Temporary culinary installations seem to be popular these days- limited time only restaurants and events that drive Los Angeles foodies crazy with excitement. The Tasting Kitchen, for one, has picked up quite a buzz. There’s also the ongoing Hachi Series at The Breadbar in Century City. But before all of these was the one and only Ludo Bites. A ‘guerilla style pop-up restaurant’ created by the handsome and charming Chef Ludo Lefebvre of the late L’Orangerie and Bastide. The original Ludo Bites event came and went like the wind in the fall of 2007, and sadly enough, this 2009 3-month stint at the Breadbar in Beverly Hills just ended as well. I was lucky enough to partake in this fantastic experience on a recent warm summer evening, dining al fresco on the open sidewalk terrace on West 3rd street.
Chef Ludo told us that evening that he wanted to cut out all the bulls#*t of restaurant bureaucracy. Ludo Bites was a way for him to present his vision in a casual setting where it was all about the food and the people. A place where even he can sit back and enjoy a chat with the diners, where he can be present to answer any questions people may have, where he can have the complete freedom to express his creativity and imagination. His creativity exploded in the form of a million flavors, aromas and colors that never ceased to surprise us throughout the evening.
From the get-go, the first dish floored me. The menu only said ‘chorizo, cantaloupe, cornichon’ and I was expecting an ordinary tapas dish of grilled sausage with whole cornichons and bits of cantaloupe speared with toothpicks. Even when I was presented with the bowl of orange soup, I assumed it was some type of sweet cantaloupe gazpacho and waited for the side of chorizo to arrive shortly after.
Well, this was one of the tastiest surprises that I have encountered in a very long time. A slightly tart but smokey soup that really tastes like chorizo. I mean, I could really taste the spices, the meat, even the fattiness! It was so bizarre to be sipping on liquid sausage and have it taste exactly like the real thing. And then came the real surprise- there were bite-sized chunks of tender succulent cantaloupe inside. The juicy sweetness of the fruit with the vinegar tartness of the cornichon sorbet, all enveloped within the silky texture and intense smokiness of the chorizo soup, was a climactic explosion of flavors. This dish still has me bubbling with excitement.
The Hawaiian tuna, red beets marshmallow and watermelon dish was less exciting. Although the different shades of crimson and the geometric display of food were a feast for the eyes, the tuna was a bit short on flavor although the cryovaced watermelon with shredded mint was refreshing. The beet marshmallows had a wonderful soft and airy texture and the overall dish was a visual delight.
The Salmon rillette with smoked eggplant dish was my friend Guillaume’s favorite. The salmon had a wonderful salty and smokey flavor, and the eggplants were perfectly cooked.
The Porcini velouté with porcini ice cream, egg, crispy sage and tobacco powder was fantastic. The soup had an intense and concentrated earthy porcini mushroom flavor, and the crispy sage added a wonderful texture and bite to the dish. There was a whole egg inside which I think was supposed to be soft boiled with a runny yolk, but it was overcooked and solid. Thick yellow egg yolk would have surely added a whole new level of richness and creaminess to the soup.
The yellow and green wax beans salad with shaved coconut, peach, apple, lemongrass and horseradish cream was wonderful. The salad was fruity, tart and refreshing all at once, and the horseradish cream in the foreground was whipped to a feathery light smooth consistency.
One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the escargot with spinach and brown butter in a yellow ginger curry, garnished with parsley and purple borage flowers. The snails were succulent and meaty, and the curry left a pleasant tingling ginger finish on my tongue. It was a delightfully aromatic dish that was beautiful to look at, smell and taste.
The heirloom tomato salad with red onions, feta mousse, oregano and niçoise olives was refreshing and sweet. It was a perfect summer evening plate full of freshness and flavor. The lemon zest added a nice tartness and acidity to the dish, and the feta mousse was creamy and luscious.
The grilled Santa Barbara prawns were kept alive until the moment they were placed on the grill. These fresh prawns were perfectly grilled and perfectly sweet. Some of them had orange eggs, an added bonus that brought more savory essence to the already wonderful thyme and yuzu-lime chantilly flavors.
