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!)’

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Street food in LA

Los Angeles has seen many food trends in the past few years- wine bars, gastropubs, burger wars, Top Chef contestant restaurant openings, temporary dining events, molecular gastronomy, mixology and food trucks .  Last year attracted much talk with the surge of food trucks galore, starting with the ever popular Kogi BBQ truck famous for their kalbi tacos, to others serving ‘gourmet’ delights like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and Peruvian saltado.  A little over a week ago on February 13th, the very first LA Street Food Festival in downtown gathered a massive crowd of food truck enthusiasts who endured an unusually hot day and 2 hour lines to get their street food fix.  It was an incomprehensible mayhem of snaking lines and piles of trash, which I don’t think that I would have had the patience to tolerate if it weren’t for having a bit of an insider’s edge and some kindness from strangers.

On board for the big festival that day were already popular trucks like Baby’s Badass Burgers, Fishlips Sushi, CoolHaus, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus.  There were a few that were about to make their LA debut, like the Dim Sum truck and a cart selling freshly fried baby donuts in the upstairs VIP lounge.  My favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre, in his now signature pop-up guerrilla style, overtook the spotlight of the festival with his LFC truck.  Decked out in bright red and white colors, his truck, which served his succulent Ludo’s Fried Chicken, proved to be the most popular truck on the grounds.  Hungry patrons were known to wait in line for more than 2 hours and an additional 1 to collect the food.  I cued in line for LFC, but after 10 minutes gave up at the insanity of wasting that much time for a couple of bites of food, even though it was Ludo’s food.  And then a miracle happened.  As we were eating savory shrimp har gow with a sesame soy sauce, and an awful peking duck taco served on a dry corn tortilla from the Dim Sum truck, a friendly group of people who sat on the lawn next to us offered to share their LFC.  They waited for 2 hours, yet they shared these golden morsels with us for free.  The dark meat chicken, which was brined for 2 days, was juicy and plump with a crispy rosemary crust that complemented the home made BBQ sauce.  Ludo, je t’aime.

I believe in reciprocating good gestures and random acts of kindness, so I quickly ran up to the VIP lounge to fetch all of us some hot mini donuts seasoned with confectioners sugar and cinnamon sugar.  They were delicious, especially shared with our new friends.

My friend and fellow food blogger Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA took me around this chaotic street fest.  He was responsible for recruiting the 2 food stands which to me really depicted the true meaning of street food. Sabor de Bahia served Brazilian street food like acarajé, which are beautiful ground black eyed pea fritters deep fried in red palm oil, then stuffed with chopped tomatoes, a creamy shrimp paste and topped with a tangy chili sauce called pimenta.  This was my favorite item of the day.

We also tried coxinha de frango, Portuguese for little chicken legs.  These small but dense deep fried dumplings were made with flour dough and filled with shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and cream cheese.  They’re formed into their classic tear drop shape before they’re battered and fried up.  The coxinha were the size of a golf ball, but they deceptively weighed heavier than a dumbbell.  Packed with power and savor, these balls delivered.  With a squeeze of ketchup right out of the bottle in true Brazilian style (according to Bill), we thoroughly enjoyed these Brazilian delights.

Antojitos de la Abuelita came strong with their tlayuda, the Oaxacan version of thin crust pizza.  3 types of succulent meats lay atop a  generous slab of beans, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage.  Chili marinated pork called cecina and salted beef called tasajo were both mouthwatering and delicious, but my favorite morsel of meat was the homemade chorizo.  We also had a fantastic plate of chicken in green mole sauce.

As we finished our day at the street food festival with some Hawaiian style shaved ice which wasn’t anything like the refreshing cups of shaved iced that I’ve had on the islands, I pondered once again over this food truck craze in LA.  Although I am not a big fan of this so-called ‘gourmet’ food truck phenomenon as previously posted in my blog, I accept its popularity and presence all over the streets of LA.  I think it’s great that there is something food related that people can get excited about, but just like the economic bubble, this food truck bubble is bound to burst very soon.  It’s impossible for these trucks to keep multiplying at the same pace.  Sooner or later, the really bad ones will be weeded out and only a few will remain.

What I have more of a problem accepting is for these young food trucks, serving outrageous new food combinations, to be called ‘street food’.  Street food to me depicts regional cuisine and local flavors which have been painstakingly protected and honored by its people.  It doesn’t matter where it’s sold- out of an apartment, a street corner, a food truck or a restaurant- but it should reflect a long history of tradition and culture that has remained untainted by modern trends.  I got a taste for real street food in East LA a couple of weeks ago when Bill took me on a food crawl to meet some of his trusted vendors.

Our first stop was a food truck on a street corner close to Olympic Boulevard and Dakota.  There were actually 2 similar food trucks in close proximity to each other.  One had a long line of customers, and I assumed that this was where we were going.  These customers don’t know what they’re doing, Bill muttered under his breath, as he escorted me to the one with no line called Mariscos Jalisco.  Hailing all the way from San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, these vendors specialized in Mexican seafood delights.  You can get shrimp and octopus cocteles, and even some fresh oysters by the dozen, but we were here for one thing- the shrimp tacos, taco dorado de camaron.  The deep fried morsels of shrimp were so tender they were almost creamy, contrasted by the crunchy texture of the fried taco shells.  The taco was topped with a generous heap of buttery avocados and a tangy salsa with chopped cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.  Simple.  Comforting. Delicious.

