LudoBites 5.0 – Downtown Los Angeles

As the days whiz by at lightning speed and we draw closer to the end of the year, I find myself reflecting back to the hundreds of meals that I enjoyed so far and thinking about my best meal of 2010.  I had a lot of memorable food adventures in San Francisco, Vancouver, Mexico, Las Vegas, New York, Haiti and of course Los Angeles, but which one stands apart from the rest?  For me it would undoubtedly be one of the many dinner parties that I threw at home, but if I were to choose a restaurant, at this point in 2010 it would be LudoBites 5.0 at Gram and Papa’s in Downtown Los Angeles.  Why so?  I began thinking about what constitutes a best meal and how LudoBites 5.0 hit my sweet spot.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre is a critically acclaimed star chef who emanates charm with his friendly demeanor, thick French accent, occasional pouty temper, bad boy looks and electrifying smile.  His strength lies in his culinary creativity, uncompromising artistry and outstanding food.  Combined they make for an entertaining TV personality as seen through Top Chef Masters, a twitterific celebrity who dominates food press and blogger sites, and with beautiful wife Krissy as his solid anchor who keeps the ship running, one hell of a charismatic restaurateur.

After regretfully missing many opportunities to enjoy Ludo’s food when he was at the late L’Orangerie and Bastide, my first introduction to Ludo Lefebvre was the life changing chorizo soup with cantaloupe and cornichon sorbet at LudoBites 2.0 last summer.  A lovely scoop of burnt eggplant purée in combination with coconut foam on crispy pork belly at LudoBites 3.0 kept me excited about the general direction he was going with his vision despite a frank deviation from his classical French cuisine.  Come LudoBites 4.0 this past spring and I, along with several thousand other diners who desperately fought for reservations at the sold out pop-up event, started seeing the real essence of Ludo come through in his fantastic food.  As a faithful fan who has witnessed his evolving LudoBites journey, I was proud to see him rise to the top of his game at LudoBites 5.0 this summer, and happy to partake in several experiences there that constituted a ‘best meal’.

A best meal first begins with good food.  Beautiful plating that is gallery-worthy, aromas so enticing that it stimulates an immediate salivary response and food that just tastes delicious.  Take a bowl of sweet heirloom tomatoes at the peak of their season for example, bursting with bright green basil and dried farro crumble that crunches with each bite.  A refreshing touch of mozzarella ice cream that melts in the warmth of your mouth heightens the flavors in this joyful summer appetizer.

Then there is the warm Vadouvan naan, showcasing complex Indian spices and earthy aromas, already tasty in itself but made whole with a generous smear of whipped salted coconut butter.  Rich, smooth, salty and sweet all at once, the butter hits a high note on my palate.

Another successful example of modified butter comes in the form of seaweed buckwheat butter, a heavenly cream that transforms a good piece of warm baguette to great.

Tender pieces of grilled squid with what Ludo calls umami foam blanketing its curled legs makes for an addictive dish with the sweetness of heirloom tomatoes, hearty black rice with a pleasant chewy texture, yuzu marinated red onions for acidity, spring onions and a spoonful of slimy seaweed tartare for more textural complexity.

King salmon cured and marinated a l’huile, a luscious piece of beautiful fish embellished with bright circles of rainbow carrots, juicy orange wedges and orange sorbet, dance to a sexy groove of popping flavors with pistachios, juniper berries and cilantro flowers.

Duck skin, the most flavorful part of the bird, maintains a crispy texture after being browned in olive oil, puréed and spread on top of steamed duck breasts with sharp scented lemon verbena.  Julienned radishes tossed with sansho peppercorns impart an addictive jolt of spiciness that lingers on the tip of your tongue while poached then torched peaches dressed with balsamic vinegar soften the prickles with its summer sweetness.

Crispy lotus chips and Thai style raw choucroute made with shredded napa cabbage, carrots and radish cut through the fattiness of the generous cut of confit pork belly that melts into liquid fat, and the thrill of the cold and tart mustard ice cream brings tears of joy to my eyes, taking me back to a similarly exciting dish at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon where a scoop of cold mustard ice cream transformed a gazpacho into a cup of liquid perfection.

When a French chef tosses Korean, Japanese and Thai flavors into the same bowl, one would only expect catastrophic chaos, but under Ludo’s tenure it becomes a masterpiece.  Raw hand cut Australian wagyu tossed with sesame oil and soy sauce is as good as any yukhoe in Koreatown, and the somen noodles with dried miso flakes are acceptable to my Japanese palate.  Quail egg, candied watermelons and chunky peanut vinaigrette are all mixed together with the meat and noodles, and I soon find myself silently slurping away.

