My Dinner with Ludo

So, a little while back my new friend Noelle said some of my favorite words:  “Hey, I’m going to a fabulous dinner in a couple of weeks!  You must come with me!”  The tragedy was that Chuck would be out of town at the time, and would have to miss out.  I decided to man up and have a good time anyway.  As it happens, he ended up drinking all that same evening at Anvil in Houston, under the most excellent attentions of barmaster Bobby Heugel.  I’m sure Chuck will be writing about this in short order, so we’ll all be able to see just how much he was not, in fact, suffering.

What Noelle had in mind was a Ludo Bites dinner, a kind of guerrilla-style dining experience orchestrated by Chef Ludo Lefebvre.  The December incarnations of Ludo Bites are taking place at the Royal/T Café in Culver City, which bills itself as “LA’s first Japanese style cosplay café.”  What this means for civilians is a fascinating fusion of café, shopping and art space in an open, relaxing environment.  Which, I might add, happened to be whimsically decorated for Christmas.

Noelle arrived first, saw me drive by, called my mobile and said, “Park anywhere, it’s Sunday, the meters don’t matter!”  Yay for Sunday!  We were joined in short order by Noelle’s friends Kara and Mei-Lan, which made our party three girls to one boy, which made me the evening’s official Chick Magnet.  I’m just sayin’.

We perused the evening’s menu with high anticipation and growing fascination.  It’s a menu of small plates, larger than tapas but still ideal for sharing, which after all is the whole point, isn’t it?  (I told the story of a good friend who for a metaphorical few minutes dated a girl we ultimately never met, because at a dinner out one evening it was discovered that She Did Not Share Her Food.  It sounds like a sad story, but the ending is the best kind of happy, believe me.)  Within moments, I heard more of my favorite words, again I believe from Noelle:  “Let’s just order the whole menu, share everything and then see how we feel.  ‘Kay?”  It was perfectly ‘Kay by me–after all, it was only ten small plates plus dessert–and Kara and Mei-Lan raised no objections.  Let the games begin!

I’ll apologize right up front for my food photography, which is nowhere near Chuck’s in quality.  The lighting out our table was very dim and very warm, although we did have the benefit of the glow from more than one Christmas tree, and as you shall see there were mishaps along the way.  And I was too lazy to get up from the table to use the thoughtfully provided lightbox.

The first plate was described as “Tuna Sashimi, Sushi Rice Ice Cream, Yuzu Soy Sauce Gelée, Smoked Ginger Oil.”  (The word “Yuzu” had been scratched out and replaced with “Soy Sauce” written by hand.)  I’m not sure how different the yuzu gelée would have been, but I love me some sashimi, tuna in particular, and this dish was remarkable.  The tuna was a nice little slab, enough for four good bites (and a good thing, too).  The ginger oil and soy gelée made interesting flavor counterpoints to the rich, velvety tuna, and that alone would have been wonderful, but for me the sushi rice ice cream was what put it over the top.  It was heavy, but in a good rather than a bad way, like the luxurious weight of a goose-down duvet on a chilly Saturday morning, when you don’t have to get up, not just yet.  It was just sweet enough, with only enough sugar to register and not enough to overwhelm the subtle flavor of rice.  I think I said something like, “I’ll be needing several pints of that, to take home.”

The second plate to arrive:  Egg “Meurette”, with Red Cabbage and Lardo Toast.  That’s right, lardo toast.  Sauce meurette always fascinates me because the dark flavors of its constituent red wine and stock seem like they would be well paired with meat, but traditionally it accompanies eggs or fish.  Here the egg was perfectly, perfectly soft-poached.  The slivered red cabbage added some crunch for good textural contrast, although without adding much actual flavor to the concentrated essences of the sauce.  The lardo toasts — oh, the toasts!  More great crunch against the softness of the egg, and spread with pork fat … what’s not to love?  I would gladly have stolen this whole plate for myself, but I couldn’t come up with a good enough distraction on such short order.

