An evening with Chef Ludo
The intense and immensely talented French chef Ludovic Lefebvre just finished up the fourth incarnation of his “pop-up” restaurant LudoBites, a few weeks ago. This time it was held from early April ’til May 28 at what’s normally a small, respectable lunch-only spot in downtown Los Angeles, Gram and Papa’s (whose motto, “Slow food, fast” is almost just like that of our beloved Oinkster, which is “Slow fast food”), but during those dates, at night, it became one of the best restaurants in the city.
When LudoBites 4 was announced, apparently reservations for the entire run sold out in 18 hours. Thanks to our friend Noelle grabbing a table for eight on Saturday, May 8 we were able to enjoy Ludo’s food, and for starters I’ll say it’s one of the most extraordinary meals I’ve ever had in this city.
Some people don’t like Chef Ludo. These tend exclusively to be people who’ve never met him, never eaten his food and have only seen him on the TV show “Top Chef Masters,” where his demeanor has been described as “cantankerous.” (What, a chef, cantankerous? No! I don’t believe it!) Remember, folks, that that show is TV, and TV ain’t real, no matter how often the misnomer “reality TV’ is bandied about. These shows are edited to make good TV, so let’s get any perceptions based on a TV show out of the way.
I got to meet him and his fabulous wife Krissy (who runs the front of the house) only very briefly, but Ludo was charming and friendly yet very serious and passionate about food, all of which was reflected in every single plate that came to our table. Krissy was the consummate host, made us all feel very welcome and remembered Wesly from the last LudoBites (which I had to miss, as I was out of town, phoo).
Ludo recently did an interview with the “creative culture blog” yello!, where he talked about his previous versus current clientele:
We have the food trucks now (we have a lot, a lot of food trucks in LA). I think food trucks are amazing. I really love it. A chef like me, I worked all my life in high-end expensive restaurants … and now, to be affordable to everybody is just amazing. Because before, when I was at Bastide or L’Orangerie, there were a lot of customers who couldn’t afford to try my food. And now, it’s just so amazing how I meet different clientele. To be very accessible like this is how I want to be. I want to cook for everybody, not just for rich people. And I don’t need to use caviar every time to do good food. I can really create a menu that’s not very expensive for my customer. I want my customer to be able to come every week. That’s what makes a restaurant. I don’t want to be anymore “the special occasion chef,” when people just come to celebrate their birthdays or anniversaries. No. We need to be accessible.
That, my friends, is someone who understands great food and hospitality. That, my friends, is also what I’d like to aspire to as long as I’m living in this city — eating Ludo’s food every week.
He went on to say, “[W]e have people who come to the restaurant, sit down and tell the waiter, ‘I want to eat the whole menu.’ [He stares, bewildered.] No, it’s crazy. I mean, people come to LudoBites and eat the whole menu.”
Um … ahem.
Okay, here’s the deal. This was our one shot at LudoBites this time. Even though he does tweak the menu a bit during the run, and perhaps a dish drops off and a new one joins in, or it’s made in a slightly different way, this was still more or less it. It wasn’t like we could try a few dishes now and try a few later on; there were no more reservations available (although one of our dining companions managed to get in a couple more times before the end of the run). And everything looked fantastic.
So … the eight of us ordered every single dish on the menu. Two or three servings of each. For the table.
It was kind of like taking off and nuking the entire site from orbit. It was the only way to be sure.
Let us begin.
That Ludo was able to drive me nearly insane with a warm baguette and two things to spread on it is rather telling. The honey-lavender butter was amazing, but the smoked lard … not only did I want a bucket of that stuff to smear on bread and nom nom nom all night long, forsaking all other menu items, but I practically wanted to rub it all over my body. Now that I’ve left you with that disgusting imagery … ’nuff said.
Next, Whipped Brie Chantilly with Honeycomb, Frisée Salad and Balsamic Vinegar. The brie was whipped for a light texture, then had chantilly cream folded into it for an even lighter (but much richer) texture.
Scallop with Spinach, Yogurt-Curry Sauce, Spring Garlic and Violet Flowers. Perfectly cooked scallop, surprisingly mild roasted spring garlic, and the foamy-but-not-foam texture of the sauce was great with the scallop.
