Laurent Gras considers his ducks (photo: Joseph Storch)
You can tell Laurent Gras is a perfectionist. The Chef of‚ L20 (pronounced "el, two, oh" - a riff on‚ H20) inside the Belden Stratford Hotel, is as meticulous about his chef's coat as he is a dish that would otherwise be considered a token on his menu. The restaurant has, since it opened, attempted to be the Midwest version of New York City's Le Bernardin: a place generally considered to be the finest seafood restaurant in America (it certainly has my vote). But Gras has been attempting to up the ante a bit with his‚ presentations, adding foams and gelees and other ephemera that may or may not always work with the most pristine seafood within 300 miles of Chicago. Yet a menu with 98% seafood also has to have some alternative proteins (you can't please everyone), so Gras usually keeps a chicken or a squab around, just in case Aunt Harriet from Minneapolis is dining with you, and she just doesn't feel like salted cod or fluke. Recently, Gras has decided to offer Peking duck as his alternative protein, so it was with some curiosity that I checked it out, being a huge fan of the ducks sliced tableside at Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown, typically offered in multi-course tastings.
Hanging duck at L20 (photo by Joseph Storch)
"Today it's Peking duck, previously its been chickens. We may switch to a squab in a few weeks," said Gras. "I think it's important for guests to find what they are looking for when they come into a fine dining experience." The process takes nearly a week. The ducks are first cleaned when they arrive, then an air pump is inserted between the skin and meat, as air is pumped in, separating it from the fatty breast. The birds are poached briefly, then brushed with a solution containing maltrose and red wine vinegar. Gras has them hung in a cold smoker that is turned off, for up to five days, which dries them out.
Crisping the skin (photo by Joseph Storch)
Finally, the ducks are deep-fried to crisp-up the skin, and just like Sun Wah, they are served tableside, where they're carved and meticulously plated along with a pasilla chile, coffee and lemon sauce, plus a plump little duck potsticker.
Gras' second course is even more impressive: the finely-chopped duck is combined with foie gras and served in a savoy cabbage dome, topped by a sliver of crispy duck skin. The dome swims in a shallow pool of incredibly rich - yet light - duck consommé:
"I think it's important to fulfill your appetite. So I think when you have a duck, when you finish the dish you want to be completely fulfilled," said Gras. "So the first course is a roasted meat and then the second course would be more like a‚ consomme, like a‚ pot au feu, which is light, but has a lot of richness in flavor."