Fine Dining, A Learning Experience

I have had my share of good meals, and truly enjoy them. I tend to go out of my way to eat a nice meal every so often. Locally, it generally means a meal at one of the three Richard Sandoval restaurants he has in town. In Vegas, it may mean one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. These are certainly nice places with accomplished chefs. Until this weekend, I considered them fine dining.

That changed with a trip to L2O in Chicago by Josh Corman and myself. Operated by chef Matthew Kirkley, he describes the dining experience as “… exploring the intricacies of fish and shellfish in artful compositions enhanced by the best ingredients available from land and sea.” The name L2O stands for “Lake to Ocean“. Last year, he earned 1 Michelin Star for his restaurant, and gained 2 stars this year. It is important to note that while Gordon Ramsay has been awarded 15 stars and currently holds 14, it does not mean that any came from his work at the restaurants I ate at. So dinner at L2O was significantly different.

The first and most important difference in this meal is that it is a tasting menu. You basically order one of two things; the Prix Fixe menu, or the Tasting menu. Rather than an appetizer, main course, and dessert like a traditional restaurant, you are given a variety of courses selected by the chef. For our dinner, the tasting menu included three courses that were not on the menu. Further, we opted for the wine pairing for our menu. Another major difference is that the meal is as much about presentation and ritual as it is about the food. The staff play an elaborate dance of formal movements, coordinated delivery, and scripted descriptions. Last, while I enjoy wine from time to time, I cannot emphasize the value of a sommelier putting together a pairing specific to the dish. Instead of relying solely on taste, they also play to the texture of a wine as much as the flavor profile.

In the spirit of truly enjoying our evening, we opted not to be like the stuffy people we saw around us (including one couple that was obviously in the middle of a loveless and emotionless marriage). While the restaurant “suggests” jackets for gentleman, I quickly lost mine when I noticed the guy next to us was only wearing an Izod and jeans. In addition to novice questions about the meal, I found myself throwing a wrench in their timing and delivery almost every course. Josh equated my questions and comments to a Denial of Service attack against their routine, but for sport. The banter Josh and I delivered certainly entertained the staff as much as it did us.

The (enhanced) menu we had is listed below, including the items that were not listed on the web page. The first few courses made us wonder if we’d leave the restaurant with a full stomach. By the end, especially with wine pairings and bread, we were both waddling like penguins.

  1. [amuse-bouche, not on menu]
  2. mussel tart, lemon, parsley
  3. geoduck clam, manila clam, lime
  4. langoustine, osetra caviar, cauliflower, poppyseed, meyer lemon
  5. nootka sound oyster, green apple, noilly prat, celery
  6. crab chip, old bay
  7. maine lobster, foie gras torchon, turnip, clementine vinaigrette
  8. crispy bass, escargot, pearl onion, chartreuse butter
  9. turbot, grilled squid, guanciale chips, scallion
  10. stuffed quail, sunchoke, smoked cherry, 23-flavor gastrique
  11. [Champagne granata, not on menu]
  12. lime parfait, avocado, tarragon, cara cara orange
  13. chocolate crémeux, lemon curd, brioche, olive oil
  14. [sweet snackies, not on menu]

While amuse-bouche is not technically a course, it is also something I wasn’t familiar with. Josh had to educate me on the term. This was called “Fruits of the Sea” and each was a melon ball container that had a distinct center, such as salmon for one. The first course officially on the menu was the mussel tart with lemon and parsley. Served on a cup of tiny intricate sea shells, Josh was quick to remind me not to eat them. In the low light, they did look like snacks. Third, we had Geoduck clam and Manila clam with a hint of lime. I don’t recall the exact method of preparation but it did not have the consistency of a clam at all. Fourth, we had langoustine, Osetra caviar, cauliflower, poppyseed, with meyer lemon. The picture below shows the cauliflower was dehydrated and mostly for show, but it still added to the flavor. As best I can recall, this was my first time having caviar, and I found it quite nice. It was not salty or potent as has been described to me in the past.

