LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s – Downtown LA

Have you had an ‘A ha!‘ moment recently?

One of those sudden moments of clarity, revelation, realization?  When that light bulb goes off over the top of your head?  These moments may be few and far in between, but I recently had a slew of them while dining at my favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre‘s recent pop-up venture.  Although he was already famous by the time he took over the Los Angeles culinary scene in his L’Orangerie and Bastide days, he’s probably more known now for his innovative and fun pop-up restaurant called LudoBites.  It’s a revolutionary ‘guerrilla-style’ of dining where he rents out a restaurant space for a limited time dinner engagement.  During the previously successful LudoBites 2.0 at the Breadbar, LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T and a fried chicken truck appearance at the LA Street Food Fest, I witnessed Ludo shine in these settings where he had complete freedom to express his creativity without restaurant bureaucracy.  With nobody breathing down his back, he was free to share his pure untainted vision in an intimate environment with the diners who adore him.

This time he opened up shop in Downtown LA at a small sandwich restaurant called Gram & Papa’s.  All reservations for the 7 week LudoBites 4.0 event sold out in 18 hours, proving once again the power and popularity of this charismatic French chef.  This man has single-handedly managed to capture the attention and mesmerize the minds of the entire Los Angeles dining community- from fussy diners and food critics to food bloggers alike.   I’ve never seen so many blog entries and tweets about a chef before.  He sure knows how to create a lot of buzz, and with that handsome face, heavily tattooed arms, thick French accent and bigger than life personality (and an even bigger heart), he’s become the food paparazzi favorite.

He’s been likened to a rock star, and with recent appearances on Top Chef Masters 1&2, his celebrity status only continues to rise.  All that is sweet and swell, but what initially captured me and continues to engage me is not that ridiculously cute smile (although it sure helps) but his innovative creations that he pulls out of his magic gastronomy hat.  I still remember very vividly that warm summer day in 2009 when I went to LudoBites 2.0 at the Breadbar and took that first sip of chorizo soup.  It was my first ‘A ha!’ moment with Ludo, and it was the drug that proceeded to feed my LudoBites addiction.

There are many definitions of an ‘A ha!’ moment, and it can mean something different for everybody.  For some it may be that moment when a notion strikes you like lightning and your heart starts beating faster with excitement. Like when I sank my teeth into the brie chantilly napoleon with honey comb, frisée and balsamic reduction.  What…what is that delightful soft pillowy cream that is delicately caressing my tongue into a hypnotized state of ecstasy?  That fluffy ooze as light as air that has melted with my body temperature into a molten liquid possessing a familiar stink?  ‘A ha!’ That’s brie cheese, and it’s been whipped for 2 hours into the creamiest and smoothest texture, and what an incredible pairing with the natural sweetness of the honeycomb and the even sweeter dark allure of balsamic reduction.

The same thing happened with the marinated king salmon, served with german butterball potatoes, red wine vinaigrette and crème fraiche.  These incredibly tender and fatty pieces of marinated salmon blanketed by an array of carrot discs and red onion slices were one of my favorite delights.  The cured salmon tasted sweet, and the vinaigrette complemented the fish well.  And what was that white mound over there that looked like a melting piece of birthday cake?  ‘A ha!’, that’s the butterball potato purée coated with crème fraiche, delivering a slightly tart and acidic flavor reminiscent of traditional German potato salad, and how surprising that it goes so well with the salmon! 

An ‘A ha!’ moment can also be a moment of sudden recognition.  Have you ever scratched your head at not being able to remember somebody’s face or name, even though they looked very familiar, only to be hit by that sudden memory surge when that person’s name appears in your brain?  That’s usually followed by the rush of memories of when you last saw that person, what your connection is and other associations you may have.  Like the dish of burgundy escargots at LudoBites 4.0 with garlic flan, green jus and violet flowers.  Déjà vu…I feel a strange but comfortable and warm familiarity with this dish, but I can’t quite place my finger on….’A ha!’ How can I forget that wondrous dish of escargots with yellow ginger curry, brown butter, spinach and purple borage flowers?  That amazing dish from LudoBites 2.0 that I had with my friends on a warm sunny July evening.  Ah yes, these succulent and juicy snails were amazing with the delicate green herb foam and the creamy garlic flan underneath.  How clever of Ludo to take the components of the classic Burgundy escargot dish and deconstruct it in such a beautiful way.

Similar ‘A ha!’ moments occurred while enjoying the white asparagus velouté with mozzarella mousse, shaved fennel, candied olive and salmon roe. Ludo is a master of soups and mousses, and this cold creamy asparagus soup brought back memories of an earthy porcini velouté and a celery root soup with parmesan and black truffle.  I loved the different textures in this soup, with the gelatin feel of the salmon roe, the crispness of the shaved fennel and the creaminess of the cheese mousse.