Here you see the Caramelized Endive Salad with Caramelized Citrus and Gingerbread.  The endive was caramelized to fork-tender softness, while the citrus slices seemed slightly less so, as they still had some of their juicy pop in the mouth.  No wimpy gingerbread here, as the dark little crumbles were bright with the bite of ginger.  This was another interesting exercise in flavor and textural contrasts, although in the end one that didn’t seem to work equally well for all of us.  I honestly think the endive may have been the weak link for me, as it didn’t seem to provide much flavor of its own, and when the gingerbread “croutons” ran out, as eventually they did, the plate became noticeably less interesting.  Still, the combination was adventurous, and overall the bright flavors and citrus-y acid were a good prelude to …

Celery Root Soup with Black Truffle and Parmesan.  Now, I like celery just fine, although in all honesty I tend to like it best when it’s spread with peanut butter, or maybe some spray cheese from the can.  Celery root soup is a classic in its own right, but one that I’m not sure I’ve had more than a few times in my adult life, so this was something of a revelation.  Silky and mellow, with maybe a suggestion of parsley somewhere in there, but with greater fullness from the parmesan, and the earthy flavor and heady aroma of the black truffles … wow.  Just wow.

Not everybody likes squid.  I feel safe making this observation.  Hey, that’s okay — I don’t much care for mussels myself.  But I do like squid, and not just battered-and-fried calamari rings with ranch dressing (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Here you see Sautéed Monterey Squid with Chorizo Oil, Kimchi Purée and Black Olive.  The flesh was perfectly cooked, firm but tender, with not a hint of pencil-eraser rubberiness.  There was a nice rush of spice and heat from the kimchi and chorizo, and the black olive was simultaneously earthy and oily, dark and rich.  I don’t know if this would qualify as a Squid Conversion Experience for anyone not already a fan, but it was Migh Tee Good.

Last year, we heard tell of an item on the menu at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, a savory creation the very idea, the very mention of which left us faint, even swooning with desire.  What was it, you may wonder?  Foie Gras “Du Monde,” essentially foie gras beignets served with a side of foie gras café au lait.  Sadly, we have not yet had the opportunity to try this delicacy of delicacies, but I have high hopes that it will be on the menu still/again next time I eat at Commander’s.  Fortunately for me, although alas not for Chuck, Chef Ludo included a not dissimilar creation on his menu:  Foie Gras Beignet with Saffron-Dried Apricot.  Where the Commander’s Palace beignets showcased slabs of foie gras perched atop, here the foie was hidden inside, like a secret toy surprise, almost melted warmth of the fried dough.  The somewhat sweet, mostly tart flavor of apricot balanced against the savory foie in a give-and-take where both won, and neither lost.  We actually ordered a second one of these, just on general principles, although it never materialized, which as you shall see was probably just as well.

If at any time (in, let’s say, ever) you had happened to ask me, “Tell me two great tastes that taste great together,” I almost certainly would not have said “cod and teriyaki.”  This may be part of the reason I’m not a world-class chef.  I would never even think of putting together things as seemingly disparate as Ludo did in his Cod Teriyaki with Mashed Potato, Pickled Garlic and Lemon-Miso.  Teriyaki can be heavy and sticky, but this was clean and pungent, and the cod was just gorgeous:  firm, moist and flaky, really a gorgeous piece of fish.

The next thing that happened was very interesting.  Our waitress came to the table and said what seemed somehow like a code phrase to Noelle:  “We have fried chicken.”  Fried chicken?  But there’s no fried chicken on the menu tonight.  What the hamfat?  Noelle clapped her hands and said, very sweetly, “How much?”  I believe the grin on our waitress’ face might best be described as devious.  “How much do you want?”  Noelle paused to consider.  “Two, I think, please and thank you.”  It was all very mysterious, until two plates arrived on the table.

