Wagyu multiple times now. What set this piece of meat apart from others I've had was the texture- so smooth, so soft. Wish I had some right now to go with the merlot (Chateau Grand Traverse, Old Mission Peninsula, 2005) that I'm drinking as I write this!!
Course 11: Chocolate Surprise and Friends:
This course consisted of the Chocolate Surprise which was a rectangular chocolate shell w/ chocolate, caramel and peanut butter inside (yum!), as well as a wonderful chocolate coated egg w/ liquid caramel inside (we were instructed to eat it in 1 bite, thank goodness for the warning or there would have been liquid caramel everywhere!), a housemade biscuit (cookie), and a housemade Macaroon (delicious!). After 11 amazing courses I was stuffed. I haven't been that full since I ate 16 Little Ceasar's pizzas on a dare in high school. Seriously.
If you can believe it, I think there are actually a couple courses missing from the above menu. We had a great morel mushroom course at some point. Most of the time, when you order a tasting menu, there are a couple of extras thrown in for good measure. I wish I had planned for that and eaten a bit less bread! By the time we left I was truly concerned that I might pop if the cabbie took a corner too tightly!
At the end of the meal, our server presented us with our menus and walked us out to get us a cab. The food, the ambiance, the service, the company, the occasion....this was the 2nd best dining experience I've had in my 32 years on this Earth. The only reason I say 2nd is because I think the quirky humor in my Moto meal made it #1 (this is where Adam and I went for my birthday last January). I really need to do a blog post about that one!
I highly recommend L20. You really can't go wrong here. Worth every dollar. (Thank goodness, because we sure spent a lot of dollars!). Here's to another great meal in celebration of another great year of marriage! I love you, Adam;)