Have you ever had a moment of revelation, a magical opportunity that opens your eyes to everything around you and makes you feel like there is possibility everywhere?  ‘A ha!’ I found it in 2 beautifully plated dishes that represented Ludo’s sense of aesthetics and beauty.  A carrot salad with saffron anglaise cream, pearl onions, blood orange, and orange powder sang joyous and uplifting spring melodies to my soul, transporting me into a daydream of vivid psychedelic colors and smiley faces.

The snapper ceviche with heirloom tomatoes, jalapeños, red onions, kumquat wedges, cilantro, meyer lemon paste and olive oil was also a dashing display of colors and shapes.  The citrus and cilantro flavors were strong in this dish in true ceviche style, and these beautiful colors awakened my sense of taste, leading to a cascading effect of sharpening my sense of sound, smell and sight.  The sounds of laughter, clinking wine glasses and silverware on plates came rushing into my brain simultaneously as my vision finally adjusted to the dark candlelight, in effect heightening my LudoBites experience.

One of the reasons why I love Ludo’s cuisine is because he takes familiar flavors and ingredients, and creates novel combinations to stimulate my taste buds.  He is the master of reinterpretation and deconstruction, applying fantastic abstract visions to classic dishes. Like the boudin noir terrine, a semi-soft wedge of buttery boudin noir with a drizzle of apple purée and a side of wasabi.  Unlike LudoBites 3.0 where he ventured deep into Asian fusion, I loved that he came back closer to his French roots in this rendition of LudoBites.  I was ecstatic to see escargots and foie gras back on the menu, but in classic Ludo style he still added minute hints of Asian influence in these subtle and clever ways.  I was dumbfounded at how well the wasabi paired with the boudin.  Who knew that these flavors could create beautiful music together?  I learned something valuable to take back home to my kitchen.

Of course an ‘A ha!’ moment doesn’t necessarily have to come like a thunderclap.  It can be a subtle brewing excitement that causes you to have goose bumps, a moment when things fall into place so perfectly that it feels like destiny.  When you feel like you’ve finally found what you were looking for, and it’s time to end the long journey to head back home.  I had exactly that feeling when I was reunited with Ludo’s foie gras black croque monsieur.  This was one of the defining moments for me when I had a love-at-first-bite experience with this sandwich during LudoBites 2.0.  Words cannot describe the pleasure of biting into this crunchy sandwich and having the warm tasty foie, ham and cheese melt right into my mouth.  I couldn’t imagine anything being better than the cherry amaretto sauce that it originally came with, but the lemon turnip chutney in this version was pretty darn amazing.

The beauty and artistry of the seared scallop dish also sent shivers down my spine.  The geometric patterns and bright colors of the pickled grapes, cauliflower slices and caper purée took me back to the breathtaking coral reefs in the Maldives.  Sweet, tart, acidic and mellow flavors danced on my tongue as I incorporated the almond purée, curry oil and cauliflower ice cream into each sumptuous bite.

Perhaps the most classic definition of an ‘A ha!’ moment is that of an epiphany, when one has a moment of clarity.  Like when Newton saw an apple falling from a tree and formulated the theory of gravity.  Or, on a smaller scale, when you suddenly solve an answer to a riddle or a crossword clue.  Take the seared foie gras with ‘Piña Colada’ for example. What is the Piña Colada all about?  That big white mound must be Piña Colada flavored cream, I thought, and I fished around the plate to taste each different substance on the plate.  There was coconut flavored ice cream, and pineapple foam, and it all made sense to me.  But then I took a small bite of the yellow colored jelly that I found hiding on the bottom layer, and my brain jolted from the strangely familiar strong alcoholic flavor that it possessed.  ‘A ha!’, why that’s rum jelly, and darn it Ludo deconstructed a classic cocktail to pair beautifully with the tasty cut of seared foie gras.

Luscious ham soup with generous chunks of bread croutons with melted cheese, sliced cornichons, radishes and Guinness foam was an inspiration.  It didn’t grab my heart as strongly as my all-time Ludo favorite, the chorizo soup, but this was a very close second.  I loved the way that the acidity of the cornichons cut the meaty flavor of the pink ham soup.

I think the whole table had a simultaneous ‘A ha!’ moment when the plate of squid ‘carbonara’ with pancetta and poached egg arrived.  At first we admired and cooed over the beautiful plating of this delicate dish.  It was a romantic dish- a perfectly poached egg, cooked at 63 degrees in an immersion circulator, softly nestled under a blanket of white parmesan snow and accessorized with dainty purple chive flowers.  We all leaned in to take a closer look.  And then our heads snapped back up at the same time to look at each other with dilated pupils and wide smiles.  Squid carbonara,  ‘A ha!’ Small rings of tender squid took the place of pasta in this classic hearty Italian dish.  Now that’s an idea.

