Clockwise from top: veal tenderloin, Chocolate Surprise, farm egg
In August 2008, while defusing rumors of upheaval in L2O’s kitchen, Richard Melman dropped a telling detail about his newest restaurant. “Laurent Gras is there from 8 a.m. to midnight,” he told Chicagomag.com. “I can’t get him to leave. If Laurent left—that would be a problem.” Granted, the place was only three months old at the time, but throughout the next two years, Laurent Gras was L2O. An exacting Frenchman who once said his favorite kitchen tool was tweezers, Gras didn’t make many friends with his approach, which was chillier than liquid nitrogen. He avoided the dining room as if the tables were toxic. But if an investigator had dusted the kitchen for fingerprints, he would have found the workaholic chef’s everywhere.
Then, on a rare day off in November 2010, Gras walked into L2O, grabbed his things, and vanished. No goodbye.
Almost immediately, Melman, who had known for months that Gras was unhappy, told the staff that their leader was gone, maybe for good. “Everyone was surprised,” recalls Francis Brennan, Gras’s former wingman. “But that’s the business we’re in.” At this point, most other restaurateurs would have had to eat a 12-course prix fixe meal of nothing but their words, but Melman was prepared. He promoted Brennan, a Bay Area native who had also worked with Charlie Trotter and Marcus Samuelsson, and life went on at L2O.
Similar scenarios play out in restaurants constantly, but this was different. For starters, L2O was a hallowed spot into which Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises had sunk an unprecedented $5.5 million. More peculiar was the timing. Michelin, the world’s highest authority in dining criticism, was two weeks from releasing its first Chicago red book, and L2O seemed poised to nab stars. Whether or not it got the maximum three—an honor bestowed on nine restaurants in the United States—the situation promised to be awkward for both Michelin and L2O. At the moment of the coronation, the king abandons his throne? Would it all go down so dramatically?
It would. Fifteen days after Gras left, L2O received three Michelin stars, and Gras chose the next day to make his departure official. A terse statement on FoodandWine.com explained his reasons for leaving, which seemed fairly innocuous, but they pushed a very personal button with Melman. The head of Lettuce fired back on the Chicago Tribune website, accusing Gras of mistreating his staff and expressing a wish that his former chef could be “a better-quality human being.” (When contacted for comment, Gras referred me to his statement on the Food & Wine website.) That this clash between one of America’s best chefs and Chicago’s biggest restaurateur played out online only added to the surreal drama.
“I’ve gone through so much, I’m not surprised by anything,” says Melman today. “I’ve had people give their word on Monday and turn around and do the opposite thing on Tuesday.” But when he swears that L2O will be his last “fancy restaurant,” you don’t doubt him. Nor do you blame him.
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Before we go further, full disclosure: I never adored L2O under Laurent Gras. Every four-hour meal left me more exhausted than exhilarated, pummeled by cleverness as if a brilliant machine were using algorithms to generate precise tableaux with names such as 18 Flavors of Summer. Gras is probably a genius, his style technically flawless, but unlike Alinea’s Grant Achatz—Chicago’s other three-star Michelin chef—he inspires not so much my wonder as my detached admiration. As creative as his compositions may be, that creativity didn’t speak to me personally.
Francis Brennan, L2O’s new chef, might be less imaginative than Laurent Gras, but that’s like saying Pavarotti never had Domingo’s range. At this level, the difference is irrelevant. All I know is that I tried all three of Brennan’s first menus (4-, 10-, and 12-course options, all with holdovers from Gras), and I was satisfied in a way I never was at L2O before. The sterile Zen space, which has been feng-shui’ed to within an inch of its life, has finally found the needed counterbalance of approachability. “There’s a lot more laughter in the dining room now,” says Brennan. “People are having fun dining here.”
The best dishes are the uncomplicated ones that display L2O’s impeccable sourcing and execution without grandstanding. Case in point: tremendous hand-cut tagliolini with a mild uni emulsion and dollops of osetra caviar. Where Gras kept his distance with striking compositions and ingredients so obscure you needed to Google them on your iPhone, Brennan lets familiar flavors speak for themselves. From the ten-course luxury tasting menu ($245), a hunk of uni sashimi wrapped in hamachi with ginger and ponzu is simple but clever, like a quiet song with an irresistible hook. A gentle playfulness unites everything from a remarkable seared foie gras with citrus marmalade and caramelized fennel to a frozen raspberry-marshmallow palate cleanser. And the surprises flow naturally, as in a gorgeous roasted veal tenderloin with sweetbreads, watercress emulsion, and celery in three different guises: puréed, reduced, and roasted and cut into leaf shapes.
L2O’s particulars remain extraordinary—Chicago’s best bread service, an unparalleled wine program—but a few nagging details remain. Our table was so scuffed we wondered if November’s conflict took place right there on the thick Macassar ebony wood. The staff still seem a bit shell shocked, as if they aren’t sure yet whether they’re allowed to laugh. And Brennan may be dialing back on complexity, but at these prices, it takes major chutzpah to serve courses so minimalist—six matsutake mushrooms in a sake broth—that they’re almost invisible. Then again, when you balance these with sumptuous showstoppers such as a creamy farm egg and black truffles on a thick cauliflower purée with a rich roast-chicken-and-truffle jus, you’re not walking out of L2O hungry.
Before Gras’s departure, Brennan and Melman had been planning a restaurant together, but Brennan leaped at the chance to steer L2O. “His eyes got wide when I told him Laurent was leaving,” says Melman. Brennan claims he’s in for the long haul, but Melman says if he has a strong team in place a year from now, his chef could split time between L2O and the new project. (You’ve got to love the horse-trading that goes on in Melman’s universe, which involves more than 6,000 employees and an idea file the size of a Buick.)
Laurent Gras, now scouting locations for a casual restaurant in New York, set the template for L2O. But Brennan takes the whole enterprise closer to Melman’s original goal, which was less about Michelin stars and more about creating Chicago’s answer to Le Bernardin, New York’s beloved seafood lair that focuses on simple flavors rather than complex amalgams. In other words, L2O may not be perfect, but it’s finally human.
Photograph: Anna Knott