Marinated King Salmon, German Butterball Potatoes, Crème Fraîche with Red Wine Vinaigrette. I had to fight off a bit of apprehension due to the fact that salmon had not passed my lips since I got food poisoning from a bad piece of salmon last year. I knew that wasn’t going to happen this time, and dove in. The salmon was divine; fatty and tender and buttery, marinated enough for the flavors to penetrate the fish but not enough to “cook” it into ceviche, with the crisp carrot slices and strips of red onion offering textural contrast. Then those potatoes! The tangy crème fraîche on the potatoes and the vinaigrette on the salmon balanced the richness perfectly. This was terrific; I think my temporary fear of salmon is now gone. And we’re still only getting started …
Next, White Asparagus Velouté with Mozzarella Mousse, Candied Olives, Shaved Fennel and Salmon Roe. If you’re unfamiliar with a velouté, it’s one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine. In its most basic form it’s a light stock (chicken, veal or fish) thickened with a blond roux (made of butter and flour). The term is derived from the French word “velour,” or “velvety,” and that’s a perfect description of what a sauce velouté or a soup derived from it feels like in your mouth. Here it’s puréed white asparagus, with a creamy cheese mousse, crisp fennel and the delightful little *pop* you get from the salmon roe all providing a wealth of textures as well as flavors. We were starting to get dizzy. Steady, boy …
So as not to kill your browser or mobile reader we’ll continue with the rest of this staggering meal after the break:
I gasped when this one arrived: Boudin Noir Mousse, Apple Purée, Wasabi. I love love love boudin noir (sometimes called boudin rouge in south Louisiana) — it’s blood sausage, specifically pork blood, and I know the idea of this squicks a lot of people. It took me a while to come to it myself, but it is so worth the effort. Rich and earthy, beautifully spiced in myriad ways depending on who’s making it, delicate and deep … and this was one of the more wonderful examples of it I’d ever had. Not in a sausage casing as usual, but served as a terrine along with a pool of caramelized apple purée flecked with vanilla bean specks (caramelized apples being a traditional accompaniment). The wasabi was a nice nouveau touch, a perfectly pleasant smack upside the head alongside all this delicacy. In fact, it was the most delicate boudin noir I’d ever had. Sigh. Onward!
Sea Bream Ceviche with Heirloom Tomatoes, Jalapeños, Cilantro Flowers and Meyer Lemon Paste. Lovely ceviche (I’m a big fan of that preparation) with nice acidity, a lean, mild fish, with the jalapeños giving it a nice bite and a little heat. The Meyer lemon paste was gorgeous too, giving it a boost of lemoniness (neologism of the day!) without taking the acidity over the top. Another view of the dish, with a better view of those delicious tomatoes, is here.
Ohh, my. Here’s where it started getting moaning-and-pounding-on-the-table crazy. Paris Ham Soup with Toasted Bread Crouton, Swiss Cheese, Radishes, Cornichons and a Guinness Foam. HAM! SOUP! With the croutons and cheese it was like an intense, liquid Croque Monsieur, and that foam was the beer I’d have on the side. It’s a brasserie in a bowl, so delicous, so French and it made us laugh. You know that laugh; it’s the one that comes out of you when something is so delicious all you can do is … laugh.
Oh, but croque monsieur, you say? With the next course it was as if Ludo was saying, “I’ve got your croque monsieur right here, pal.” Except pithier, and in French.
Ohhh-kay. Here’s where my head more or less exploded. Black Foie Gras Croque-Monsieur with Lemon-Turnip Chutney. This time I didn’t laugh, I just kinda gasped and gaped … and moaned and pounded on the table. This is apparently one of Ludo’s signature dishes, having debuted at a previous incarnation of LudoBites (the other big one being his legendary fried chicken, which I have yet to taste). First off, this was the blackest bread I’d ever seen. What is this, some kind of black hole pumpernickel, I wondered? Bread with an event horizon? The secret — squid ink! That’s about as black as it gets. I wasn’t sure what kind of ham was in there (other than really tasty), but it was some kind of mild sheep’s milk cheese, the name of which escapes me. And then, of course, that luscious slab of foie inside, with a slight tang from the chutney. There’s no cutting through that much richness, and the chutney didn’t try; just a little note there to keep … my head from exploding. After a minute my astonishment wore off and I started to laugh again. I kind of want one of these every
day er, week for the rest of my life, but I’m not sure I’d survive it. What a fantastic dish. Good thing I didn’t have a whole one, or I wouldn’t have been able to continue. But continue we did …
Soft Shell Crab Cornet with Mango, Spicy Red Mayonnaise and Corona Granita. As I’m a New Orleanian, you know I loves me the soft shell crab. Biased as I am, I find its most perfect expressions to be in New Orleans, but I love spider rolls at Japanese restaurants, and this was somewhat reminiscent of that. The crispy fried crab in the crispy cornet flecked with white and black sesame seeds gave it the Asian spin but with more textural interest that the average spider roll, and I loved the spicy mayonnaise (like mynez ‘n Crystal on my po-boy!). The Corona beer granita was silly but fun and tasty and went quite well with the dish. Wonder if we can get Ludo to do an Abita Amber granita next time …
Santa Barbara Prawns with Avocado and Cocktail Sauce. The prawns were plump and sweet (with the scattering of passion fruit pulp atop them just perfect), the cocktail sauce spicy and with a touch of Cognac (I’m so stealing that idea) and the creamy avocado providing (once again) a nice textural counterpoint. Wesly’s comment was telling: “This was probably my least favorite dish of the evening … but it was still great.” It’s easy to pick one or two favorites, but as far as ranking everything else it’s like a twelve-way tie for second runner-up.
