Long-time readers will know that I eat pretty modestly.
Most of the places I visit are low-key, hole-in-the-wall places. I love to “discover” a new cultural dish and as a full-time student, I don’t have the funds to visit a restaurant listed over two dollar signs on Yelp. I mean…well, what kind of eateries would be featured at a blog called Burp and Slurp, right?
But honestly, I think there’s a tiniest bit of snobbery in that kind of humble dining. It’s kind of like, hey, look at me, I’m not one of those pretentious douchebags who only chase after celebrity chefs and big-name restaurants. I eat with my fingers and don’t give a crap about the whether the napkin is dispensable or embroidered linen shaped into a swan!
Well. I’ve been busted. My first experience at a really high-class restaurant left me floating in the air and reluctant to return to my pumpkin of a Honda Civic. And this weekend, I got my second four-star dining experience…and I loved every freaking moment of it.
Now, perhaps you’ve heard of LudoBites. If you haven’t, excuse me, please give me a minute to stifle my scream into my Pooh bear.
Okay, I’m back. LudoBites is a pop-up restaurant directed by Ludo Lefebvre, a Burgundy-born French chef whose accent is so strong that sometimes his wife Krissy sits in during interviews to translate.
(Chef Ludo during a staff meeting. Thanks Wes for helping to take this pic!)
Ludo is…just awesome. That’s seriously the best word to describe him: AWE-some. The guy is a culinary genius, a man who is so pumped up with creative juices that he cannot stay fettered to one location, concept and menu. He used to be chef at some fine dining restaurants in France, but ditched the stationary, stuffy work to jump on “pop-up restaurant” revolution at just the right time.
(The chef putting on his apron before service.)
His name, his logo, his bad-boy attitude and cool tattoos—they are legendary in the L.A. dining scene. He’s notoriously appeared as a “villain” at Top Chef Masters and even has his own TV show, Ludo Bites America, which ran on the Sundance Channel.
Ludo hasn’t had a restaurant in years. Instead, he’s a gypsy chef; he hops from place to place and performs the most marvelous gastronomic stunts. He opens for several weeks at a hosting restaurant that only serves lunch; when the restaurant closes for the night, Ludo and his team swoops in to conjure up dishes that are always innovative and daring. Every pop-up event is different with a completely different menu and inspiration.
(Ludo’s gorgeous and marketing-savvy wife, Krissy)
It’s kind of a juxtaposition, if you think about it: high-end dining fit to be presented in the likes of Le Bernadin and Spago, shuffled into a lunch counter and open only for a short, definite amount of time. There is no fancy china, no elaborate tablecloths; haute cuisine is served on basic plates with ordinary utensils. A few weeks of spectacular service and cuisine, and then poof! Gone.
And Angelenos are lapping it up. Reservations to LudoBites fill up fast, and the acceptance rate is almost as tough as Havard’s. Apparently six weeks of reservations for the seventh LudoBites event filled up within 60 seconds! That frustrated many prospective diners who may not have the time to stay glued to the computer to snatch up seats as soon as LudoBites opened reservations.
So for the eighth LudoBites event—LudoBites 8.0—Ludo and Krissy set up a new reservation system via Urbanspoon that works like a lottery: You sign up for a reservation, and the program randomly assigns seats for lucky individuals.
Anyway. I wasn’t even thinking about attending. I can’t afford a $200 meal. But about a week earlier, I got an email from my friend Marilyn: “Hey, my friend has three extra seats to LudoBites…Want in?”
What?!!!! Do you even need to ask? Do I want to be happy? Do I want to have the best night of my life?! Hell freaking yeah!
So. Fast forward to Friday evening. Here I was, standing in front of Lemon Moon, the venue for the LudoBites 8.0. Oh happy day.
This is my benefactor, Wes:
He’s the guy who snagged spots for me and my friends. I’m not exaggerating when I say Wes is one of the best food photographers in Los Angeles. The guy was treated to a complimentary four-seat night at LudoBites because he takes pictures for Ludo and Krissy.
The guy’s a hard-core photographer. My DSLR looked amateurish and small next to his two huge fancy cameras, which cost about $8000 total. He’s a pro at edging his way into tight compartments and getting his masterpiece shots without being in people’s way.
Because Wes is the photographer, we arrived 2 hours before the start of dinner to take pictures of the prep work.