Our next stop was at Tamales Elena in the deep ghetto neighborhood of Watts.  As Bill told me about the history of gang violence in the area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were talking about the same place.  Granted we went in broad daylight on a beautiful sunny LA day, but there was a sense of peace and chill on the streets as we pulled up behind this unassuming food truck on the corner of Wilmington and 111th.  We were greeted by the patrons of the truck with bright welcoming smiles as we dug our forks into their fantastic pork tamales.  Should we go with the red or green salsa?  No need to make a decision, the friendly patron brought out another complimentary tamale for us to enjoy.  I loved the hearty consistency of the masa and the smoky flavors of the succulent pork filling.

They even let me inside the truck for my very first food truck tour.  It’s not a big space, but just big and comfortable enough to create culinary wonders to please the mass.  A big pot of tamales was quietly steaming away in the far corner, while a pot of stewed meats seduced me to take a peek inside.  Again, delicious and satisfying food for such a low price.  Can you believe that these tamales are only $1?

My favorite part of the food crawl was when I met Rodolfo, who had a food stall on the sidewalks of Soto and Michigan.  This was real street food in the literary sense- it was just a grill and a table on an otherwise vacant sidewalk with a handwritten ‘Barbacoa’ sign hanging on the chain linked fence.  When we commenced our food crawl, I told Bill that I was a big offal lover, so he made this compulsory stop for me to get my pancita fix.  Pancita is lamb’s stomach stuffed with all kinds of offal with chiles and spices, and cooked for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful.  It may not sound like your cup of tea, but when Bill started describing this dish to me, I got pretty hot and sweaty.  This is the kind of stuff that turns me on.

The pancita that day was stewed with guajillo peppers, and contained a cheerful assortment of heart, testicles, tripe, lung, liver and stomach.  It wasn’t that gamey but it had just the perfect amount of iron undertone, and the luscious pieces of juicy organ meats made me flutter my eyelashes in ecstasy.  It went particularly well with a splash of chopped onions, a smidgen of cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of Rodolfo’s red salsa made with habanero, chipotle and chile de arbol peppers and some tomatillo.

We also got to try the lamb tacos, made this particular time with a young 1 year old lamb.  The meat was surprisingly tender with a light flavor, and again went well with all of the condiments.  I loved the comforting and soothing flavors of the lamb consommé, made from the meat drippings of the braised lamb and served with chick peas.  We enjoyed this warm cup of delicious lamb juice in its simple and unadulterated state, but Bill told me that some people add onions and cilantro to it.

Although I really enjoyed the food here, what was most memorable for me was the interaction that I had with Rodolfo.  Rodolfo immigrated from Michoacan, and has been in Los Angeles for many years in order to pursue a better life for his family.  He has been cooking food for as long as he can remember, and really loves what he does.  Since his lamb dishes were so divine, I assumed that he had been doing this for his whole career, but he divulged to us that his specialty is actually seafood.  He looked truly sad when he told us that he wasn’t doing that anymore because he couldn’t find good quality seafood here that was worthy of his dishes.  We talked about his family, his life, his struggles and his passion, all on this street corner in the middle of East LA as cars and buses whizzed by.  I was starting to see the real meaning of ‘street food’.  It’s definitely about the food, but it’s really about the human spirit creating the food.  I was so touched by this man’s humility and dedication, and I didn’t want to leave that street corner.  I wanted to keep talking to him and finding out more about his life, but we had to go to our next stop.

Our next stop was Antojitos Carmen Restaurant on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.  This is a true rags to riches story, as they used to be a food stall but became so successful that they opened a restaurant.  We started with their pambazo, a torta drenched in chile and fried to a nice black sear.  The one we had was filled with potatoes, lettuce and chorizo.  This, Bill taught me, was real street grub.  This Latin hamburger of sorts was hearty and filling, and the kind of food that would satiate any late night cravings.

They gave us a special salsa to augment our meal.  I don’t think this is on the menu, and it’s something you have to ask for if you know about it.  It was a decadent and heavenly salsa made with different types of seeds and nuts, and brought together with a fiery chile de arbol paste.  It was really delicious, and reminded me a little of Korean gochujang. The mezcla of different textures and flavors in each powerful spoonful was intense and inspiring.

Everything that I tried at this restaurant was new to me, including the huarache with a half portion of huitlacoche and half of chicharrones. Huaraches, named after sandals which resemble its shape, are oblong deep fried masa tortillas with any number of toppings.  I had been dying to try huitlacoche, corn fungus, and I’m glad that I entrusted Bill to guide me to the best place in town.  These tender silky pieces of corn fungus had an earthy and smokey flavor to them that was almost like eggplant.  The other half with chicharrones was fatty and crispy, and evenly tempered by the fresh ribbons of lettuce.

