By Andre Gayot
Hey Laurent, isn’t there a better way to let us know that this is a fish-oriented restaurant — and an excellent one for that matter — than this esoteric acronym of L20? L is for Laurent, we understand, and replaces the H which is half of the chemical symbol of water, H20.
But Laurent, you have nothing to do with chemistry except maybe when, with a funny allusion, you mock the molecular cuisine concealing your succulent foie gras under a cloud of sugar candy. Moreover, you make it difficult for the search engines to find this elegant and worthy eatery hidden in the chic Lincoln Park West area of Chicago in the databases of good restaurants, a pity for the uninformed who will miss a memorable dinner in this serene, almost spa-like space filled with Makassar ebony columns, plush couches and white leather chairs. The single onyx two-top has “it table” status written all over it.
The discreet Laurent Gras, a disciple of Alain Ducasse, perfected his skills at New York City’s Peacock Alley and San Francisco’s Fifth Floor. He blends touches of Japanese, French and even a glimpse of molecular gastronomy, with plenty of made-in-house treats, including bread, butter, and yogurt. Dining options include a four-course menu for $110 (choose one each from the dishes sorted out in the following categories: raw, warm, main and dessert) and an elaborate tasting menu. There’s also a ten-course menu for a hefty $245. Really, there’s nary a miss served here.
In the so called “raw” part of the menu, the Peekytoe crab with avocado and kaffir lime is a standout, along with the sashimi platter with fluke, kampachi, kinmedai, and shima aji. We cannot encounter a scallop on any menu without raving in retrospect about Laurent’s diver scallop in a sauce of vanilla, passion fruit and Sauvignon Blanc that literally melts in your mouth. It is difficult to choose from the foie gras with grapes, asparagus, bee pollen and crystallized butter or from the exceptionally tender octopus graced by coconut and olive oil.
For “main,” a take on shabu-shabu isn’t out of the question either, unless, sticking to fish, you prefer the very commendable cold smoked black cod, with Dijon mustard.
The remarkable selection of cheese includes rare finds such as the outstanding Brie de Nangis. For dessert, there are classic soufflés as well as more modern choices as strawberry treated with aloe vera and black sesame or caramel Manjari in espresso snow.
The extensive wine list, under the guidance of Chantelle Pabros, caters to both high rollers and (surprisingly) those with limited budgets. However you cut it, though, this is a special occasion experience—and you’ll be amply rewarded for taking the plunge.
Laurent Gras is a perfectionist. He looks after the smallest detail of the service and tries to make it as complete as possible. But he bluffed us when, after the last dish was sent out, he started to scrub the ovens and other equipment meticulously along with his team. It’s only justice to spot the sunlight on such an unassuming but very accomplished character.
You can click on each photo to enlarge to see dishes from L20’s restaurant menu.