Oh gods, not more foie. (Oh … okay. More foie.) Green Cabbage Foie Gras Rolls with Kimchi Consommé. Mrs. Vilve Yachke never made cabbage rolls for the Shmenge Brothers that were like this. The gentle bitterness of the cabbage helped keep the richness of the foie from putting me under the table, and there was an exotic Asian touch in the kimchi consommé (and very L.A. too — I’m seeing kimchi end up everywhere from quesadillias to toppings for French fries). Okay, survived that … quite happily, in fact.
Black Sea Bass with fresh Sancho Pepper, Fresh Peas, Lettuce, Spring Onions and Yuzu. Beautifully crisp skin, nice citrus note from the yuzu, then the plate went around the table before I got too far into it. Six more dishes to go and I’ve kinda got to slow down a bit.
Bavette with Escargot Red Butter, Shallot Jam, Roasted Eggplant and Carrot Slaw. Oh boy, here comes the red meat. Bavette is a French term for flap steak, similar to flank or skirt steak. Meltingly tender, perfectly medium-rare, nice smoky eggplant accompaniment. I only got a bite of this, but it was all I needed at this point, as I was determined to not miss anything.
Lamb Chop with Fresh Goat Cheese, Dried Bonito, Artichokes, Potato Mousseline and Mint. I love lamb, and this chop was (unsurprisingly) perfectly cooked. I wish there had been a tiny bit more of that mint sauce, but fortunately there was more than enough of that lovely piped line of goat cheese. I only had a couple of small bites as this had to go around, but even more fortuanately there was plenty of this:
That’s the potato mousseline — potatoes whipped as much as they can be while still maintaining a fluffy texture and not getting gummy, with whipped cream folded in and a staggering amount of butter added. Salt ‘n pepper. Automatic moan inducer. Just glorious. I’d have my potatoes like this all the time if it wouldn’t shave years off my life. Ah, but what a life …
Finally, the last savory course of the evening: White Asparagus with Soy Sauce Hollandaise, Orange Zest and Foie Gras Powder. This was the only entrée that didn’t feature meat, but it isn’t vegetarian due to the foie gras powder (which I thought was interesting). I do like white asparagus and the dish was good, a riff on the classical French combination of asparagus and Hollandaise, with the soy providing that Asian/L.A. touch. Of all the wonderful dishes this was the one that interested me the least, undoubtedly due to my unsuitability for (near-)vegetarianism. I thought of this as a side dish, although it was intended to be a main. There was certainly enough on the plate, though — look at those meaty spikes of asparagus, bigger around than my thumb.
One other great aspect of this particular pop-up restaurant is that since they’re not selling wine there’s no corkage — figure out what you’re going to have and bring what you want. Rocky and Noelle picked the wines, all of which are shown here.
Okay, dessert! There are two:
Strawberries with Macaron and Lemon-Verbena Meringue. I know I have said in the past that I’m often disappointed in dessert if it does not contain chocolate (without going quite as far as Mary, who said that, “It is not dessert unless it contains chocolate in some form.”), but this was my favorite of the two desserts. In fact it’s one of my favorite kinds of dessert, i.e. interesting things done with fruit. First, I love macarons — this is the French macaron, made with egg whites whipped until stiff, with confectioner’s sugar and almond flour folded in, piped into discs and baked in a slow oven, as opposed to the coconut “maccaroon” we’re used to (and which I also love). Beautiful ruby-red strawberries in a strawberry coulis, topped by this crispy-chewy macaron, and instead of the expected whipped cream Ludo gave us a light, barely whipped soft meringue flavored with lemon verbena, one of my very favorite herbs and a beautiful accompaniment to strawberries. This was like strawberry shortcake raised by an order of magnitude (a far cry from one’s Sara Lee pound cake, tinned frozen strawberries and Cool Whip of childhood). Bravo!
Now, just because I preferred the strawberry macaron doesn’t mean I didn’t like the Dark Chocolate Soufflé with Vanilla Whipped Cream and Hot Chocolate Cream; I did. A lot. A perfectly executed soufflé (again, unsurprisingly), deep in chocolate flavor, perfect texture, nicely moist, and … well, just look at that rise out of the ramekin. THAT, my friends, is a textbook soufflé.
And with that, we were done, and I survived, very happily. I was pretty stuffed by this point but amazingly enough, not unreasonably so. The galaxy of flavors I had just experienced were a bit dizzying but I have to say, if you’re going to do it you may as well do it right. One additional sign of that is that when the bill was presented it was about as long as my arm, as Rocky demonstrates:
Needless to say, I can hardly wait for the fifth incarnation of LudoBites. In the meantime, I hope the fried chicken truck starts rolling again!