I also got to try a bowl of migas, a pork soup with soaked bolillo bread.  The pork bits, in all its meat, cartilage and fatty glory, had been braised for hours and hours, rendering the cartilage into a soft gelatinous delight and the meat into a tender fall-off-the-bones wonder.  The smokey and intense flavors of the soup reminded me of the heartiness of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  This wonderful bowl of soup that I had at Antojitos, is something that I would crave when I’m feeling sick, hungover, or even sad.  I can see myself gulping down this entire bowl in silence as the comforting and loving essences of the soup circulate through my body and permeate my cells.

Although my street food crawl, so wonderfully orchestrated by Bill Esparza, taught me the real meaning of street food, I know that I only grazed the surface.  I cannot claim to know the first thing about the Latin street food culture in LA, which penetrates deeper into the veins of this city than anybody can imagine, but I can tell you that the genuine feeling that I got in my heart as I ate this wonderful food and met the even more wonderful people behind it was real.  The so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks may appeal to the trend seeking part of the brain, but it doesn’t grab your heart or embrace your soul.  Go explore the streets of Los Angeles and experience for yourself the true spirit of street food.  Take the time to talk to the vendors, and you will be sure to hear an inspiring and brave life story that spans many generations and crosses many borders.  Go taste the traditional foods that are all lovingly prepared by hand and let these flavors open up your heart.

Random trivia: Did you know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn and destroys it?  Also known as corn smut or corn fungus, these blue-black spores are considered delicacies in many Latin cultures, and are harvested specifically for human consumption, hence its other name which is Mexican truffle.  Huitlacoche, in Nahuan culture, means ‘raven’s excrement’.

Opinionated About Dining- Best Meal of 2009 survey

I received an e-mail from Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining a few weeks ago while I was traveling through India.  He was surveying various people in the food industry, and asking them all the same two questions:

1.  What was your best meal of 2009?

2.  Name the chef that showed the most potential in 2009?

Unfortunately, when I received the initial e-mail I was deathly sick from some unidentified virus and in the midst of receiving my painful initiation into Indian travel.  Yes, I know that everybody who goes to India gets sick at least once, but after surviving 7 healthy months in the deep African bush, I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In any case, being asked such important heavy-weighted culinary questions during a 5-day vomiting marathon was pretty tough.  I take these questions seriously, and I wanted to give him my best answers.

I had many fantastic meals this year, but in the end it was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, France.  There’s a reason why he’s been named ‘Chef of the Century’ and continues to expand his global empire.  His food is fantastic and flawless.  Nobody can argue with that.  Every dish was executed with perfection and grace, and there wasn’t a single dish that disappointed.  Egg cocotte with morel cream sauce was a divine masterpiece, grilled ribeye was dripping with flavorful juices and roasted beef marrow never tasted so luscious.  It was a magical evening of excellent food and wine in the trendy neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés.  The evening ended with a crazy impromptu night tour through the deserted streets of Paris with a friendly taxi driver named Michel.  Gazing up at the enormous steel structure of the Tour Eiffel at 2AM, still drunk on Savigny-les-Beaune reds and high on the succulent veal liver with crispy onion rings, it now remains a happy memory that will always make me smile.

Egg cocotte with morel cream

As for chef showing the most potential?  I chose local celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, as his 2 successful LudoBites events have created quite a sensation here in LA.   Unlike traditional restaurants, LudoBites is a temporary pop-up event held in other restaurants that are normally only open for breakfast and lunch.  It’s a new style of dining that completely breaks free from the traditional and stuffy molds of restaurant bureaucracy.  During the limited engagement events at both the Breadbar and Royal/T, I saw a very energetic and happy Ludo shine in an environment where he could be free to express himself and his creativity without being bound by any chains.  In true Ludo style, his food was bursting with radical flavors and concepts.  The rich and smoky chorizo soup, topped with a dollop of tangy cornichon sorbet and tempered by the sweetness of the juicy cantaloupe cubes, was epic.  Black foie gras croque monsieur, grill pressed to a perfect crispy exterior to contrast the buttery foie gras treasure inside, was inspirational with the cherry amaretto sauce.  Escargots got a break from their standard corkscrew coffins to bathe in a warm bowl of aromatic yellow ginger curry.  I really feel that these limited time pop-up restaurants are the next wave of the future.  It’s a fresh new way for chefs to express their ideas and inspirations, and it’s an exciting avenue for diners to experience novel flavors and menu concepts.  Chef Ludo, you have potentially started an incredible culinary trend- and for that, I named you for this survey.

Chorizo soup with cantaloupe and cornichon sorbet

Check out the interesting OAD Best Meal of the Year 2009 survey, and see what the other 75 participants, which include Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller and Jay Rayner, named in the survey.  This wonderful website is also a great reference for any of you gourmands looking for exceptional eats all over the world.

What was your best meal of 2009?

LudoBites at Royal/T

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〜!

LudoBites

Royal/T Cafe

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.”