New flavors, radical presentations and surprising concepts that delight the senses and intrigue the mind make for lasting memories that come back through repeated stories, reminding us that the best meals are the ones which are downright fun.  I can never look at cupcakes the same again, after experiencing Ludo’s savory cupcake made from a base of Emmenthal and Cantal cheese, topped with foie gras and chicken liver mousse, garnished with slivers of cornichon and perched on a bed of kumquat chantilly.  The creaminess, the airy lightness, a flash of acidity followed with power packed savor, a hint of sweetness, a lot of richness and a happy exclamation that this is the best cupcake in the world.

Every time I see tofu salad or Lyonnaise salad on a restaurant menu, I smile and chuckle under my breath as I remember back to the complex flavors of the frisée salad with sheets of lardo, chive flowers and chopped rosemary served on a plate of goat cheese soup with cubes of creamy tofu, bacon and green apple- a seemingly disorganized array of various flavors and components that somehow work as one integrated unit of massive delight.

What a joy to discover that the key ingredient in the ‘Mexican style’ grilled corn, served with tomatillo salsa, cilantro, cilantro flowers, crunchy green peppers and brown butter powder, is actually wasabi.  Who else but Ludo would be inspired to experiment with otherwise contrasting elements for a delicious cross cultural creation.

In another cross cultural exercise, good old fashioned campfire smoked s’mores are made non-traditional with chipotle chocolate sauce melting under hickory smoked marshmallows and a luscious guacamole sorbet to cool the heat.

Extraordinary meals are made of moments when you see a chef’s curiosity becoming a revelation, and that revelation becoming an inspiration.  Fermented black garlic, sweet and rich like molasses, thrown together with lemon panna cotta and shaved cauliflower in a wild striped bass dish, introduces a new health food rich in antioxidants and believed to increase longevity, in cosmopolitan style.

A subsequent visit to LudoBites 5.0 unveils Ludo’s rendition of black garlic, a dark chocolatey purée of caramelized garlic used to enhance roasted striped bass prepared with lardo, onion soy milk and breadcrumbs.  Potatoes are enjoyed two ways, with fingerling potatoes soaking up the orange scented broth and layered potato chips fried to an absolute crisp adding loud crunchy audio to the experience.

Going to LudoBites 5.0 three times during the 6 week engagement allowed me to see not only the diversity of ideas and the mad genius that Ludo possesses, but the thoughtfulness and intention with which he handles his productions.  There is a constant evolution in his creations where you can feel his desire to do better and to show more.  That drive and diligence is evident in every herb that crowns a fish, every sprinkle of powder that splashes the corner of a plate and every layer of foam that he carefully plants in a soup.  When a spoonful of food summons an appreciation and an understanding for the chef’s philosophy, it creates a powerful moment.  Ludo’s attention to detail and artistry can be seen in a dish such as this one, where a roasted Sonoma lamb saddle covered in powdered katsuobushi is combined with artichoke salad, mint pesto, goat cheese and candied black olives.

Why settle for great if you can make it even better with an extra dose of imagination and a boost of flavors.  The winning combination of goat cheese and candied black olives are given a dazzling makeover on another LudoBites evening with tender Kobe wagyu steak, shaved cauliflowers and radishes, and a seductive charcoal oil that lends a powerful smokey aroma of midsummer barbecues to the dish.

In yet another reincarnation on a different night, hanger steak ‘Korean style’, covered in signature shaved cauliflowers, is paired with the captivating charcoal oil, crispy bacon chutney, pickled vegetables and grilled baby corn.  Not everything works this time, especially the beef which is lacking in seasoning, but Ludo’s drive for originality and innovation is reciprocated with respect.

A different attempt at modifying a good dish also comes with mediocre success, when the sight of a pressed black panini conjures an initial flurry of excitement from the table.  Did he bring back the legendary foie gras croque monsieur, a welcomed encore from his previous LudoBites events?  The black panini, pressed in clarified butter to give it that savory crisp, is filled with whole chunks of luscious sea urchin, a delicious rendition of a panini but not quite a substitute for the original.  It is curiously paired with hot miso soup and honey roasted cherry tomatoes, a combination that still has me scratching my head.

Obviously, a special meal is all about good food, but sometimes there are dishes that are not necessarily the best that I’ve ever had, yet are so wacky and intruiging that it somehow becomes the dish that I talk about the most.  In a cheese plate, Epoisse is beautifully paired with honey comb and whole grain mustard, and Roncal is paired with an aromatic apricot lavender jam.  A Saint-Nectaire, however, is oddly combined with pear kimchi chutney.  I find it repulsive, but it’s all I can think about for the next few days as I happily enter heated debates about whether it’s a good pairing or not, and at times I even fantasize about trying it again.

John Dory, perched on a bed of saffron risotto and dressed with dark orange saffron threads, takes a swim in chanterelle mousse emulsion.  The first bite reveals a fish drowning in a whirlpool of excessive sweetness and overpowering saffronism, yet I can’t stop myself from taking more bites to confirm whether it’s me or the dish.  It’s neither- it’s the chef, who is not afraid to take risks in order to channel his creativity into higher ground.