So what exactly is going on in our brains during an ‘A ha!’ moment?  What are the makings of this sudden revelation that not only changes our lives but can also change history?  Neurophysiological studies showed that there was a surge of electrical activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus of the right hemisphere of the brain.  EEG recordings (that machine where they connect electrodes to your head to measure brain wave activity) showed a distinct rise in gamma waves in the right hemisphere a third of a second before the moment of clarity.  This area of the brain is normally active in problem solving and associations.  So as I was casually talking to my friends at the dinner table and enjoying my plate of poached monkfish with vadouvan spices and ‘Jardiniere de Legumes’ (carrots, peas, dill, green onions, turnips and seared caramelized garlic), the neurons in my right brain were firing rapidly.

Studies also showed that immediately before the burst of gamma waves, there was a change in alpha wave intensity in the visual cortex of the brain, which controls how our brain processes visual stimulation.  This suggested that the brain was trying to suppress visual processing in order to work more on problem solving.  Do you ever close your eyes when you concentrate on a thought?  Don’t you feel like you can think harder and better when you shut your eyes?  Sometimes I also even stick my fingers in my ears to shut out external sounds when I concentrate.  At first I unknowingly closed my eyes when I savored the amazing steak au poivre with shallots to mentally dissect the flavors in each component of the dish.  The bone marrow polenta was heavenly, and the black roasted eggplant purée, my favorite item from the entire Ludobites 3.0 menu, had an intense smokiness.  After a while, I think I had my eyes closed because I was simply in too much bliss.

Although all of this data suggests that we need to concentrate really hard in order to arrive at an ‘A ha!’ moment, other studies showed that in fact our brain was more actively engaged when our mind was wandering.  All of the different brain mechanisms involved in problem solving work more efficiently together when we are daydreaming.  Contrary to what people may think, our brains are unusually active when we’re staring off into space, and we are more likely to accomplish insightful problem solving rather than analytical and structured problem solving. I guess that’s why the euphoric state that the succulent lamb chops put me in was conducive to my quiet ‘A ha!’ moment of when I realized the brilliance behind pairing lamb with smoked eel, goat cheese, artichokes and mint.

Researchers also found that one’s state of mind greatly affected whether or not they were likely to solve a problem through insightful thinking.  People in a positive mood were more likely to experience an insight.  By the end of my meal at LudoBites, I wasn’t sure if there were any more revelations and insights that I could have possibly had more of, but I was surely in a very good mood.  The rose macaroon with organic strawberries and lychee made everybody happy.

The perfectly baked dark chocolate soufflé, on the other hand, made everybody jubilant.  We scooped out a hole in the center of the steaming hot pillowy soufflé to make room for the whiskey ice cream and hot chocolate cream, which instantly melted into molten lava inside the chocolate oven.  This was a decadent and delectable finale to our exciting meal at LudoBites 4.0.

As I reflected on all of the different types of ‘A ha!’ moments that Chef Ludo provided me with, I wondered about how he arrived at his own ‘A ha!’ moments in comprising the creative and artistic menu.  Which neurons were firing in his right hemisphere as he brainstormed about all of the unique flavor combinations to present for LudoBites 4.0?  What neural mechanisms led to his breakthrough moments of revelation and inspiration?  Undoubtedly they originated from a solid foundation of years of study and experience, but surely they’re a culmination of pure brilliance and unparalleled talent.

An ‘A ha!’ moment…that special moment of clarity and revelation.  That defining moment when newly discovered wisdom can change your life.  When was the last time that you had such an ‘A ha!’ moment?  If it’s been a while, follow Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s website to see where he’ll pop up next so you can be inspired by his food.

LudoBites 4.0

Gram & Papa’s

227 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015

*The current LudoBites 4.0 in Downtown LA at Gram & Papa’s is completely sold out until its final day on May 28th.

Random trivia:  Archimedes had a famous ‘A ha!’ moment when he was taking a bath.  When he stepped into the tub, he noticed that the water level rose, and thus formulated a method to measure the volume of a given mass.  He was so excited at his epiphany that he jumped out of his tub and ran naked through the streets, shouting ‘Eureka! (I have found it!)’

LudoBites 2.0 at The Breadbar

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Chef Ludo writing a message for me. Merci!

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.

LudoBites

Random trivia:  Did you know that the largest land snail (escargot) ever found was 15 inches long and weighed 2 pounds?!  Imagine eating that…