Surf City

If you think “el-two-oh” is a new overhead train line, guess again; and West Town’s Mexique makes the case for Mex-French


L2O’s brilliant take on urban serenity

 

L2O may have the same address, but we’re definitely not in Ambria anymore. The owner, Rich Melman, has gambled big on a new restaurant to replace that grande old dame. He transformed the space and brought in a star chef, Laurent Gras, from San Francisco’s Fifth Floor to create a modern luxury seafood destination, and the result is unlike anything this city has seen. Gras’s talent and curiosity instantly place him in the top tier of Chicago chefs. On my first visit, I noticed in one of the unisex bathrooms a beautiful wall aquarium housing only a couple of guppy-size fish lost in a forest of plants. I wouldn’t be shocked if Gras had fished out everything larger and added it all to his menu. Even the irresistible house-made breads, such as a brioche stuffed with anchovy, incorporate fish.

Gone is Ambria’s signature dark wood-clad art deco look; in its place is a simple, soothing design—gorgeous wood columns and ecru chairs—with hanging-wire partitions that resemble petrified waterfalls. You may still be marveling at such details when your delicate amuse arrives, ishi kerai (stone flounder) wrapped around shiso with caviar and olive oil, served in a silver bowl that dramatically reflects the cascading chandelier above. Sensational, attentive service adds to the refined experience. The young sommelier, Chantelle Pabros, may be Chicago’s new Alpana Singh: She paired wonderful wines and sakés with passionate commentary.

As for Gras, he was classically trained by such luminaries as Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy, but he represents a decidedly new generation of French chef. He serves various exotica like amadai, hamo, ishidai, kinmedai, and shiokko. A card lists more than a dozen of “today’s market offerings” and explains that, for example, amadai is tilefish and hamo is pike eel. Giving the names in Japanese may be a tad precious, but Gras uses almost as many Japanese flavors as French—and besides, he could probably make a meal of carp and catfish taste extraordinary.

Every intricate presentation gets a flurry of attention, though a certain redundancy creeps in. Repeatedly, servers put the finishing touches on a dish tableside by pouring on bouillon or other seasoned liquid. The flavors, however, are anything but redundant: A brilliant chorizo-flavored soup gave king salmon a smoky flavor; ginger-leek broth decanted sparingly around amadai kept the edible scales puffy and crisp. (The chef certainly likes his fish swimming.) And the conceit of flavored gelées rolled around another ingredient gets old pretty fast, but then again, when it’s something as complex and dainty as shrimp accented by raspberries and red peppers wrapped in tomato water gelatin, the results are remarkable.

Along the way, Chef Gras redefines surf and turf, topping a disk of lamb tartare with ebi shrimp purée and flavoring it with tarragon and pickled peach. The most geometrically beautiful dish is a checkerboard of little red tuna and ivory hamachi squares, infused with yuzu, soy sauce, and a little olive oil that transports you to the Mediterranean shores of Japan. Desserts range from an excellent praline soufflé that rivals Roland Liccioni’s to a plate that offers 14 different textures of raspberry and chocolate, including raspberry cotton candy. As I finished my last pistachio macaroon, I said to myself: Gras and Melman, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

* * *

If you’ve got margaritas and guacamole on the brain, MEXIQUE is not for you. But if the thought of shrimp à la provençale bound with avocado mousse excites you, Mexican-born Carlos Gaytan, the chef/owner of West Town’s surprise hit, is your guy. His culinary inspiration comes from Mexico’s turbulent 1860s when French occupiers cooked local ingredients using Gallic techniques, and Gaytan brings a fresh interpretation to this Mex/French cuisine. Between him and his charming wife/partner, Iliamar Isaac, the walls of this simple space (which Isaac designed personally) vibrate with excitement.

Start off with rich banana leaf–wrapped seafood mousse tamal stuffed with crabmeat fricassee and accompanied by clam-tomato sauce and lemon confit and you’ll see why. Also rousing are the dense and savory tequila-braised pork shoulder rillettes made with duck fat, which come with spicy mango-habanero coulis, pickled purple pearl onions, and crostini. (Would have preferred tortillas, but hey.) One of the most popular appetizers—and Gaytan’s best—is a trio of sopes, also made with duck fat instead of lard. Each crisp masa boat carries a delightful morsel: shrimp à la provençale in avocado mousse; escargots and chimichurri butter; sweet plantains with young coconut and Xico mole. And three small wine pairings cinch the French connection.

Mexicans adopted the crêpe in the 19th century, and like the French, they use it for sweet and savory dishes. Mexique stuffs its entrée crêpes with spicy, creamy ragoût loaded with wild mushrooms: close to Rick Bayless/Topolobampo territory and bliss for vegetarians. Gaytan put in three years at Bistrot Margot—hence, creations such as chipotle-tamarind-glazed duck breast and duck confit with a scene-stealing fresh corn and cranberry tamal. Another culture clash that works: pan-seared, guajillo-rubbed tilapia with warm tomato-garlic relish and moniato (white sweet potato) mousseline. Scan the wine list for 2005 Maison Louis Latour, Macon Lugny Les Genièvres Chablis ($36): It’s crisp, light, and perfect for the style.

Scattered around the menu are pure Mexican savory dishes, such as top-notch seviche and chicken with mole teloloapan, and pure French desserts, like apple tarte and crème brûlée. They’re good but seem beside the point. You go to Mexique for things like the luscious enchiladas, which is what Gaytan calls dessert crêpes filled with chocolate ganache and toasted walnuts served with ancho chile–chocolate fondue. The only guacamole in this house is a strange but compelling avocado pastry cream with strawberry compote. Try it.

 

THE SKINNY

L2O 2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002 A model meal Tuna and hamachi with yuzu and soy, lamb tartare with ebi shrimp, black bass and mussels with shellfish bouillon, praline soufflé Tip The $30 to $90 upcharge for “singular” substitutions or additions isn’t worth it. Hours Dinner Wednesday-Monday Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $110 4-course or $165 12-course dégustation

MEXIQUE 1529 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-850-0288 A model meal Trio of sopes, chipotle-tamarind duck, enchiladas Tip If you’ve got $90 to splurge on wine, you’ll get a heartwarming story along with the terrific Mi Sueño El Llano red blend from Napa Valley. Hours Brunch Saturday, Sunday; lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $40

Photograph: Bob Coscarelli

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