l20-01-Amuse-bouchel20-02-mussel-tartl20-03-geoduck_claml20-04-langoustine

Fifth on the list was a Nootka Sound oyster with green apple, Noilly Prat, and celery. The combination of the two shells were well done and remind me that I need to broaden my horizon on oysters. The sixth course brought us absolute joy. Not only for that tasting, but for the rest of the night. It also gave us tremendous respect for the chef. The menu listed a simple item; a crab chip dusted with Old Bay seasoning. The two crab chips were a reflection of chef Matthew Kirkley’s roots as he grew up in Maryland. What wine do you pair with crab chips? None. Instead, Kirkley insisted that it be paired with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yes, a good old fashion cheap PBR. While the sommeliers, both of them employed by the restaurant, seemed a bit offended and would have opted for wine, the one serving us most of the night admitted that she agreed on the pairing. After giving her much grief, she laughed and agreed to pose for a picture as well. Josh and I both appreciated that in addition to honoring his roots, he was clearly thumbing his nose at pomp and pretense.

For the seventh, we had maine lobster, foie gras torchon, turnip, with clementine vinaigrette gelee (close-up picture). Despite seeing it on TV and in articles, this was also the first time I had foie gras. The eighth course was a dish of crispy bass, escargot, pearl onion, with chartreuse butter (close-up picture). The escargot was the third new food for me that evening.

l20-05-oystersl20-07-crab_chipl20-06-Sommelier_pairingl20-08-lobsterl20-10-crispy_bass

For number nine, we had turbot topped with grilled squid, guanciale chips, and scallions (close-up picture). The tenth course was a stuffed quail with sunchoke, smoked cherry, and a “23-flavor gastrique”. The presenter told us it was “23 flavors” and that we could “think about it”. Josh Corman immediately chimed in, “Dr. Pepper!” For those not familiar, Dr. Pepper has a reputation for its 23 mysterious flavors. Tasting one of the three dark dots pictured below (or close-up picture) certainly brought the flavor to mind. Josh commented that by not giving answers and just teasing the guests, it becomes a treat for the observant. He equated it with hidden Easter eggs within the menu. The eleventh course was a frothy Champagne granita, not listed on the menu. At this point, our sommelier brought out a second can of PBR on a small silver platter, so we could enjoy a nice cheap-beer break. This was an amusing touch and showed us that she was having as much fun as we were.

l20-12-turbotl20-14-quaill20-15-frothy-unknownl20-15-pbr-redux

Twelth on the list was a lime parfait with avocado, tarragon, and Cara cara navel orange. Despite the appearance, this was not an overly sweet dish and was a good lead-in to the next two dessert courses. Next up, the thirteenth course was a chocolate crémeux with lemon curd, brioche, and olive oil (close-up picture). This was perhaps the most rewarding course; not because of the wonderful dessert, but due to the banter and harassment. Upon seating, we were asked if we had food allergies or dietary restrictions. We said no, because as a diabetic I carry my insulin and take it according to the food I eat. Hours later, the last server who delivered this was not told of any restrictions obviously. After setting it in front of me, the conversation went like this:

Brian: “Does this have any sugar in it?” (said with a straight face)
Staff: “Heh heh, just a bit!”
Brian: “No really, I am a type 1 diabetic. Does this have any sugar in it?”
Staff: “Uh… heh heh, no you aren’t!” (clearly a bit nervous at this point)
Brian: “Yes, I really am, does this have sugar in it?” (I asked as I showed her the insulin kit)

With this, she covered her mouth, stepped back and looked as if she was going to pass out. I quickly reassured her that while I am, I was expecting the dessert and it wasn’t a problem. Josh is pretty sure she may have had a small heart attack. Anyway, the fourteenth and final course was a mix of macaroons, fresh caramel, exotic gum drops, and some other sugary delight that was also served with previous courses.

l20-16-lime-parfaitl20-17-choc-cremeuxl20-18-snackies

At several points of the dinner, Josh noted that despite the differences in our professions, we could see some kinship with the chef as do those of us who take our trade so seriously. Hard work, pursuit of excellence, attention to detail, with a good dose of some hidden humor.

With this, we were done. We sat down a bit after 5:45P and walked out of the restaurant just shy of 9:45P. Yes, a 4-hour dinner and night of entertainment. For me, a dinner like this rarely comes along, and I am glad I took the opportunity to experience it. The final touch? One of the staff that had been helping us all night escorted us out to ensure we got a cab and thanked us for dining with them. Overall, and incredible experience.

This post and the extensive details are dedicated to my mom, who would have really enjoyed it, and wishes she could have been there.

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