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?

The Lazy Ox Canteen

I still remember quite vividly the excitement that I felt in my tiny little chest when my parents would take me to Little Tokyo back in the 70′s and 80′s.  As a Japanese girl growing up in Los Angeles, weekend excursions to this area of downtown LA were precious.  I have fond memories of slurping ramen noodles, buying Doraemon stickers, perusing through Japanese manga and stuffing myself silly with freshly baked imagawa yaki.  I used to scream at the top of my lungs as my brother terrorized me in a frantic chase around the fountain in the center of the Japanese Village Plaza until my dad’s stern look would put an abrupt end to the rampage.  Elderly store owners used to greet me with a pat on the head and ask me how I was doing in school.  The iconic red Yagura tower, the symbol of Little Tokyo, seemed majestic and grand.  I cherished this magical town full of interesting people who spoke my language and breathed my culture.  Now, decades later, something has happened and the lively spirit of Little Tokyo has vanished.  My beloved childhood playground is now a deserted ghost town.  What happened?  My sad and heavy heart weeps at this tragic transformation.

Fortunately there’s 1 new reason to put Little Tokyo back on the map.   Michael Cardenas, a Japanese-Mexican chef who has revolutionized the LA movement of hip rock ‘n’ roll fine dining by opening Sushi Roku, Katana and Boa, has teamed up with Chef Josef Centeno to bring a new type of restaurant to the heart of Little Tokyo.  It’s a tapas bar, gastropub and izakaya all blended together in a small space on the ground floor of a condominium complex.  I was skeptical when I first approached the restaurant.  There was no restaurant sign, and although the patio seats were all full, it was quiet and dark.   Once I stepped inside though, the intense energy and power of the restaurant almost blew the hair right off my scalp.  The bar to the left, the communal table in the center, tables in every corner and banquettes against the wall were all filled with laughing and smiling diners who were undoubtedly having the time of their lives.  I loved the large bare filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling that lit up the faces of the eclectic and mixed crowd.  The vibe was hip and cool, but the friendly demeanor of the incredible staff also made it cozy and warm.

There was a regular menu, but the daily specials written on the blackboard were more diverse.  Pork parts and offals stood out in the colorful menu, while family style specials for 2 were listed for every day of the week.  The day I visited was a Sunday, and the big plate special was a brick roasted 1/2 duck.  Everything on the menu sounded enticing, but alas there were only 4 of us and our gastric walls were not able to accommodate all of the dishes.  I marveled at the fact that the tiny kitchen, which was smaller than my own kitchen, was turning out this extensive menu at an efficient speed with precision and grace.  Such is the power of a talented and capable chef like Centeno who has worked at numerous places including Meson G, Opus, Lot 1, Aubergine and Bar Celona.  For years I held a bit of a grudge against Centeno who served an appalling dish of sea urchin and moyashi soybean sprouts at Meson G back in 2005, but I was ready to let go of those bad memories and call a truce.  Go figure that the one evening that I chose to visit The Lazy Ox Canteen was the first day off for Centeno since the restaurant opened in December 2009.

We started our fantastic meal with a refreshing salad of pickled beets and wild arugula.  The cubes of tender beets were marinated to a perfect tartness and paired elegantly with the sweetness of the succulent mandarin orange wedges.  The mellow flavors of the yogurt dressing tempered the acidity of the vegetables, while crunchy purple radicchio leaves in the bottom layer peered through the green arugula trellis to impart more vibrant colors to this lively dish.

Pig’s ear chicharrones…*gulp*. With the explosion of pig’s ear dishes in restaurants all over town this year, I’ve been conditioned to excessively salivate at the mere sight of the words “pig’s ear” on a menu like a naive Pavlovian dog.  The one here at Lazy Ox Canteen was super crispy bordering on chewy, cooked in such a way as to transform the fatty dermis into a light biscuit while maintaining the inherent crunchy toughness of the thin cartilage layer.  With a squeeze of fresh lime, a dip in luscious aioli and a chaser of piquant pickled radishes, I’m now dreaming of a utopia where large bowls of fried pig’s ears may someday replace chips & salsa at Super Bowl parties.

Deep fried anchovies delighted all gourmands at the table with their crisp and puffy shells.  The delicate fish were so incredibly fresh and tender that they practically evaporated into a savory breeze of aquatic essence in the mouth.  This dish rivaled some of the best boquerones that I’ve had in Barcelona tapas bars.

Braised lamb cheeks nestled on a bed of creamy semolina and collard greens were rich and tender, and the acidity of the pickled red onions imparted a perfect degree of tart and zing that kept the forks moving and the glasses flowing.  Our bottle of 2008 Chilean Leyda Pinot Noir kept us very happy that night.

No matter how good a restaurant is, there is bound to be at least 1 dish that doesn’t quite make the cut.  Charred octopus tossed with pickled shallots, fava beans, pomelo grapefruit and escarole was that dish for me.  It’s wasn’t bad by any means, but compared to the rest of the spectacular dishes that knocked my socks off, the combination of ingredients seemed discordant.  As the title implied, I was hoping for a robust and masculine piece of charred octopus with crisp and smoky skin, rather than the spongy mass that had been allowed to soak up too much of the vinegar sauce.

