Under the Water: A Disappointing Night at L20 in Chicago

It was with enthusiasm that I accepted the invitation to join two of my foodie friends for a dinner last night at L2O. One friend had flown in from New York and joined us for a night of enjoyment at L2O. My friends and I are experienced diners, exploring terrific restaurants far and wide. Both have a keen curiosity of restaurants, which they cover in well-followed food blogs. I had been to L20 once before, about a year or so ago.

The evening turned into a disappointment for us, both due to structural problems in communication at the restaurant, and in terms of the food. Here are the details:

The room is lovely, albeit a bit corporate in feel. There’s a Zen-like feel to the room, and I found the minimalist feel pleasing. The room was only about a third full of guests when we arrived, and at its busiest, was probably 2/3 full. Our Captain was very attentive and a definite asset to our dinner. Chantelle, our sommelier, was delightful, smiling, highly competent, and fully on top of the wine service. Both enhanced our experience tremendously despite the missteps below.

My friends and I debated what to do for the menu, and, when told Chef Laurent Gras was in the kitchen, we asked if the Chef would put together a menu he thought best for that night. Our Captain said fine, and off she went. We assumed we would have some type of tasting menu that we could discuss amongst ourselves.

What followed was an insight into both structural problems in communication between the front (FOH) and back of the house (BOH) as well as striking inconsistencies in the dishes the kitchen produced. As the meal began and progressed, we saw that we were each being given a different item, which we hadn’t anticipated (when we asked for the kitchen to cook for us, I commented that I did not like to share my food and we expected we would each have the same menu). Had the dishes flowed properly, and illustrated the chef’s style and some rationale for the entire menu, we would have been happy, but what resulted was an almost haphazard cacophony of dishes, widely disparate in both make up and quality of execution, that had an almost random feel to it. The odd combination and order of dishes prompted one friend to ask if our request that the chef would put together a menu for us was communicated to him was met with the reply that “I communicated it to someone there but I’m not allowed to approach or speak to the Chef.” What? In further inquiry as to what happened, it seems the general manager and Captain were hesitant or fearful of communicating our request directly to the chef, and took it upon themselves to devise a sort of tasting menu. The problem is that the resulting flow appeared amateur at best and random at worst. When we expressed our disappointment to the General Manager (GM), Tony, he replied “the Chef doesn’t do any special menu for anybody, including famous chefs who dine here.” We told him that it was fine not to do it, but someone should have communicated this to us when we initially asked, and we would have then either ordered the standard tasting menu or devised one tasting menu, ourselves, for the table from the menu.

The quality of execution of the dishes was like a roller coaster of quality and creativity. As with my one prior visit to the restaurant a year ago, the sashimi first course was served too cold to allow the flavors to be fully appreciated. On this visit, a foie gras served inside a spiral of cotton candy that was both sweet and savory, was brilliant. Perfectly cooked and spiced foie, inside this spiral was spectacular, and was my dish of the night. Unfortunately, it was followed by a kampachi that, visually, looked sad and dry. Tasting it, it was in fact overcooked, dry and quite bland. The kampachi had some kind of accompaniment that the Captain referred to as a type of pita chip filled with some type of vegetable, but they were largely surprisingly devoid of taste and had a texture of cardboard. One friend has the arctic char that was poached in butter, which looked fabulous. “That looks incredible” I said to him, to which he replied “I’m afraid it looks a bit better than it tastes.” The salted cod with caviar was very salty and I actually did not eat my portion and mentioned to the GM that it was too salty. Disappointingly, I saw that I was charged the $25 supplement for this dish, even though I told him I did not like it. Unfortunately, I noticed this after I had paid the bill, and in light of the other problems, I decided not to make an issue of the charge in front of my friends, though it disappointed me. My final course was the smoked ribeye which was good but difficult to eat with the knife served with it. When I asked for a steak knife, I was told the knife I was given (a standard knife with slight ridges) was the sharpest they had.

So, we had some dishes that were stupendous (foie gras, for instance), some that were average, and one that I found difficult to eat due to the level of salt (cod). The greatest problem for me and I think my friends, was the notion that the chef was unapproachable and not to be spoken to.

At the end, one of my friends commented to the Captain that—given our dissatisfaction with the flow and miscommunication, he was surprised that the Chef never came out to inquire, she replied that the Chef never comes out into the dining room (even though by that point we were the last table, and she confirmed he was still in the kitchen). “He is very focused on the food” was all she kept saying; it almost became a parody.

After this jarring experience, I doubt I’ll return to L2O. We saw flashes of brilliance, but far too much unevenness in the execution to make it worth a return visit. Far worse, though, was what I think of as structural problems in communication between the front and back of the house, where the Chef is not to be spoken to (at least as we were told) by the service staff. He may be in a cocoon, but its not to his advantage.

