Anthony Tahlier
Fashion forward: Laurent Gras' deconstructed "seafood platter"—pristine shellfish, shells removed, on a block of frozen crystal and topped with lemongrass foam.
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Coup de Gras

Beverly Stephen - October 2008

After working both coasts, a fashion plate French chef tailors his dream fish restaurant in the Midwest's Carnivore City.

"You cook like you look." So chef Laurent Gras informed his partner, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, as they prepared to open Chicago's L2O this May. Exactly. With his spiky hair and custom designed stretch denim chef's jacket narrowly fitted in gray and white pinstripes, this lithe, handsome Frenchman is clearly more Armani than abbondanza. The polar opposite of a Molto Mario, Gras meticulously plates perfectly cut sashimi and tiny freeze-dried raspberries using a tweezer. No steaming platters here.

A corollary might be that you also cook like your kitchen looks. Philippe Starck pendant lamps illuminate the work counters covered with black silicone mats. Nonskid floor tiles could easily be mistaken for slate. Neatly labeled rows of clear plastic Oxo containers displaying spices inspire closet envy of Carrie Bradshaw magnitude. Chic, calm, modern, restrained, perfectly ordered. "It's very comfortable to work here. There's less stress. You're not so tired", Gras says. "When the staff feels comfortable, the diner feels more comfortable."

Gras' personal passion, the sashimi station, headlines the kitchen, and it's there where he stands to expedite. From that vantage point, a clear sightline runs through the entire length of the kitchen. He can see every station, every cook. And he can keep an eagle eye on the fish. This son of the Mediterranean, who grew up in Antibes, confirms that he has "a very strong interest in fish."

Who else would think to open a modern fish restaurant in carnivorous Chicago? Melman, the über Chicago restaurateur, that's who. He'd been toying with the idea over the past 10 years. "I didn't pursue it on a weekly basis, but whenever someone was talented and could cook seafood in a fresher, newer way, I would pay attention," Melman recalls. "Over the years three or four different people cooked for me." He first met Gras when he was doing an event at Tru, also a LEYE property, and a five year courtship ensued. He visited the restaurants where Gras was cooking in New York City and San Francisco. He approached him about partnering in a restaurant about three years ago, but Gras was not yet ready to relocate to Chicago. Finally he brought him on as a consultant. "I figured he'd get to know Chicago and I'd get to know him better. After a while he said he liked Chicago, and it might be an interesting place to do a restaurant," Melman recalls.

Convinced that a modern seafood restaurant would need a raw fish component, Melman was wondering if that meant hiring a sushi expert. Instead Gras plunged into the kitchen at Tru and came up with 27 different preparations. "They were terrific, really unique and wonderful", Melman says. "The rest is history. We put a team together and built this restaurant."

Or as Gras says, "Rich liked the food. Rich doesn't do a restaurant with you if he doesn't like the food."

When people say, "Why Chicago?" the L2O team says, "Why not?"

"Maybe we're making people stretch a little bit", Melman concedes. "It might be more understandable in New York, but Chicago is a smaller New York. L2O is pretty out there, but we do have Alinea and Charlie Trotter's." He admits this may not have been an ideal time to open a restaurant with a $200 check average, but "So far we're doing well. We've gotten two four-star reviews."

Melman did request a couple of meat items on the menu just to hedge his bets. And so there's lamb, pork belly, and Wagyu beef.

After building his career in France with Alain Ducasse, Jacques Maximim, and Guy Savoy, Gras polished his moves at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City and then at Fifth Floor in San Francisco. This wordly experience convinced him that cosmopolitan customers "are all the same at this level. They're well educated, well traveled, sophisticated."

For these knowing sophisticates, Gras was determined to provide a setting that would complement his cuisine and to make sure that his kitchen was perfectly organized and outfitted to produce it. Gras was hands-on in the design process, working closely with both kitchen designer Tim Harrison and architect Dirk Denison—even going so far as visiting the veneer distributor to pick the wood "we wanted down to the exact tree"—from its conception until the May 2008 opening. Beginning in December 2007, he recounted it step-by-step on his blog, in the process attracting a loyal readership and not an insignificant number of customers. "Some chefs say, ‘You're the expert, just do it,' " says Harrison, who also did The French Laundry and Per Se. "Others, like Laurent and Thomas Keller, are very detail oriented and say, ‘This is my philosophy, and this is what I'm looking for."

"We went through 10 or 12 layouts. This is his dream. This is what he worked for all these years", says Harrison. "He was involved in every detail. This is not just all about food. It's about the whole ambience. The statement of the space saying this is who I am is really quite remarkable."

