It's my first trip to the States. I've just quit my job. I'm waaay too over-excited, but I catch my breath long enough to ask where's good to eat in the Windy City. L2O is suggested to me by gourmet traveller and, without hesitation, I book.
The husband and I are revelling at the view from the top of the Hancock Tower - he waves his hand loftily in the direction of L2O and said "It's just over there - it'll take us 20 minutes to get there, 25 minutes max".
45 minutes later, we're hot and bothered and seem to have overshot L2O as it's nowhere to be found. Turns out it's hidden inside the Belden Stratford hotel behind a nondescript door which is shut tight. The restaurant website is not clear about this, but then it's an arse to navigate and the background muzak meant I did not spend long perusing.
A family in front of us tug on the door handle and peer inside curiously, and then, seemingly startled, scurry off to leave us to walk in gingerly.
The dining room is dark and moody and reeks of hotel. Four suited members of staff spring from nowhere and show us to our table.
One of them delivers a dome of Australian butter to the table which for reasons unknown my husband christens "the Brain" and then offers us a choice of seven different types of dinky bread.
I choose a small baguette and a square roll (is that an oxymoron?), hubby chooses a rosemary croissant and a whorl of some sort (look, I don't know bread names and she reels them off way too quickly).
I chew on my tiny breads and stare at what looks like a filing cabinet next to our table. I can't resist opening the door - it's full of napery and cutlery for our meal.
There's a four course menu of Cold, Warm, Main and Dessert, or a choice of two tasting menus. We umm and ahh and then go for the Seasonal ie standard tasting menu rather than the Singular ie super-deluxe one.
The Seasonal menu comprises twelve courses described in an infuriatingly laconic way as Medai • Tuna • Tofu • Fluke • Scallop • Tai • Lobster • Hiramasa • King Salmon • Beef Tenderloin • Raspberry • Peanut Butter.
The waitress also gives us a sustainable fish glossary which I fail to read as I'm too busy stroking the paper - all the menus feel oddly velvety - it's addictively pleasing and yet somehow worryingly redolent of the Evil Dead Necronomicon.
First though are two amuse bouches - a flavourful morsel of lobster, and a savoury (yet anaemic-tasting) egg custard.
The latter is presented to me by a male waiter with a shy smile and the words, "Look, your one has a face". Husband's in hysterics.
Next up is "Medai, Ume, Sudashi, Fried Garlic".
The fish is deliciously ceviched (if I can use that as a verb), the Japanese citrus and apricot sauce providing a fantastic bite, though my husband thinks it's too sharp.
We both love the crunchy garlic chips though, which haven't a trace of bitterness.
This is followed by their take on a fish taco - tuna in a "taco shell" of agar with tiny melon balls, freeze-dried corn and salsa verde.
This is fun and the flavours harmonise well.
By the way - that filing cabinet is about to see some heavy use. After every course, someone scoops away all our cutlery and other accoutrements and lays out a new set. Seems like overkill to me.
A light dish of "Tofu, Itogaki, White Miso" comes next - basically hiyayakko with home-made tofu. The miso sauce is too strong for the delicate tofu.
And I've just looked up "itogaki" to find out exactly what the difference is between it and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and apparently itogaki is blue fin tuna and now I'm upset - what the feck is the point of your sustainable fish glossary, L2O?
Fluke! Fluke is next. I don't like the word "fluke" - it makes me think of liver flukes aka parasitic flatworms aka boak - but it's what they call flounder in the States.
It's a tiny piece on a vast plate - despite the dainty little flower, it looks sad. I eat it in one bite. It's fine.
Things look up with the next course - "Diver Scallop, Sauvignon Blanc, Vanilla, Passionfruit".
It's the fattest, sweetest scallop I've had in a long time with an unexpectedly delicious floret of caramelised cauliflower on top.
Even better is the first of the "mains" in our tasting menu. This is "Tai Snapper, Green Curry Deconstructed". This, my friends, is freaking awesome and not just the snapper itself. The wafer of fish-skin is crispy-awesome. The cilantro (cough, coriander) meringue is chewy-awesome. The green curry sherbet is crumbly-awesome. Even the random Brussels sprout leaves perched on top are leafy-awesome.