I’m going to have to make that a rule for Abood and Jaouen. They are not allowed to approach or speak to the Kane.

Sorry to hear your dinner was such a disappointment, Wilfred. It does seem like an untenable, if not comical situation exists there. I’m sure you might be laughing a little more if not for the cost of the dinner, which I’m sure couldn’t have been cheap. But, perhaps it was worth the story you got out of it?



Sorry for your experience, Wilfred. Nothing like the 3 times I’ve been there. I hope that this isn’t a sign of things to come.


Wilfred, what a disaster! I guess we’re not going there when I get to Chicago! [popcorn.gif]

Take Bill to the Wiener’s Circle. [diablo.gif]

Wilfred, sorry to hear you had such a lousy experience, that’s just awful, notably at those prices. The lack of communication between FOH and BOH is just inexcusable in such a place, especially with a chef of that caliber. The fact that you told the waiters of your concerns and they did nothing (or couldn’t do anything) about the situation says a lot about L20.

And “The Kane”? Pleeeeeeeeeeease. [smack.gif]

We’ll be quiet if the Kane ever cooks anything on time and we’re not starving. blahblah BTW, the ratouille was very good on Saturday.

Wilfred, sorry about your dining experience. I guess they can’t all be winners. I would hate to work for that Chef! BTW, I didn’t know you did not like to share your food. From now on, I’m asking for a bite of every dish you get when we dine together. neener

I’m trying out Aureole tonight in their new location with Chef Christopher Lee. I’ll let you know how it is.

Very disappointing report. The 2 times I’ve been to L20 were excellent, if not spectacular, however we didn’t run into those types of problems as we didn’t have a situation such as that. One would think in this economy that a bit more management acquiescence would be in order. It’s not like the group made a huge unreasonable request, and even if Chef Gras thought it so that certainly should have been conveyed at the time. Not a good report, especially at the price.

When they told me they were not allowed to speak to the Chef directly, I commented, “That’s why airliners crash” (referring to the 'royal Captain" who in the past was Godlike and unapproachable, resulting in Cockpit Resource Management.)

Better would have been for us to just pick dishes we like, and what I’d advise anyone going to do. What we probably would have done had we been told the Chef wasn’t on board with our initial request.

Pretty arrogant too.
Even at a place like Carre des Feuillants in Paris or Taillevent in Paris, they would do what you asked with pleasure.
What makes L2O any better?

Tell Chantelle hello from me if you go back.
She is a really smart lady and missed here in Atlanta.
She was here for a long time. She was the only underaged Sommelier here that I can remember. [cheers.gif]

Cheers Wilfred. Wishing you a better meal next time.

Yes, Chantelle is terrific. I think she’s only 28 but so smart!

Don, I even mentioned to them that at Guy Savoy, he comes out from the kitchen and talks to diners. They seemed shocked.

it’s funny you bring up the cockpit communication stuff as i immediately thought of that section from outliers when reading the above.

i obviously do not blame you one bit for your lousy meal. but i know that steve believes strongly that the best meals are those where the chef cooks for you and i tend to agree with the significant caveat that you go this route only if you have a relationship with the restaurant and/or the chef is known for doing this. as you mentioned, you would have likely had a much better dining experience had you ordered what you wanted and asked for some guidance along the way. or, just probed the server/captain more to see about a special menu and how it might happen. flying bind and just asking the chef to “cook for us” can easily result in a disaster.

i write this as i believe that if the diner wants to have the best experience possible, then she needs to invest heavily in the transaction early on. any hint of miscommunication will lead to a bad meal and the 2nd position behind having a great chef-chosen meal is to just order off the menu.

Wilfred, that’s too bad.

I enjoyed our meal there last year although was not blown away by it. Nice to know Chantelle is still there. She was terrific. If and when I get back to Chicago it doesn’t sound like I should be making a bee-line back there…

Too bad Wilfred. Laurent is actually very shy. I am sure the directive about not speaking to customers does not come from him and comes from someone in management, which is even more unfortunate. Your experience sort of exemplifies why he didn’t do well in NYC though. Both his style of cooking and personality just didn’t seem to jive.

And btw the pita was stuffed with eggplant via a piping bag.

I have to say that despite the screwup, the food was better than I expected. That could be a very good restaurant if they worked on it a bit.

Sorry to hear of your experience, Wilfred.

We are considering a top flight restaurant for a friend’s visit and L2O was in the running (I’ve had a couple of excellent meals there). Maybe not any more - less about the food (I don’t like it when they mess up courses, but it happens), but I’m very concerned that an oversalted salt cod could make it out of the kitchen, but more distressed by the seeming indifference of the staff.

This is the most boring L20 thread ever. [stirthepothal.gif]

LOL, I thought about make a comment like that but…
you beat me to it!