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.