One of my favorite chefs, Ludo Lefebvre, has returned once again for a short 13-day ‘guerrilla style pop-up’ LudoBites event this month. After a hugely successful LudoBites part deux at the Breadbar this past summer where I had one of the best dining experiences this year, he has returned for a short stint at the Royal/T café and gallery in Culver City. Trained under the tutelage of legendary French grandmasters Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, Ludo himself has earned prestige and recognition during his years as executive chef at L’Orangerie and Bastide here in Los Angeles. This charming chef, who people love to hate but ultimately love anyway, kept us entertained this summer when he competed on Top Chef Masters. Through LudoBites, he has detached himself from the bureaucracies of the traditional restaurant model in pursuit of a more free and independent way to express his creativity.
Royal/T….an interesting choice of venues, I thought. Royal/T is a Japanese maid café メイドカフェwhere the young female waitresses are dressed up in Lolita style maid uniforms with short frilly petticoated skirts and knee high white socks. It’s still widely popular all over Japan, but it originated in the heart of Akihabara where video game and anime ‘otaku’, who are usually socially awkward techie geeks, go to seek refuge from the otherwise fast-paced Japanese society where they don’t quite blend in. At these maid cafés they are treated like masters of the house, or ‘goshujinsama’ご主人様, and they are welcomed by a cute ‘Welcome home, master’ as if they were returning home to their private mansion after a long day. At the café customers enjoy a simple meal while playing games and taking photos with their maids. They enjoy their precious time of getting full attention from their personal maids before going back out into the cold concrete Tokyo jungle.
I was surprised to arrive at Royal/T that evening for LudoBites and find that we were in fact going to be served by cute maids in full costume. It was a surreal experience to be dining in this rather stunning large art space showcasing interesting contemporary installations while eating Ludo’s innovative cuisine served to us by a Japanese maid. Was I really in Culver City?
The venue was packed that evening, and I wasn’t surprised, as I heard that the 13-day event sold out within a couple of days. Among the other diners that evening were actor Fred Savage and the chef/owner of Jitlada. Despite being short one sous chef who left a few days prior, Ludo prepared a spectacular dinner for a full house while his wife Krissy ran a tight ship up front and the highly efficient maids kept a perfect flow of service.
The first dish of tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream, soy sauce gelée and smoked ginger oil was a deconstructed contemporary interpretation of nigiri sushi. The cold rice ice cream was light and refreshing while sprinkles of deep fried onions and aromatic ginger oil added a delightful smokiness to the tender cuts of tuna. The soy gelée, daikon sprouts, hint of wasabi cream and flakes of togarashi red pepper lended different levels of tang and kick to this wonderful dish.
The caramelized endive with gingerbread croutons and citrus wedges was a simple dish that seemed almost plain and boring after the exciting crudo dish that we started with. Although it was nothing spectacular, we enjoyed the way that the acidity from the orange and grapefruit wedges was in perfect balance with the nutty olive oil. It’s the kind of dish that I would expect an Italian cook to make at home for dinner on a regular weeknight- simple, honest and good.
Celery root soup with black truffle and parmesan was rich and creamy with just enough parmesan presence that didn’t overwhelm the dish. The black truffle essence in this soup was earthy and delicious, and we all absolutely loved the soup. For round 2 of the soup, one of my dining partners had brought something special for us that evening that would up the pleasure factor exponentially.
My friend Haru, sous chef at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant, brought a nice big piece of truffle to our LudoBites dinner to celebrate the beginning of winter black truffle season. This soup was the perfect first dish to enhance with the black truffles. Ludo and Krissy both laughed at us as Haru happily shaved away.
The slowly sautéed Monterey wild squid with kimchi purée, black olives, red onions and chorizo oil was an interesting dish. The fresh squid, cooked perfectly to an exquisite tenderness, was quite amazing with the smokey chorizo oil. It was hard for me to fully embrace the kimchi purée. It tasted exactly like kimchi when I popped it in my mouth with eyes closed, but there was something about this brownish yellow glob visually resembling Gerber’s baby food that I couldn’t get myself to accept. My palate was also confused by this dish that tasted like ojinguh bokkeum, or Korean spicy stir fried squid, which I make at home all the time in my pajamas. Don’t get me wrong, this dish was delicious, but after being blown away by dishes like foie gras croque monsieur with cherry amaretto sauce and escargot ginger curry at the previous LudoBites, I just didn’t expect to come here to taste something that is so everyday to me.
Did you notice that the photo of the squid dish was less yellow and looked more beautiful? The biggest problem in taking photos inside dark restaurants is that the dim lighting is not kind to even the best of camera lenses, and Photoshop editing can only do so much to correct the problem (and I don’t even have Photoshop). Well, the Lefebvres, who kindly embrace and welcome the presence of foodbloggers, purchased and set up a lightbox in one of the back rooms of Royal/T so that diners can take better photos of the food. I was quite dumbfounded by this incredible act of thoughtfulness and hospitality, and at first I thought that Krissy was joking. As you can see, it makes a huge difference in photo quality. However, I chose to take the rest of the photos at the table so that my fellow diners and I could eat the food while it was still fresh and warm. After all, I didn’t come here to take photos. I came here to eat.