I want to dance around the floor wearing this dish on my head like a crown. But I want to eat it as well. I decide against the dancing.
More bliss comes in the form of more lobster - this time two generous chunks in a rich and frothy bisque.
Not quite as exciting as our green curry but it still calls for a tiny jig.
From great heights, we sadly have to descend. Hiramasa shabu-shabu is next on the bill.
What larks to swish-swish cook the food ourselves, but it's a flaccid fondue at best. I suddenly feel a little daft waiting for my slice of daikon as it warms through feebly in the konbu bouillon - especially as I prefer it in its crunchy-raw state.
King salmon next. I have zero recollection of this dish apart from the asparagus. Because asparagus stays with you, right? Right?
(dear God, being in America has turned me into a third-rate late night US chatshow host).
Some "Korean Barbecue" to follow - Beef Tenderloin, Kimchi, Rapini, Lettuce.
The home-pickled kimchi is brilliantly authentic-tasting. The rapini is also good, similar to celeriac remoulade. The lettuce is nicely braised with sesame, but the beef is just an un-barbecued wodge of tedium.
Doesn't seem right that the veggie sides should out-perform the meaty centrepiece, but they do.
Sweet stuff arrives. An un-billed cube of Guanaja chocolate truffle.
Deep, dark and deliciously bitter - things are looking up again.
And then something amazing.
Another un-billed pudding which looms at me delightfully. What is it? It's ... it's ... it's Kuato from Total Recall.
This pleases the husband and me no end. Hubby says "Why don't you ask Dr Tim* to make you a Kuato cake? He's a cake genius. That would be incredible". And I think yes, yes, that would be the most wonderful cake in the history of wonderful cakes ever and I resolve to do so.
And incidentally folks, that's two dishes with a face from L2O. That's got to be unprecedented.
The pud itself is just fancy Angel Delight. But that's not the important thing. The important thing is Kuato.
My cup of happiness then overflows when they bring out the first advertised dessert - "Raspberry, Golden Yuzu, Mascarpone".
A cube of solid yuzu essence and gold leaf is dissolved in light syrup before being poured over the mascarpone, fresh raspberries, and tiny spheres of raspberry juice, the last of which disperse whimsically and mix with the gold flecks looking like real raspberries which have somehow collapsed.
Not only is this dish the prettiest of them all, it's heavenly to boot. One of the best desserts I have ever had.
Look how happy I am. Look!
I'm still basking in the glory when suddenly three dark-suited people appear above us.
I'm momentarily concerned we're about to be carted off for some unknown misdemeanour, but it turns out that the last dessert has arrived - and a little prematurely.
"Sorry, it's hard to time these things", they shrug at us, as they whisk away the remnants of my raspberry joy and set down our peanut butter souffles.
A shadow passes across my face as I think we're paying them enough to get it right.
The shadow turns to thunder as we quickly realise the souffle is a disappointment, tasting of nothing but over-cooked egg and peanuts, making it weirdly savoury.
I have a few spoonfuls and leave the rest, wishing I could replay my time with the raspberry dessert.
But no time for nostalgia, the meal is coming to an end. Some petits fours arrive - a honey canelé "sealed with beeswax" and a passionfruit marshmallow.
The canele is solid and crunchy and tastes of candle - I decide right then that there's no need for anyone to eat beeswax in this world. The passionfruit marshmallow is okay, but was executed much better at Seafood Cellar in Reykjavik (possibly the best meal I have ever had, so Lord knows why I haven't written about it yet).
We don't feel like coffee, so we ask for the bill. I have a vague idea of how much it will be, but I'm still not prepared for the shock.
My husband says, "Hey, it's to celebrate your new job".
I say, "Hey, we'll be living on ketchup sachets pilfered from Burger King for a month".
So despite the wondrous deconstructed green curry and raspberry yuzu dessert, sadly the most memorable thing about L2O is the price. There are too many misses to justify the expense.
The fact is, I've eaten food just as stunning as those two magical dishes for a fraction of the cost and luckily I don't need to cross the Atlantic to enjoy it.
EDITED 16/11/2010: So L2O has just been awarded 3 Michelin Stars. THREE MICHELIN STARS. I am surprised.