Once past the sashimi station, which in many ways is a Gras trademark and comprises an entire section of his four course tasting menu, the kitchen segues into a cooking line divided into three sections by technique—steam, sauté, and grill—instead of the more standard meat/fish/entremetier. The cook line ranges have either gas or electric ovens dependant on location, gas fired broilers with multiple grates, solid top cooking surface (French Top) electric planchas, undercounter combi-ovens, raised refrigerated mise-en-place rails, wall mounted finishing salamanders, and service sinks with faucets. "The gas fired grill can do multiple preparations at once," Harrison explains. "You can grill directly on the grates and/or set the brochette frame in place and grill food on skewers at the same time. The skewers do not turn automatically." As a plus the combi-ovens are on sliding racks that pull out for maintenance. There's only one walk-in, the rest are reach-ins. "It's a signature thing we do," says Harrison. "It's the Traulsen refrigeration units we originally designed for Per Se. These are more efficient and less wasteful. There's no possible cross-contamination between fish and dairy and poultry, et cetera."

And then there are the space age special pieces that enable Gras to cook what he calls "food for 2008." The first is a freeze-dry machine that looks a bit like a miniature iron lung. "Generally food freeze-dryers are industrial size that handle about six tons," Harrison explains. "So we found a small floral dehydrator that Freeze Dry Company customized a bit to meet National Sani­tation Foundation guidelines." Gras freeze-dries herbs, berries, and even soy sauce for special effects. When soy, for example, is freeze-dried, it hardens like a rock that, essentially using it as a salt, Gras can break and flake.

Another favorite gadget is the Gastrovac, which creates a low pressure, oxygen free atmosphere. "We make all our stocks in the Gastrovac. They are very concentrated. There is no reduction," says Gras. He also uses it to obtain a perfect texture in cooked vegetables.

A cold smoker lets him smoke fish in a refrigerated environment; the 100 liter tank of liquid nitrogen is used "to freeze some things."
Gras churns his own butter and produces such spectacular loaves in a French Pavailler bread oven that even the late Dr. Atkins would likely have given into temptation.

The serene minimalist dining room perfectly complements this spare cuisine. Diners enter through a copse of dark Makassar ebony columns meant to provide a transition from the hurly-burly of the city to an almost Zen-like inner sanctum. Sen, a type of Japanese ash with a subtle straight grain that could take a warm caramel stain was chosen for the wall panels. In the private Tatami Room, an Arabian yellow cedar table is sanded before service both for cleaning and to release an aroma that imitates the fragrance of Japanese Hanoli wood that sushi chefs feel complements their food. Edgar sofas designed by a master Barcelona architect are covered in vegetable–tanned leathers. Onyx rests prevent silverware from touching the bare ebony tables. This is so totally not the place to bring your five year old with crayons.

But for adults the overall effect is tranquil and serene, somewhat akin to a high-end spa. It's the perfect setting for Gras' precise pristine plates which reflect both a French and a Japanese sensibility. And so these guests settle in for a prix-fixe four course tasting menu at $110. The first course is "Raw" (mostly sashimi though a vegetable consommé is offered), the second "Warm" appetizers, the third "Main," and the fourth "Dessert." "I decided not to follow the traditional European progression on the tasting menu. I don't think it applies to a seafood-focused restaurant and my style of cooking," Gras says. "Also people want to eat lighter and not feel so heavy at the end of the meal. The beginning is always a cold delicate dish. The finish is hot, rich, and very textural. The middle courses are variations."

The spare, haiku-like menu gives few clues about the nature of the dish: "Black bass, shellfish bouillon, saffron, Rhode Island mussel." Gras notes that he has written his menus this way for "maybe 10 years now. I think people order based on the foods and flavors they would like to eat—not the preparation. The menu categories give some idea of the preparation."

In some cases he writes at length about the dishes on his blog or gives recipes. The bass, he discloses, is "crusted over with a slice of pan-fried white bread." The trick is to keep the bread crispy while cooking the fish. "Placing the bass in the pan with the bread on top, with a braising liquid halfway up the height of the fish, and baking it in a combi-oven with 40 percent humidity at 140 degrees Celsius [284°F] gave us what we were expecting. A garnish of bouchot mussels, flavored with a fish bouillon made with saffron and katsuobushi, brought the other elements to the dish to make it rich and meaty in a very seafood way."

It's 2008 in Chicago, where cod is now in the details.

Equipment

Baking oven Pavailler
Blast chiller Electrolux
Cold smoker Enviro-Pak
Combi-ovens Rational
Cook line equipment Bonnet
Dishwashers Electrolux
Exhaust hoods Gaylord
Freeze dryer Freeze Dryer Company
Gastrovac International Cooking Concepts
Reach-in refrigerators Traulsen