(A cook peeling and shaving kohlrabi)
It’s always interesting to get an inside-view into a professional kitchen. I’ve been to several, but it isn’t often that I visit one with a full staff working in it.
And dude, some of the guys here are hot. :-p
I could stare at these guys whisking, peeling, chopping, poaching and grilling all day long. There is something so attractive about a team with such intense and concentrated focus.
I didn’t stay for too long in the kitchen, though. Unlike Wes, I haven’t mastered the art of not being an intrusive photographer. So I bowed out to the bar in case I made myself an elbowing nuisance.
In the end, I still became a nuisance. Marilyn, Tracy and I were chattering and laughing so loudly that Chef Ludo himself poked his head out of the kitchen with a deep scowl and said, “Shhhhh!!!”
(Tracy is left, Marilyn is right)
My friends and I stared at him, stunned, then stared at each other with cheek-tearing grins. Oh em gee! Chef Ludo shushed us! Hee hee hee! Yes, for that night, and that night only, we were allowed to be annoying school girls.
Before long, the clock struck 6:30 and it was time to sit and dine. Already, the tables were set…
…and hungry, excited diners were waiting to be led in.
As for us? We happy-danced our way to a front-seat view of the chef and cooks:
Nice. That was my eye candy for the entire night. I actually got to see them plate most of the dishes. Look at the concentration and care from Chef Ludo and his team!
Okay, first course! It was a chicken tandoori crackling:
Chicken liver mousse on top of crisp chicken skin, sprinkled with coarse salt.
Oh man. The liver taste was intense!! I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t finish the first course. I guess I really don’t like the iron taste of liver. Even in the hands of Chef Ludo, I just can’t choke it down without a grimace. The chicken skin was lovely, though, with a crunchy texture like kettle-cooked potato chips.
Sweet shrimp, miso cream, white beans, smoked salmon.
Ooooh. I don’t know what Chef Ludo did to that miso cream, but it was luscious and smackful of that nutty umami flavors. And the petite shrimp! So succulent, so juicy!
Frog legs tempura, garlic, yellow wine.
If you ever give frog legs a try, you’ll be surprised by how…not froggy it is. It does not taste like chicken, but it has this mild flavor that is like a combination of white fish and meaty chicken. The texture is kind of chewy and soft. It has a very delicate bone structure, too.
That lobster was interesting. It had such a freshness that made me think at first it was raw, sashimi-style. I think it was poached and chilled. The light brown ooze on top is the buckwheat honey emulsion that was surprisingly not so sweet.
I went nuts over this. Just think: fresh sea urchin, drizzled with some sugar syrup that is torched until it crackles into a brittle, golden-brown crunch. The ladle of sweet-and-briney salmon roe mingling with the caramelization, all moistened up by a light foam.
I got very selfish and hogged the dish. Mine. All mine.
We had to wait 2-3 minutes for the foie gras to “cook” in the warm, creamy soup. And by the time we dug in…
…it was a bite of soft, luxurious, edible and savory velvet. When you sink your teeth into the duck liver, the surface silently pops open a richness that is just indescribable. It was my first time trying foie gras. I feel worthy of being a foodie now.
Big eye seared tuna, Tahitian vanilla, somen noodles, 7-flavor vinaigrette, lavender, capers, nori flakes.
How pretty is this dish? This was definitely something much more familiar to me with its Asian influences. The vanilla was a very inspired touch though.
This might be the least visually attractive dish of the night.
But. It was my single most favorite dish. It looks like baby food, but you will go ga-ga over it. I had never had scrambled eggs this luscious and creamy. It’s more cream than egg, generously freckled with fragrant black truffle shavings. You lick the egg off your spoon, and then you keep licking until you are very sure every trace of aromatic egg and truffle molecules has been lifted off the surface.
Monkfish liver, spinach puree, cucumber, cornichons, whole mustard seeds, greens.
Visually appealing, isn’t it? It looks like edible forest on a plate with the greens and the browns. And I take back what I said about hating livers. This liver was mad delicious. It didn’t have a strong irony taste, but it definitely was not fishy either. It has its own reign of unique characteristics.
The whole mustard seeds were also interesting. They kind of popped and burst sweet honey-like syrup into your tongue.
Eleventh course (yes, we are not done yet):
Poached cod, Eucalyptus, potato, leeks, fresh peaches, yellow wine powder, dry sherry and dijon mustard broth.
