Remember that scene in The Matrix, where Cypher is eating a steak in virtual reality? “…I know this steak doesn’t exist,” Cypher admits. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Some fine dining restaurants, in my experience, can feel very false and quite Matrix-like. Servers concentrate intently on preventing any crumbs from touching your table, overworked food intimidates even adventurous diners, and techno, mellow mood music restricts the atmosphere and makes you feel like the experience of paying a lot of money at the XYZ Fine Dining Restaurant should be one of the more serious moments of your life.
L2O is one of Chicago’s stunning, elegant, yet somewhat Matrix-y restaurants. Partnered with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, celebrated chef Laurent Gras presents seafood at its very best. Dining options include a four course prix- fixe menu ($110), a ten-course “luxury” tasting menu ($245), and a twelve-course seasonal tasting menu ($165). Housed in Lincoln Park’s ethereal, opulently appointed Belden-Stratford Hotel, L2O’s sleek interior (designed by Chicago-based Dirk Denison Architects) offers a dramatic, intense contrast to it’s exterior. Glass panels, stainless steel cable screens and coral installations divide the main dining room. Servers in tight, matching black suits discretely push small serving carts among the Macassar ebony tables and white leather chairs.
After opening the giant, heavy restaurant door (that closed silently and ominously behind us), Mr. F and I were warmly greeted by a stylish, slight man. “We’re just thrilled you could join us tonight,” he crowed. Odd, Matrix moments ensued: a gorgeous redheaded bus-woman insisted on walking me up a steep ramp to the restroom; smooth yet loud techno beats undulated through the space; obvious tourists tried their best to keep up table manners and appearances. Thankfully, the cool bubble burst when our server (who predictably resembled Trinity from the Matrix) brought us our first amouse-bouche. A small lobster claw, served over a dollop of citrus marmalade, was topped with a delicate crystallized mint leaf. A perfect bite and preview of a beautiful meal to come.
We ordered the four-course prix-fixe menu, and each chose courses from a selection of raw, warm, and main courses. While waiting for our first course, I noticed the way light reflected off of tables and water glasses, creating patterns on the ceiling like we were looking up from the ocean floor. Intentional Matrix trickery? Probably, but it was a lovely effect. Our appetizers arrived in heavy, white earthenware. For Mr. F: Medai (Japanese butterfish) with ume (Chinese plum), and fried garlic. For me, just seared Hamachi (yellow tail) with Chimchuri, topped with a tangle of potato string. Each was complex in flavor but delicately presented…no overworked dishes here.
Courses continued with Foie Gras served with raspberry, white balsamic vinegar, and a hint of ginger (definitely the low point of our meal as it was extremely sweet). Kampachi (sustainable Hawaiian yellowtail) teriyaki with salsa verde and tempura vegetables was thoughtful but not completely fabulous.
All courses paired excellently with a Pinot Noir selected with the help of L2O’s sommelier. Wine service was just as impeccable as the dinner service; with the aid of a swift cart, the sommelier uncorked the bottle with ease, sampled some first himself (an interesting touch) and even stuck around to help Mr. F order an appertif at the end of our meal. Our entrees were the high point of the evening. My halibut, paired with pea, ramp, arugula dumpling, and bacon butter was basically holy. I could drink a mug of bacon butter every night before bed (maybe that would help my insomnia). Mr. F’s deconstructed green curry with tai snapper was perfect; items could be eaten separately or combined for a true curry taste.
Desserts (grand marnier souffle and raspberry sorbet) were good but not extraordinary. L2O is the perfect choice for a special occasion, or for an excuse to unplug yourself from your own reality. Push your shoulders back, follow the redhead to the bathroom, drink your bacon butter and enjoy.
No Flash Photography Permitted (hence my eerie photos)
N Lincoln Park W
Chicago, IL 60614