23 North Lincoln Park West, Chicago, 60614, United States

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Chef interview

Francis Brennan is the head chef at L20, one of two restaurants granted three stars by Michelin in their inaugural Chicago edition.

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Editor's note. In October 2014 it was annpunced that L20 would close on January 1st 2015. It will be missed.

L20 is on the ground floor of the Belden Stratford hotel, and has been open since May 2008. It gained three Michelin stars in the inaugural edition of Chicago Michelin under the direction of chef Laurent Gras, who trained at Lucas Carton, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse, both in Monaco at Louis XV and as chef de cuisine of Alain Ducasse Paris, before moving to The 5th Floor in San Francisco. Laurent left in November 2010, and when I ate there the kitchen was in the capable hands of his protégé Francis Brennan, who was chef de cuisine here when L20 opened and had worked previously with Laurent Gras in San Francisco. Late in 2011 the executive chef positioned changed once more, and the chef in charge is now Matthew Kirkley. Matthew  began his professional career at Philadelphia’s Striped Bass. In 2004 he moved to Chicago to work at Seasons Restaurant at the Four Seasons and then NoMI at the Park Hyatt before becoming sous-chef at Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas. Kirkley returned to Chicago to work at L2O, and later Ria and Balsan, becoming executive chef at L20 in late 2011.

The dining room is modern in style, with a dark carpet, muzak at tolerable volume levels, wood panelling and a quite high ceiling. The cuisine emphasizes seafood and there are some Japanese influences; this was reflected on the evening of our visit, where there were more Japanese diners than westerners. You begin the meal, Japanese style, by being offered a hot towel, and there is a selection of sake as well as wine. The tables themselves are large and generously spaced, dark wood with no tablecloths.

As we studied the menu a pretty amuse-bouche appeared of salmon mousse with cucumber gelee and salmon roe, the salmon flavour coming through strongly and its richness balanced well by the cucumber (18/20).  The lengthy wine list has offerings from around the world, with selections such as Riesling Kilikanoon Morts Block priced at $50 for a wine that retails at $20, up to much grander wines such as Guigal La Mouline 1994 at $1,200 for a wine that can be found for $349 in the shops, and with some prestige labels like Romanee Conti Montrachet 1994 at $4,200 compared to a shop price of $2,801. We drank the lovely Kistler Vine Hill 2007 at a not unreasonable $180 for a wine whose retail price was $95.

There were tasting menus available at $188 and $148 for the Spring menu, with a four course a la carte priced at the fairly kind (for a restaurant of this stature) level of $115. Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, and included excellent bacon and mustard bread, rosemary brioche (which for me could have had more rosemary flavour), milk bread, sesame roll and country bread. Overall the bread was around 18/20, with the bacon bread a notch higher.

A further nibble then appeared. Peekytoe crab was steamed and chilled, served with slices of avocado, with an aioli, Granny Smith apple and a jelly flavoured with lemon grass, kaffir lime, a hint of jalapeño and lemon oil. This was a lovely dish, the crab having terrific flavour, the avocado very ripe and rich, with just enough citrus in the dish to provide balance (19/20).

Next was a delightful mouthful: lobster roll made with brioche, lobster salad, truffle aioli and a little Romaine lettuce. The lobster was very tender and the bread gorgeous, the overall effect like a miniature sandwich, but a sandwich of your dreams (20/20). One starter was lobster bisque with poached Maine lobster tail, with a lobster and scallop dumpling and the bisque flavored with cognac and chestnuts, with a scoop of fresh cream added at the table. This was the only dish of the meal with a technical error, the lobster being distinctly overcooked and chewy. Beyond this, for me the chestnut flavour was too strong (barely 15/20 overall), though the lobster flavour did come through well in the bisque.

My starter was lobster and uni emulsion with home-made tagliolini tossed with olive oil and chives, with further sea urchin surrounding the pasta and a garnish of osetra caviar; the pasta was excellent and the dish provided a nice mix of salt from the caviar to balance the richness of the sea urchin (19/20). A dish of Brittany turbot was cooked simply a la plancha, served with tapioca pearls and uzu butter, with grated black lime zest. The turbot was carefully cooked and the citrus flavors provided an enjoyable fresh flavour to the dish (18/20).

Black bass was served with preserved lemon butter, with a "crouton" of very thin crisp bread, warm crab and shaved Brussels sprout salad with zest of orange, lemon and pepper. This was served with piperade sauce with lobster and chicken bouillon, red bell pepper, a hint of chorizo and a little tomato, samphire and shallot. The fish had good flavour and the dish was well seasoned; although there was a lot going on with this dish it worked very well, the elements going harmoniously together (19/20).

A11 grade Australian wagyu beef was grilled and then rested in sake, dusted with lime zest and soya salt. This was served with (this time very tender) Maine lobster tail and claw, foie gras and black truffle emulsion, seared king oyster mushrooms and Yukon Gold potato fondants. The beef itself was very tender, the marbling providing good flavour, and I really liked the fondant potatoes; I am not sure what the mushrooms really added but for me the dish would have been better with more sauce, the effect being just a little drier than I would have liked (18/20).

Following this was a little cucumber and sake granita with a hint of lime zest that for me had not quite enough lime (17/20). We both tried soufflés, one praline and hazelnut, the other Grand Marnier and orange. These were both absolutely magnificent soufflés, beautifully risen, with very light, fluffy texture, and perfectly cooked through all the way to the bottom – flawless (20/20). I believe the person who cooks the soufflés in the kitchen is called Brittany, and she can cook me a soufflé any time; any three-star restaurant would be proud of these soufflés.

Petit fours comprised a very good lemon macaroon, banana-rum bon bon and an Italian sponge. The coffee was excellent, supplied by a local company called Metropolis. Service was exemplary, our waiter (Dan) simply brilliant, friendly and very knowledgeable. The bill per person came to $283, but this was with good wine (remember that the food itself was only $115 per person). We had a look at the kitchen and it was vast, probably larger than the dining room, with 14 chefs in the brigade.

Overall I thought this was a terrific meal, with appealing dishes, high quality ingredients, attractive presentation and plenty of technical skill on show (other than the solitary lobster error). The ingredient and flavour combinations were logical and the whole meal highly enjoyable; for me this restaurant fully deserves its three stars (19/20).

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    went here 07/2012. after the changeover. lovely interior, good service, but found the taste empty and absolutely lacking. wish we could have had the 3* experience