Japanese Category

The Gingko Experiment: The beginning

When we moved into our house here in Chicago nine years ago (did I just say nine?!), my parents came for a housewarming visit in the Fall. It was early September, and I was giving my Dad a tour of the front of the house.

“…and here is the front porch, Dad. Uh, Dad?”

No answer. I turned to face my Dad and sure enough, he was staring up into a couple of trees in front of the house and not listening to me one bit.

“Uh, what are you looking at? Did you see a squirrel or something?” I asked.

“Jeanne, do you know what these are?” he said using his whiny sarcastic voice to poke fun.

“You mean ‘trees’?” I replied, grinning. “Hey, by the way, something stinks. Smells like something died over here.”

He reached down and picked up what looked like a perfectly round jade-green grape.

“This is a gingko nut and these are gingko trees – one male and one female. How lucky you are!”

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If it wasn’t for my Dad and our Korean heritage, I may have spent these nine years not knowing the treasure that grew right in front of my house. Instead, the tree may have just been the source of a putrid stink from pulp staining the sidewalk brownish red as people squashed the nuts under their feet.

Gingko nut trees (also known as Maidenhair trees) are considered “living fossils” as they are biologically the oldest trees in the world. The Chinese especially revere the tree and its nuts as sacred. It is known as the Silver Almond Tree, White Nut Tree, or Ancestor Tree. The nuts are still used in East Asian cooking today, especially in Japan and Korea. In Korea, it’s popular to thread the nuts onto pine needles or skewers, and then grill them. In Japan, one may be lucky enough to find a gingko nut in a chawanmushi or matsutake mushroom soup. The gingko biloba extract is famous for its medicinal properties as well.

Today, I woke up to a refreshingly rainy September morning and thought of my father as the leaves of the gingko tree rippled outside my window. My forager instinct bloomed instantly and I anxiously went outside to reacquaint myself with the smelly gems.

Alas, the nuts still have yet to turn orange and slightly soft. And the stink certainly hasn’t reached its full potency.  I’ll need to wait a bit longer.

No matter. I can wait, my pretties!

Cooking them of course will be the next challenge; this being no easy feat. Preparing gingko nuts isn’t just stinky and messy, it can actually severely irritate the skin. There are days for drying as well before cooking can even begin.

But who doesn’t love a challenge? Stay tuned…

L20

Jordan and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary together at L20 which now occupies the previous space of the one-and-only Ambria at the Belden-Stratford in Chicago.

Ambria was where Jordan took me the night he proposed in our apartment kitchen in Albany Park. One minute I’m standing “unplugged” in my after-work sweats, chowing down on Doritos – my hands a sticky cheesy mess – and the next minute I’m on cloud nine and being whisked off to this utterly romantic French “institution” where they revealed each impeccable course with a perfectly timed voila! It was our anniversary place every year after that.

They shuttered their windows in 2007. We were so bummed! We experienced some of our most memorable and sustaining food experiences there: Jordan’s introduction to the velvety embrace of a just-out-of-the oven chocolate soufflé, the unbelievable pistachio crème brulee, and roasted squab which to our untrained palettes was a challenge back then, but no less memorable.

So needless to say L20 had a lot to prove! And I’m happy to report that our indulgent introduction to Chef Laurent Gras‘ culinary haven absolutely deserves another visit.

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I decided on the “Singular” and Jordan the “Summer.” And, oh yeah, the Caviar to kick off the experience. No, we didn’t? Oh yes. We did.

Italian Ossetra Caviar (1 oz), Toast, Creme Fraiche

The “Singular” (Ten course) Luxury Ingredient tasting menu

Kindai Toro, Ossetra Caviar

Kinmedai, Olive, Shiso

Foie gras, Watermelon, Pasilla

Cappeli, Ricotta, Ramp

Kanburi, Matcha

Lobster, Hibiscus Mole

Morel, Asparagus

Kanburi, Matcha, King Mushroom

Snake River Wagyu, Potato “Tots”, Truffle Emulsion

Bing cherry, Rainier Cherry

Chocolate Surprise

The “Summer” (Twelve course) Seasonal tasting menu

Medai, Tuna, Tofu, Smoked Prawn, Peekytoe Crab, Foie Gras, Halibut, Salted Cod, Hiramasa, Kingfish, Short Rib, Raspberry, Peanut Butter

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The clean, simple, and structured menu surely respects each ingredient, making each a star on its own. But it doesn’t reflect the dynamic culinary signature that’s absorbed into the essence of every one of Chef Gras’s dishes.