‘Eggs and ham‘ Lazy ox style… am I a fan of eggs and ham?  Why yes I am, of eggs and ham a fan I am.  Heck, damn I am!  The women at the table all cooed over this adorable plate of fried quail eggs and deep fried pork belly with harissa.  The pork was pleasantly fatty and crispy, and the fiery bite of the harissa sauce added character and flair.

Hand-torn egg pasta with sunny-side egg, brown butter and fines herbs was excellent.  A fresh spring herb bouquet of dill, tarragon and parsley brought a perfect level of snap to the otherwise rich dish oozing with runny egg yolk and brown butter.  All of the simple yet delicious ingredients came together harmoniously to accentuate the marvelous texture of the flat pasta.

Chicken livers…*gulp*.  Another Pavlovian response.  Chicken liver crostini with whole grain mustard was almost too good to share.  The creamy chunks of liver featured in this dish were a little on the gamey side but the saltiness of the pancetta crisps balanced it out well.

We had a splendid dish of dashi marinated yellowtail cubes mixed with thin radish slices, avocado, crème fraîche, tobiko caviar and puffed rice that went surprisingly well with triangles of freshly cooked potato hash browns.  It was an unlikely combination of ‘East meets West’, but the flavors melded perfectly and stirred much excitement from the gallery.

A deep fried butterflied fillet of baby pompano almost looked amphibious with its flattened back and deep eye sockets, ready to leap off the bed of leafy greens onto my lap, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable dishes for me.  The crispy skin and crunchy bones made for some of the best otsumami beer snacks that I’ve had in a long time, but the showstopper was the smoked pepper aioli with its amazing rich flavor and silky cream consistency.

Pig trotters….yum….Pavlovian response revisited.  Pig trotters, along with various other pig parts, have been one of the most welcome food trends for me in Los Angeles this past year.  Los Angeles cuisine is finally catching up to the rest of the world.  These braised trotters were served burger style as minced meat patties on a bed of lentil purée with a dash of pickled onion slices and a drizzle of rich jus.  The trotter dish was incredibly succulent, perfectly fatty and just a perfect serving of heaven.

The tapioca pudding brûlée had that characteristic enjoyable squishy texture of bouncy tapioca with a nice smokey caramelized layer of burnt sugar on top.  It was served with a sweet pineapple sauce that had a faint hint of szechuan peppercorn that fortunately didn’t overpower the fruit flavor.

I had a genuinely fun and delicious experience at The Lazy Ox Canteen, and even though Centeno wasn’t there that night the crew did an amazing job.  I peered over to the tiny kitchen and recognized the handsome face of sous chef Mario from Mo-Chica who never lost his cool.  Hats off to the rest of the floor staff who made our experience pleasurable with their positive energy and generosity.  The service was beyond excellent, and for a packed house and a miniature kitchen, I couldn’t believe the perfect flow of service and the absence of delay in time from order to table.  If I had more stomach space, I would have loved to try the lengua ravioli, Lazy Ox burger, Merguez sausage and crispy quail.  But alas, we were at full capacity and any more food would have caused reflux.  I would love to revisit the restaurant to try their daily big plate specials too- pan seared 19 oz pork porterhouse on Friday and a 24 oz black pepper crusted cote de boeuf on Saturday are beckoning me.   The alcohol menu is also an eclectic mix of global drinks, from Okinawan awamori to Belgian ales, and South African Shiraz to Hungarian Furmint.  At stunningly affordable prices, there’s no longer an excuse not to go to Little Tokyo.

Call The Lazy Ox Canteen and a sweet and bubbly voice on the other side will greet you with a “How can I make your day better?”  Your day will unquestionably be made better with a visit to this outstanding restaurant.

The Lazy Ox Canteen

241 S San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-5299

Random trivia:  Did you know that various pig parts can be found in common household items that we all have?  Bones, cartilage, fat, skin and hair are used in manufacturing items like photographic film, corks, shampoo, medicine capsules and crayons.

Bottega Louie

My friends and I headed to Bottega Louie one Saturday night in search of a fun dining experience.  Bistros, gastropubs and restaurants have been popping up all over downtown LA this past year, and so far all of the places I’ve been to have been fabulous.  I was surprised to find out that Bottega Louie didn’t take reservations, but we decided to wing it.  How bad can the wait be for a party of 4 at 8:30pm, even on a Saturday night?  Well…pretty bad.  This place was packed like the opening day of the Barney’s Warehouse Sale.

What’s impressive  is that the space could actually comfortably accommodate the waiting masses.  The brightly lit restaurant, on the otherwise dark and desolate corner of Grand and 7th in the heart of downtown LA, is beautiful.  As we approached the restaurant on foot, it made me feel like I was back in New York City, walking along the sidewalks of Chelsea as taxis whizzed by and steam rose up through the manholes. Our excitement rose as we walked through the doors and instantly felt the high level of energy in the room.