Cue the heavenly strains, the angelic choirs, the glorious fanfares.  The plates cradled Chef Ludo’s fried chicken:  glorious, boneless, moist and juicy, perfectly battered and seasoned, and served with an accompaniment of slightly grilled candle corn.  This was miles, though, from “Big” Little Man Tom Hanks.  I may, just may, have had better fried chicken in my life, somewhere.  I can’t be completely positive, but I’ve had some extraordinarily good fried chicken, so it’s entirely possible.  But Ludo’s is at worst No. 2 on my life, and quite possibly No. 1.  I know I want some more … right now.

You may berate me now.  This is where my photographic skills fail us.  Or perhaps it’s where the two bottles of wine we enjoyed begin at least to show their effects.  I have no presentable photographs of the next item on the menu:  Crispy Confit Pork Belly with Burnt Eggplant Puree and Plantains.  I know, I know.  It’s pork, for the love of all that’s holy!  How could you not get a picture?  I know.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  And that’s from a Protestant.  I do have some photos, and they do help me to remember the presentation more clearly, but they’re entirely, embarrassingly out of focus and completely unusable.  I shall endeavor to make up for it in prose. 

The confit pork belly was revelatory.  I’ve had my share of pork before, probably far more than my share, and this was intensely porky, smoky, unctuous, indulgent and sinful.  It was redolent of Pig.  It was a thing of beauty and a joy for 45 seconds, and as much longer as it lasts in my sense memory.  There was a little fried fritter of plantains balanced against the slab of pork belly, and a foam (not mentioned on the menu) of what we thought might be coconut milk, not sweet at all but with that slightly fruity/fleshy flavor and mouthfeel of young coconut flesh.  It was a fascinating accompaniment, but far from essential in the big picture, as pork speaks for itself.  The burnt eggplant purée, in all honesty, seemed something of a misfire, or at least misplaced.  I can imagine that its relative bitterness was intended to play against the smooth, rich pork, but it seeemed a bit harsh and out of place.  It was served on the side, though, and so was easy enough to leave behind.

The next plate reminded me of Ya Ka Mein, the Jazz Fest staple that Chuck has written about previously.  It’s one of my favorites, too, and we skipped Jazz Fest this past year (although we won’t in 2010!), so this dish — Braised Veal with Udon, Kombu Dashi and Enoki Mushrooms — made me nostalgic and happy.  The veal had been braised to the point of falling apart in the aromatic broth.  All kinds of different textures were at play in the ensemble mixture, which was hearty, intensely beefy, and perfect for the season’s weather, which even in Los Angeles is beginning to bend toward chilly winter.  A fascinating variation on essential staples of Japanese cooking.

Our final course was a Fourme d’Ambert Tourte with Red Pear and Honey-Balsamic.  Chef Ludo is of course French, and this was a beautiful presentation, in classic form, of one of France’s oldest cheeses.  The pastry was delicate, flaky and full of buttery goodness.  The soft, pungent cheese contrasted nicely with the tart, crisp pear and the sweet, delicately astringent honey-balsamic drizzle.  I wish there had been a bit more pear to go around, but I think this was only a concern because there were four of us sharing the plate.  Interestingly, after pushing this empty plate aside, we knew somehow that we were finished and actually decided not to order the menu’s formal dessert, Guacamole with Exotic Fruit and Ginger Ice Cream.  This now seems a questionable decision, but I remember clearly that at the time we were all quite satisfied.  Sometimes it’s simply best not to disturb the balance.

Chef Ludo toured briefly through the dining room at occasional intervals throughout the evening, and we were able to chat with him briefly before we left.  He was friendly, charming and modestly appreciative of our compliments.  His arms are heavily and interestingly inked, and his hair is bristly and spiky, shorter than you may remember it from “Top Chef Masters.”  This second iteration of Ludo Bites runs not quite two weeks this month, and seatings are completely sold out.  Unless you’ve already been, you’ll have to make do with vicarious enjoyment of the experiences of others. 


2 Responses to “My Dinner with Ludo”

  1. Rocky said:

    Dec 18, 09 at 4:59 pm

    So very jealous!

  2. Chuck said:

    Dec 20, 09 at 12:05 am

    D’oh! Well, I might have missed a fabulous meal, but at least I drank well that night.