07/26/2011 07:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

On the Culture Front: Blackbird and L2O in Chicago

I've long heard that Chicago has become a culinary mecca so naturally I was curious to check out some places when visiting friends the other week. Both are recent transplants to the city from New York and eager to join me in my adventures. Two places made a particularly vivid impression.

Blackbird (run by partners Donnie Madia and Chicago native Paul Kahan) finds the perfect balance between the formal and the casual. The food is carefully thought out but not fussy, the décor is sharp yet casual, and the staff is warm and not afraid to venture off the menu to please -- they made me a series of custom bourbon cocktails when I couldn't find my desired drink of choice on the menu.

We began with a refreshing amuse of sturgeon in a light sauce that opened our palates (and stomachs) for the feast to come. So many of the apps looked tasty, but we finally settled on splitting the veal sweetbreads, suckling pig, and endive salad topped with pancetta and a poached egg. The portions were so generous they could make a not-so-small meal in and of themselves.

We then feasted on a midcourse of Wagyu beef tartare and freshly made agnolotti pasta. The idea of tartare has never been too appealing to me, but I think Kahan's may just have changed my mind. It was so flavorful and tender that I was a little sad when it was all gone, but then the main courses came and we dug into elk poached in duck fat, duck breast, and a roast leg of lamb. My elk was a little chewier than I had on a recent trip to Norway, but that's a small quibble as it was still pretty delicious. My friend's duck might have been my favorite though, and each of our dishes came with a fruit pairing that opened the meat up in surprising ways.

As stuffed as we were, I'm glad we made room to split a dessert. We caught a glimpse of the banana pain perdu early on at a neighboring table, which peaked our interest, and we weren't disappointed. The cake was warm, fluffy, and served with a bourbon barrel wood ice cream that was the highlight of the dish and possibly the evening in my bourbon-loving biased opinion.

The following evening we went to the newly anointed three-star Michelin restaurant L20, which, given its seafood focus, seemed to be Chicago's Le Bernardin. I was a bit out of sorts when we arrived (due to the unforgivingly hot temperature and long walk from the El), and made for the restroom to regroup, which thankfully was stocked with fresh, plush towels.

As I made my way to my table, I realized how dark the place was in contrast with the outside, but as my eyes adjusted, a sense of calm came over me as I sat on a leather couch sipping the house cocktail of champagne and with a drop of liquor. The tables are spread out in a way that just about everyone has their own section. There's even a cart next to each one that contains all the silverware and dinning accoutrements that will be presented throughout the evening. It's like a performance, and the staff adopts these coolly serious looks as they serve, which might seem overly formal, but strike up a conversation with one of them and it quickly melts away. Our waiter was quite friendly, in fact, and engaged us in little anecdotes about the restaurant and the city between the eight courses (and wine pairings) chef Francis Brennan prepared. I kind of wanted to invite him to have a drink with us, but I thought that might be breaking an unspoken rule.

We started off with a Hamachi I found oppressively fishy but quickly moved into one of my favorite dishes of the evening: a small bowl of Maryland crab en Gelee topped with fennel cream and basil. It was almost like a cold crab soup without the broth. A medley of mussels, clams, corn, and zucchini mixed in lardo came next, and tasted fresh from the sea in a way that evokes a sense of being on the water, tasting a little salt water as you push past currents. The Maine scallop that followed was equally refreshing, and perfectly cooked. Ordering scallops in a restaurant is a crapshoot I usually avoid, but this was outstanding. Cooked with leeks and black truffles, it was hands down the best scallop I've had.

The four glasses of wine the previous courses were paired with reawakened my taste for white wine. For the last couple years I've stuck to red, due mainly to the acidity and lack of complexity in my experiences with whites, but these were restrained, nuanced, and highly drinkable. In fact, the Riesling Grand Cru they paired with a decadent dish of lobster, smoked foie gras, and porcini mushrooms was my favorite of the night.

I started to wonder how much more we could physically eat when they brought out a whole scorpion fish on a nicely decorated plate. At first, I feared we'd each be given one until we learned they were going to use it to make a bouillabaisse. It was a tasty way to finish, but wait, there was more -- a duo of desserts and accompanying wines, but in the food coma I was slowly slipping into, I only remember the Grand Mariner soufflé, which stayed perfectly puffed almost to the last bite.