I can’t even imagine the hours of preparations that must be necessary to create this one dish. Yellow wine in solid, powdery form? Perfectly caramelized scallion in the whole, root and all. Sensuous peach and potatoes hidden underneath the cream. Firm, creamy cod meat. Mmm.
Honestly, I didn’t think anyone would eat what I call the “whiskers” of the green onion. But it turned out to be delish, in a crispy, earthy way.
“Newport Pride Natural” hanger steak, red beets, caramelized shallots, goat cheese, squid ink.
So gorgeous. It was like a splash of water color art. Bright pinks, scarlets, lemony greens, inky blacks.
The beets were shaved super thin, and I think it was left raw for a refreshing crunchy background to the smoky steak. I forgot how awesome a well-cooked steak is. I loved that the chef added a whole log of goat cheese on top to just slowly ooze down its tangy creaminess, mixed with savory shallots.
Veal, black olive tapenade crust, orange caramelized endive, clementine beurre blanc, clementine powder.
Once again, a time-intensive dish. Clementine powder? Holy smokes. This was a really fascinating and satisfying dish. It tasted as spectacular as it sounded: a citrusy brightness paired with the salty olive crust and tender calf.
Oh man. This “sandwich” was all sorts of mad fun! And super crazy! Those white strips? It’s pork fat!! Lard as a sandwich filling, paired with already super rich and creamy cheese? Talk about a dangerous mission.
We had no idea how to chomp on it without squirting out cheese and lard. Marilyn had a go first, albeit hesitantly:
We tried our best.
I thought it was an interesting experience…but not sure I would try that again! The salted praline butter though?
That thing was crazy good. It was like Nutella whipped into butter form. Salty, sweet, nutty, creamy.
By then, we were done with the savories and waiting for the dessert, so it was time to break out the sweet wine, once again supplied by the generous Wes:
Holy. Wow. Best wine ever. It was light and frothy, not too carbonated, not too sweet, not too tart, not too bitter…just perfect. I knocked down two full glasses of this. It was so delicious!
Lemon meringue, whipped cream, poppy seed crumble, extra virgin olive oil, with a dab of lemon marmalade and lemon curd.
Poppy seed crumble? I told you that Chef Ludo is good. Very good. The whipped cream was sensational, and it was a perfect balance to its sticky, marshmallow-like partner.
This was lovely because great desserts are never cloying or heavy; it should still make you want to take another lick even after a heavy meal. Like this 16-course meal.
Brown butter almond cake, apple sauce, salted caramel, orange creamsicle ice cream.
This was nice. The almond cake by itself would have been rich, but the citrusy, refreshing orange creamsicle and wholesome apple sauce really cut down the butteryness.
And then…after the meal…we all got a picture with Chef Ludo (the picture is with Wes). And shook his hand.
There’s something about Chef Ludo. He’s a really intense guy, fierce with passion and love for what he does. That’s why he’s gained such a fiery traction of adoration. I could barely meet his eyes for long because he’s got such a penetrating gaze.
“I’m never washing my hands,” my friend Tracy squealed. It was all in jest, but I understood exactly what she meant. As foodies, Chef Ludo is our own celebrity version of…say, Ryan Gosling. Or Johnny Depp. Whoever is in vogue right now.
I felt so lucky to be in that gathering, and so honored to be able to eat and enjoy his cooking. It’s a very different kind of experience than simply spotting a celebrity on the street and asking him or her for an autograph.
So I want to thank Chef Ludo for an unforgettable night…
…and our warm, wonderful servers for the night…
…and all the cooks behind the kitchen who worked hard and endured curses from the chef…
…and Wes for letting me and my friends be his plus-threes, bringing the wines, and being our chauffeur.
And my friends, just because they’re awesome companions as always.
And I leave you with this quote from Chef Ludo which cracked me up:
“…a lot of things is going on in Los Angeles now. LA is not boring for the food. We have so many, so many great chef and great restaurant now. And I think New York’s become a little boring now. You know I think New York is a little too fou-fou. You know, I just come back from New York and people need a fart, to poof a little, because they’re all so stuffy in New York.”
Sorry, New Yorkers. I still love NYC. In fact, I’ll be there in March, but more on that in a month or so.
Question of the Day: What’s the most extensive meal you’ve ever had? Would love the details!