Unsuccessful dishes are few when it comes to LudoBites, and the majority of the outstanding feast demonstrates why it is worthy of recognition as an epic meal- creations so provocative and stimulating that it consumes your thoughts and dominates your conversations.  It becomes the story that you want to share and the post-it note that you slap onto your brain.  A generous cut of seared foie gras, for one, becomes the hot topic of the evening.  Oh, how it tastes so good with hoisin sauce and miso eggplant purée, and what about that grainy cucumber relish that refreshes my palate with eat bite?  A hint of smokiness that lingers ever so subtly at the end…do you think that he uses smoke powder?

Santa Barbara prawns provide a shared experience of surprise, comedy and parody when we are told that the shrimp heads have been transformed into powdered shrimp sugar to coat fluffy beignets.  We raise our forks to sample the grilled tails drizzled with cinnamon beurre blanc and the warm beignets covered in head dust.  We take the plunge into this culinary twilight zone together, and our journey leads us to discover something new about each other- our palates, her preferences, their experiences, his likes and my dislikes.  The food brings us closer together and the meal becomes unforgettable.

A plate of chanterelle mushrooms sautéed in lots of butter with fermented black garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs and sweet juicy peaches excites me to share the news the following day with one of my friends, with whom I have an ongoing inside joke about chanterelles.  Every time we cook, we forget to serve the chanterelles to our guests.  I tell him about this amazing preparation of chanterelles, and we both laugh about making it (and forgetting to serve it) at our next dinner.  Now, every time I see chanterelles, I think of peaches, LudoBites and the friendship behind this story.

Chocolate cake, dunked in spicy olive oil, is like a cold shower.  At first an uncomfortable jolt of intense spiciness provoking a puny inaudible whimper, then acceptance and surrender as your body gradually adjusts to the shock, followed by a strange exhilaration of chocolate sweetness leading into euphoria.  I take pleasure in seeing the facial expressions on my dining companions as they experience the same process, and we share a laugh.

Tobiko fish roe that titillate like pop rocks hide inside a mayonnaise sauce that coats a decadent piece of seared foie gras in a sophisticated interpretation of ‘dynamite’.  Coupled with tender tuna, sweet lychee and a smidgen of cracker butter, it’s surprisingly good- in fact SO good, that we all race to take another hit of explosive earth shaking pleasure.

While enjoying an exquisite sundae with pistachio ice cream, bing cherries, hot chocolate sauce and salted pistachios, I take a second to pull away from the table conversation and look around the packed dining room.  Everybody is having their moment, eye closed, fork in mouth, chin up with a soft smile.  Giada de Laurentiis is glowing with excitement, basking in culinary bliss.  I accidentally lock eyes with Jonathan Gold, and it only takes a slight nod and a subtle smile for us to acknowledge how much this evening rocks, before returning to our respective sundaes.

A dish to remember forms the backbone of a meal to remember.  A delicious expression of perfection, an irresistible form of seduction and a stunning display of edible beauty that awakens your spirit, turning a spoonful of heaven into an obsessive memory that tempts you to remain in a permanent daydream, far away from reality.  The most tender piece of octopus, coated with garlic, Sicilian oregano, red wine vinegar and olive oil, is grilled to perfection and served with grilled hazelnut polenta on one night, and burnt red bell pepper polenta on another.  Piment d’Espelette gelée is smokey, sweet and coy.  Pineapple aioli is bold, luscious and naughty.  I purr.

Caramel soufflé comes straight out of the oven, and as soon as we drop the fleur de sel ice cream into the center, the salty cream melts and slowly dribbles down the side of the ramekin.  We plunge our spoons into the magma chamber and scoop out the liquid gold, savoring the pleasant combination of salt and sugar.   The Oro blanco grapefruit gelée makes it even better, and every bite becomes simultaneously ingrained in the various pleasure centers in my brain.

By the time that I finish my meal at Ludobites 5.0, I don’t even realize what has happened to me yet.  The alchemist of cuisine and the shaman of spices that is Chef Ludo Lefebvre, has cast a spell on me with his sensational food.  All I am capable of doing as I walk away from the restaurant toward my car and back home, with a warm feeling that fills my chest to its absolute capacity with happiness, is to smile.  A week later, I am still feeling the same way as I flip through my mental filofax of his amazing dishes and fantasize about having just one more bite, and I finally realize that I had one of the best meals of the year.  On that note, I give you my 29th and final reason why LudoBites 5.0 is my favorite meal of 2010 so far, the pièce de résistance.  When a perfectly poached egg, cooked at 147 degrees, goes swimming inside a buttery sea of potato mousseline with chorizo crumble and a drizzle of savory chorizo fat, the result is…indescribable.

LudoBites

Random trivia: Did you know that the fish John Dory is believed to have gotten its name not by a reference to the hero of an old ballad named John Dory, but rather a variation of the French words jaune, which means yellow, and dorée, which means gilded?