IMG_1367The space is massive.  With a deli/bakery to the right, an open kitchen in the middle, a bar with tables to the left, and the dining room in the rear, it’s a Dean and Deluca-meets-Pastis type arena.  Immensely tall ceilings with beautiful and intricate moldings reminiscent of a classical Parisian apartment are awe-inspiring.  Beautiful marbled floors, long black banquets lining the multiple sections of the dining room, a wood-fire oven in the rear, and bustling kitchen activity add to the fascination of this bistro-like atmosphere.  What an irony to be in this grand contemporary  space surrounded by beautiful people sipping on martinis while looking out through the large windows onto the homeless roaming the deserted streets.

Waiting an hour for our table didn’t seem so bad as we took in all of the  action from the swank bar, toasting to the night with champagne and mojitos.  It was an exciting place to be in, and I could feel the energy in the room charging our conversation and fueling our laughter.  Or was it just the deafening noise level that we had to shout over?

The menu is very simple and straight forward.  Salads, soups, pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, entrees and side dishes inspired by American and Italian cuisine.  Most are classic dishes like penne pomodoro, eggplant parmigiana, roasted chicken and meatball sandwiches, and nothing is too fancy or creative.  There’s an impressive list of small dishes, 30 in total, ranging from $7-9, ideal for sharing with a large party.  We started with a simple wild arugula salad with red onions and parmesan shavings that was refreshing and crisp.

The white anchovies on tomato with micro greens were just okay, as the anchovies were a bit on the fishy side.  This isn’t something that I would recommend here.

One of the most popular dishes at Bottega Louie that our server almost required us to order was the portabello mushroom fries.  The concept of deep fried portabello mushroom wedges did indeed sound immensely appetizing, and we were quite excited for this.  However, they were soggy, limp, tasteless and lifeless.  The delicious herb aioli made us wish that the fries were more worthy.

The fennel sausage pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella was pretty good.  We definitely wanted to get something cooked in their wood fire oven, and this was probably our best choice.  The thin crust had a nice balance of doughy and crunchy, and the amount of cheese was perfect to complement the delicious fennel sausage.  It wasn’t a bad pizza for a downtown LA restaurant, although of course it didn’t compare with the other famous pizzerias in LA (the best fennel sausage pizza is hands down at Mozza).

The shrimp scampi with mariniére sauce was a disappointment.  The large jumbo shrimp were succulent and meaty, though not the best quality I’ve ever had.  What really put a damper on the dish was that the mashed potatoes under the shrimp were cold and dry.  I mean, really cold, as if it had just come out of the fridge 15 minutes ago.  At the end of the evening our server asked us why we didn’t inform her about this.  We would have, if we could have flagged her down at the time but she was nowhere to be found.  It was so busy in the restaurant that we hardly ever saw her.  Besides, even if we were able to get a re-do on the dish, it would’ve taken another 30 minutes to get it.

The grilled rib eye steak was perfectly cooked and quite tasty, although again this item was cold.  Cold!  For a grilled steak to be served cold is not only inexcusable, but unfathomable.  The restaurant was packed and the service was really slow, but was it so busy that our steak was sitting there on the counter for that long?  It came with 2 sauces- a Gorgonzola sauce and an onion steak sauce.  The gorgonzola sauce was too much like regular gravy sauce, and it was also dark brown.  Isn’t gorgonzola white?  The other sauce made with sweet onions and worcestershire sauce was too sweet.  What a pity for this fine cut of steak to meet such an ill fate.

The side of corn, swiss chard and bacon was really nice.  Our server was telling us that some farmer somewhere had a whole corn field just for Bottega Louie.  The corn was really sweet and succulent, and I could tell that it was really fresh.  I wish there was more bacon presence though- there was a lack of bacon fattiness to add more savoriness to the dish.

We ended with the meatball sliders.  Another dish that our server highly recommended to us that completely flopped.  Each adorable mini burger had 1 large meatball, tomato sauce, and a gigantic heap of melted provolone cheese like there was no tomorrow.  The tomato sauce was plain, the meatballs were tasteless and dry, and the amount of cheese made me think the impossible…”enough cheese already!”  It’s a tell-tale sign that something’s off when a basket of fries is left half full.

Although the restaurant space is strikingly beautiful and dynamic, the confidence and poise that the atmosphere exudes is disappointingly absent in its food.  I would hope that all of these other people, so willing and eager to wait for hours for a table at this restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, would be fairly rewarded with astonishing food.  Given that this place is open every day from breakfast to dinner, and offers deli selections as well as cocktails, it’s a good place for people to congregrate in downtown LA.  The location makes it ideal for business lunches and after-work happy hour.  However, it may not be worth planning an evening around, at least not yet.

Bottega Louie Restaurant & Gourmet Market

700 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 802-1470

Random trivia:  The world record for corn eating is held by Cookie Jarvis.  Despite flying in from California to Florida on a red-eye flight the morning of the contest, he snagged the title in 2004 by eating 33 1/2 ears of corn in 12 minutes.