My favorite dish of the evening was the crispy confit pork belly with burnt eggplant purée, fried plantain chip, coconut foam and thai chili emulsion. The pork belly, crispy and crackling on the outside and sinfully fatty on the inside, was in itself quite amazing with the aromatic coconut foam. But it was the black purée, that unassuming dark dollop quietly sitting on the sideline waiting for its cue from the pork belly, that ended up being the showstopper. It really tasted exactly like burnt eggplant, and we were all taken by surprise by this fact. One of the best ways to enjoy Japanese eggplants during the autumn season is by simply charring them over a grill and peeling off the burnt skin, enjoying the smokey aromatic flesh with a little bit of soy sauce and grated ginger. This black purée tasted exactly like that yakinasu dish at its fall peak, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Innovative, brilliant, and simply genius.
The egg ‘Meurette’ with braised red cabbage and lardo toast was a contemporary ode to the classic oeufs en meurette, a traditional French Burgundy dish of poached eggs in red wine sauce. The tartness of the red wine braised cabbage was in perfect equilibrium with the richness of the runny egg yolk and flavorful sheets of pork fat veneer. We really enjoyed this dish that stayed pretty close and true to the classic bistro original.
For round 2, we enhanced the dish with the winter black truffles. Did we go overboard with the truffle shavings? Why, yes. And why not?
I loved the textures of the foie gras beignet. The outer shell was delightfully soft and chewy like delicate mochi, and the tender lumps of foie gras that practically came spilling out were delightful. Although the dried apricot and saffron purée was too sweet for my palate which generally detests sweet fruit sauces in savory dishes, the Frenchmen at the table were all over it.
Braised veal with udon, caramelized onions, kombu dashi and enoki mushrooms sparked a huge debate at our table. This dish was like the illegitimate cross cultural child born out of an adulterous affair between a French man and a Japanese woman. With a French man, a Japanese woman (me), and a French-Japanese man in the dining party, you can imagine the conversation we had about this dish that came out of a big bang collision between blanquette de veau, soupe a l’oignon and nabeyaki udon. One thing that we could all agree on was that on a deep visceral level, this dish was comforting- there was a moment when we all sipped and slurped in silence, breathing a sigh of relief after each gulp. The garlic, ginger, miso and goat cheese paste was quite amazing, and in my opinion very pivotal in this dish.
The final savory dish was a perfectly grilled cut of juicy beef tenderloin with crispy lard and vichy carrots in a mustard sauce. We used the last of the winter black truffle to enhance this delicious dish. It was a deeply gratifying tasty dish that went especially well with our superb bottle of 2003 Vendanges Bordeaux from Chateau de Reignac.
Fourme d’Ambert tourte with wine poached pear and honey balsamic reduction sauce was heavenly. The wonderful robust Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese, from the Auvergne region of France, is one of France’s oldest cheeses and has a distinct strong flavor. The acidity of the balsamic sauce, along with the sweet tartness of the pear, kept the potentially overwhelming cheese in check and it all made for a delicious dessert.
I love when Ludo presents original and questionable flavor combinations that surprisingly work really well. When we saw guacamole with ginger ice cream and exotic fruits on the menu, it kept us on our toes all evening. What is it going to taste like, and what is it going to look like? My brain couldn’t even begin to imagine what this dish would taste like before I scooped that first delectable spoonful into my mouth. The buttery smoothness of avocado, the sweetness of mango and banana, the tang and crunch of passion fruit seeds, and the slight zest of aromatic ginger ice cream…it was luscious.
Chef Ludo Lefebvre, you have done it again. Your bottomless tank of unique avant-garde flavor combinations and ideas is ingenious, and your mastery of manipulating these diverse ingredients is an art. Your fervor to stay true to your passion for honest good food that is sterile from restaurant politics is intense and admirable, and your dynamic personality is enchanting. Thank you for the amazing dinner experience at LudoBites, and thank you for the laughs, the drinks, and the beautiful gift- the wooden cutting board branded with your signature emblem of a knife wielding tattooed coq is almost too precious to use. I hope to see you very soon at LudoBites part quatre.
As for the experience at this pop maid café? Of course, the men at our table really enjoyed being served by our exceptional Japanese maid Ayumi chan. And quite frankly, I did too. I can see why it’s such a cult phenomenon in Japan. Now if they would only open a butler café in LA…萌え〜！
Random trivia: Did you know that only female pigs are used to hunt for truffles, as the smell of white truffles in particular contain pheromones that are attractive to sows but not boars?
I conclude with a lovely quote from Brillet-Savarin, renowned French gastronome, on truffles: “The truffle is not a positive aphrodisiac, but it may under certain circumstances render women more affectionate, and men more amiable.”