A lot of words have been used to describe L2O — minimalist, compelling, any superlative you care to name — but until recently, playful was not among them.
But the ascendancy of chef Matthew Kirkley at this highly regarded restaurant — recipient of three, one and two Michelin stars, in that order, in the last three years — has revealed L2O's heretofore unimagined silly side.
This is not a complaint. Founding chef Laurent Gras was (and presumably still is) a genius. But he is an intense, tightly wound chef, and on his watch, L2O was an intense, tightly wound dining experience. Kirkley, while in every respect a serious chef, takes some of the starch out of his toque once in a while.
To the extent that one can say a chef who offers $140 and $210 tasting menus is grounded, Kirkley, who speaks of his place in the dining world with refreshing candor, qualifies.
"There was a sterility to the food before; it was like dining on the Death Star," Kirkley says. "I want (dining to be) an approachable and fun thing. When you get down to it, we're feeding the 1 percent; it really is a frivolity."
Whereas Gras reportedly dropped six figures for the restaurant's first supply of china, Kirkley has done most of his shopping at Crate & Barrel and hobby shops.
"For the first half of my menus, I try to use as many non-plate plates as possible, with as much whimsy as I can," he says. "I don't want the dinner to be one white charger after another."
And so a mussel tart, the mussel whipped with lemon and parsley into a green mousse on a tartlet-shaped pastry crisp, sits on a simple glass container crammed with tiny seashells. Tiny bits of geoduck and manila clam, atop a fascinating gelee of fortified clam stock, occupy the hollow of an elegant glass orb — which, one belatedly realizes, is a candlestick. More candlesticks, upended, become glass cubes supporting caviar-topped langoustine tartare and a soft square of cauliflower fondant, encased in a barely detectable, transparent sheet of lemon and vanilla.
The opening amuse arrives on a home-decor piece that resembles a tangle of branches with pillar-candle platforms, but Kirkley uses them to display carved balls of fruit and vegetable filled with savory surprises — salmon mousse inside globes of cucumber, foie gras-filled cantaloupe and green melon balls concealing Kumamoto oysters.
The most lighthearted course is Kirkley's crab chip, a single-bite shell-shaped crab crisp dusted with Old Bay seasoning, perched on a wooden ball (sourced from a hobby shop); the accompanying beverage was Pabst Blue Ribbon, poured from the can (by wine director Richard Hanauer) with a tongue-in-cheek solemnity that might accompany the decanting of a premier cru Bordeaux.
But Kirkley can turn the humblest materials into eye-popping art. Tuna tartare excites almost nobody these days, unless you get a look at Kirkley's treatments. In December, the tuna was spiced and encased in avocado, forming a green sphere (say, the Death Star dolled up for St. Patrick's Day) topped with osetra caviar. Currently, finely diced tuna is laid into a shallow plate, covered with tiny avocado slices and gelatinized tomato water and topped, one meticulously placed piece at a time, with beads of caviar. (If you want to see the dish created step by step, type "Epicurious Kirkley tuna" into a search engine.)
For incredibly meticulous carving work, contemplate the striped tortellini with razor clams, which in effect is a study in zucchini — zucchini puree, zucchini water and pieces of carved zucchini that remind me of dancing flames. For sheer decadence, try foie gras-stuffed Maine lobster, alongside turnips stuffed with lobster-foie farcie, or foie-stuffed quail with sunchoke and smoked-cherry puree and a "23-flavor" gastrique that's, in essence, a Dr Pepper reduction.
Desserts tend to be gentle, restrained menu-enders, and given that the smaller of the two menus is eight courses, that's a wise thing. A Champagne granita topped with whipped Meyer lemon cream is an effective preamble, followed by a lovely deconstructed parfait of lime mousse, dehydrated tarragon meringue and cara cara orange sorbet.
The mignardises arrive in a sort of cross between a Japanese bento box and Russian nesting dolls; a series of shallow boxes and lids, revealed one at a time table side, contain wrapped black-pepper caramels, bergamot marshmallows, almond-banyuls macarons and pate de fruits in such flavors as sour cherry, concord grape, calamansi and apricot.
Service, taking its cues from the chef, maintains its formal precision but manages a relaxed air that would not have existed three years ago. The dining room remains serenely peaceful, to the extent that when some oaf clumsily dropped his butter knife on a plate (that would be me), it sounded like a crashing cymbal.
The one quibble I'd raise is that Kirkley uses foie gras a little too often; the ingredient appears in three of the tasting menu's 12 savory courses. I expect this situation will resolve itself once the spring's bounty hits the market, but the kitchen might consider permanently retiring the foie and abalone shabu-shabu course (a signature holdover from the Gras days that no longer resonates) and highlighting the abalone, one of several star ingredients carefully nurtured in Kirkley's meticulously calibrated saltwater tanks, in some other way.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002; l2orestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Thursday-Monday
Prices: Multicourse menus $140 and $210
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.