This is serious 5-star food.

Flavors that weave the complexity and sophistication of  French cuisine with familiar and comforting Asian tastes and ingredients – some bold, others subtle. Ethereal and whimsical presentations. Bold points of light on the palette.

I’ve decided to highlight only some of the most memorable and unique dishes.

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From the “Singular”

By far, my favorite dish was the foie gras with watermelon and pasilla. Presented like a nigiri sushi where a strip of nori wraps the fish to rice like a package, so was this dish presented. A strip of firm pasilla gelee wrapped the block of watermelon with the seared foie gras on top into a neat delectable tower on the plate. The crisp juicy sweetness of the watermelon was the perfect counterpoint to the rich foie gras. But like a silky embrace, the pasilla puree hidden between the foie gras and the watermelon immediately warmed the tongue with its smoky sweet flavors melding all the flavors and textures perfectly together.

From the “Summer”:
Tofu –
The pleasantly grainy and refreshing homemade tofu melted on the tongue and conjured up the sensation of hot bare feet on a cool bamboo tatami.
Pickled Watermelon Rind – Chef Gras got a lil’ southern on us in this dish and it’s a truly rare occasion when I’m not first in line to try something inspired by the food of the South. The pickled rind and cold smoked ever-sweet prawn conjured images of bright yellows and briny breezes.
Ume “Dumpling” – Although the boldly flavored dish of halibut, spring peas, ginger, and ramps was enough to take one’s taste buds on a ride, the chewy and tender rice dumpling stuffed with “ume” or japanese pickled plum elevated this dish into something truly out of this world.

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So any downsides? Well if I’m thoroughly picky, a couple things I’d mention:

Kindai Toro – The ground fish was frozen in the middle making the fish almost flavorless and texturally icy. Pretty disappointing given it kicked off the Singular courses.

Italian Ossetra Caviar – Can’t go wrong with caviar and this one had a balanced brininess and sweetness. Straightforward. Very easy to devour. But the crème fraiche was too cold and therefore gooey. It was like it had been sitting overnight in the fridge and they hadn’t let it thaw long enough before serving.

The Service – Our waiter was personable, attractive, and attentive. But to be fair, for the price of our meal, there should have been no slip-ups. Although we informed him upfront that Jordan would prefer no alcohol in his food, he served Jordan the peanut butter soufflé that was finished with whiskey. He did apologize profusely but if we weren’t already so stuffed, this would have been a big doh!

Also when our waiter was absent, some of his overzealous colleagues decided to serve our fruit dessert course and served me the wrong dessert. Our waiter was clearly not amused and promptly righted the wrong.

Lastly we almost left without our special custom anniversary menus to take home. “Ketty and Bob” would have been very disappointed as well. So we had to wait a few minutes for the waiter to track it down.

By no means did these slip-ups ruin our experience and I would still rate service 4-star, but for the huge bill, I feel we have the right to expect no slip-ups – especially as easy to prevent as these ones.

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The Experience
If you want to splurge, definitely try L20. The interior is gorgeous and slick but still comfortable. Try to sit along the far back wall facing the rest of the floor so you can to get the best view of the place and watch the smooth orchestrations of the model-esque wait staff between each course.

The food was incredibly sophisticated but also takes chances with bold flavors that show off the essence of each ingredient on the plate. At the same time, the chef also imbued a delicate whimsy – dare I say a “kawaii” factor – to each course which delighted me even more.

Japanese and French flavors and techniques have fallen in love at L20 making it an enduring marriage between classic indulgence and inspiring exotic twists.

What a perfect way to celebrate our special day.

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= Skip it!
= Meh
= Worth a Try
= Must go!
= Best. Meal. Ever.

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L20

2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago

773-868-0002

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08 2010