The lobster medallions with honey-sherry vinaigrette, daikon and rosemary were okay. The lobster pieces were succulent and sweet, and the rosemary gave it a nice herbal kick. However the vinaigrette was too sweet for me and almost overpowered the lobster.
My other favorite dish of the evening was the foie gras black croque monsieur. Savory delicious foie gras, cheese and ham folded between slices of crunchy black toast with the most amazing cherry amaretto sauce. This sauce just blew me away. I could taste the distinct tartness of cherries, and combined with the amaretto almond undertone it created an incredible deep richness reminiscent of 2o year aged port wine. I could see myself enjoying this sauce with many things- duck, pork, pancakes, yogurt, pannacotta, zabaglione….
The creamy polenta with cantal cheese, oxtail beef and black truffle was marvelous. The polenta had an amazing texture- it was perfectly coarse and grainy, yet it was altogether creamy. The distinct earthy aroma of black truffle was wonderfully present, and the bottom of the cup had tender chunks of oxtail meat.
The cod dish was beautiful. The cod, flown in from France, was fresh, tender and delightfully flakey. Crispy chanterelles, melon, black pepper butter and passion fruit seeds provided an array of textures and flavors to complement the fish.
The pork belly with mustard ice cream, frisée and vadouvan was okay. The asian marinade of the pork belly was too sweet, though the mustard ice cream provided an amusing contrast of temperatures, and the Indian vadouvan spices added a nice spicy finish to each bite.
I was very excited to try the chicken fried in duck fat with fingerling potatoes, tapenade and red bell pepper ketchup, but it fell a tad short of my bubbling expectations. There are some of the philosophy that duck fat is better than butter, but in this dish I didn’t taste the benefits of deep frying in duck fat as the meat wasn’t as juicy as I wanted it to be.
The grilled hanger steak with black sesame miso, shallots, beer foam, white anchovies and potato chips with charcoal oil astounded me with its novel flavor concepts and use of unique components. This plate looked better than it tasted, but I felt like I was getting more of a glimpse into the creativity and artistry of this talented chef.
For dessert we started off with the chocolate cupcake with foie gras chantilly, candied bacon almonds and maple syrup. I know Angelenos are crazy for cupcakes, but a foie gras cupcake? The reaction was split at our table. Most detested it, while I loved it. I thought it was quite good, with the cupcake being moist and tender, and the foie gras chantilly nicely sweet and subdued in foie gras flavor. The bacon brought too much savory meaty flavor to the dish, but it was a fun dish that livened up our table conversation.
The strawberries with heavy cream and pop rocks was a joy to eat. It’s something that people of all ages will enjoy with a smile. Sweet seasonal strawberries in syrup with good old fashioned cream with that distinct texture and sound of pop rocks brought me back to happy childhood memories.
I hate to have to say this, but the vanilla panna cotta with caramel and caviar was…quite appalling. I didn’t understand this dish, and I still don’t understand this dish. The caramel was way too sweet and overpowering, and the caviar made everything taste unpleasantly fishy. I was genuinely confused, especially as this was our very last dish of the evening.
Although our meal ended on a bad note, I was surprised that the majority of dishes impressed, surprised and pleased all of us. There were some that truly blew me away with its innovative style, creativity and gusto. I love when a dining experience not only exceeds my expectations but well surpasses it beyond my imagination. To this day, I still think about the chorizo soup, the escargot curry and the foie gras croque monsieur, and the way they made my pupils dilate with excitement. It was difficult for all of us at the table to contain our enthusiasm with the whole dining experience. This was what it was like to be in the presence of a great chef.
At times Ludo would disappear into the kitchen to cook and prepare the food. Moments later he would emerge with a few plates and bring it directly to the tables. In between this he would visit the customers, asking them if they needed anything and posing for photos from time to time. Occasionally he would wipe the tabletops and clear the plates. Toward the end of the night he pulled up a chair and chatted with us. All the while, I could tell that he was genuinely happy. This was his vision, his restaurant, and his passion. LudoBites was a true labor of love.
Random trivia: Did you know that the largest land snail (escargot) ever found was 15 inches long and weighed 2 pounds?! Imagine eating that…