LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!


Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

Magnum pop-up at Royal T- Uni tasting dinner

The Magnum crew duo that is Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell did their 3rd installation of dinner pop-ups recently at Royal T in Culver City, an event that showcased Mahon’s creativity in contemporary cuisine and Haskell’s keen talent for superb wine pairing.  All 3 nights of this pop-up dinner event offered tasting menus of 5, 7 or 9 courses that featured stellar creations like miso cured hanger steak and potato chip soup in addition to grass-fed beef sliders and oysters with brown butter as bar bites.

Wine, beer and sake pairings for each dish were carefully chosen by David Haskell who has worked at reputable establishments like Le Cirque and Aquavit.  Each pairing, which he poured and introduced himself for each diner at Royal T, had a specific vision and effect that he wanted the diners to experience.  Whether it was for the wine to draw out the sweetness of the fruits on the plate or for the sake to make a bold contrasting statement to the protein, each pairing had a story to tell.

On the last of the 3 nights, a special 8 course uni tasting dinner was offered to celebrate the sommelier’s birthday.  The Santa Barbara uni extravaganza was an ode to his mother Liz Haskell, a well known uni aficionado and enthusiast who was in attendance that evening.  Friends and family came out to celebrate Haskell’s birthday on this final night of a successful run where the Magnum crew donated 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The servers also donated 10% of tips for this cause to support Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, an amazing show of generosity and good will.

The uni tasting began with a variation of the cured Thai snapper amuse bouche that was served on the previous nights.  The same luscious pieces of fish were now served wrapped around Japanese shrimp chips with pea sprouts and leek emulsion.

Santa Barbara uni on oysters with soy mignonette was my favorite uni course of the evening.  The simple, unadulterated briny flavors were harmonious with the acidity and minerality of N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay.

Uni draped over tuna tartare with creamy dashi aioli and nori flecks was also a delicious dish, paired with a 2006 Château Giraud G Bordeaux Blanc Sec.

Uni tartine came as geometric contemporary pieces of bright orange uni juxtaposed against round cucumber balls on brined halibut with a dash of ponzu sauce.  Haskell paired these with a 2005 Schoffit Vieilles Vignes, an Alsatian Chasselas.

The Uni cauliflower royale was served in both tasting menus, a glass filled with layers of uni, creamy cauliflower royale, fennel, diced apple, apple and cucumber foam and nori.  The 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente, an Italian Pigato, worked well to draw out the sweetness of the apples.

Uni and bone marrow pizza was paired with a 2005 FX Pichler Riesling Smaragd Oberhauser from Austria.

For the first of the 2 meat courses, Chef Mahon used uni with a Bordelaise sauce to flavor veal and shiitake mushroom tempura, a dish that was paired with a 2003 Jacques Puffeney Vieilles Vignes Arbois rouge.

For the venison dish with uni risotto and shiso pepper sauce, Haskell brought a 2004 Marc Sorrel Hermitage Syrah to complement the protein.

Yuzu crème brûlée was served for dessert again with poached apricots and kumquat, this time the caramelized crust done well.  This final dish was paired with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The uni tasting menu offered 7 interesting interpretations of the popular ocean delicacy, with the most simplest being my favorite- coupled with a delicate oyster with a dash of soy.  David Haskell’s wine pairings were impressive, his selections complementing Mahon’s food in the most pure, clean and unobtrusive manner to allow the uni to take center stage and shine.  It was a wonderful fun evening with great music from a live DJ and incredibly professional staff maintaining perfect flow of service.

The Magnum crew allowed me to work with them to set up a silent auction event to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  With the incredible generosity and support from our friends in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles, we were able to offer amazing auction items like tasting dinners with Chef Fabio Viviani, Starry Kitchen, The Thompson Hotel and Guelaguetza.  David Haskell auctioned precious wines from his personal cellar, including a 1983 Pothier Rieusset Les Rugiens, while California winery Presqu’ile donated 2 personalized signed bottles of wine and Rosso Wine Shop donated a private wine session.  Local bloggers MyLastBite, Ravenous Couple and Glutster showed their support by auctioning specialized food tours, and artisans Sugarbird Sweets, Scoops Westside and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai volunteered their crafts and goods.  Curious Palate chipped in with a gift certificate, and the amazing meat mavens Lindy & Grundy will be conducting a private one on one butchering lesson for the lucky auction winner next week.  Even Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry donated a personalized signed copy of the French Laundry Cookbook for the auction, which they kindly sent all the way to Japan for a Japanese bidder.  Beloved local chefs have also shown their generosity by offering to do private cooking classes and dinners- Chef Laurent Quenioux, Chef Christian Page of the Daily Dose, Chef Michael Voltaggio, Chef Walter Manzke and Chef Craig Thornton.

As if helping with Japan relief efforts and donating dinner proceeds wasn’t enough, the dynamic Magnum duo have donated their time and services to do 2 private pop-up dinners as a part of the silent auction, the first dinner occurring this weekend.  With the incredible support of all of these people and more, we were able to raise $12,000 to donate to the Japanese sake industry.  Thank you very much to everybody who was a part of this amazing collaborative effort!

Magnum crew

Random trivia: Did you know that the name urchin is an old name for the round spiny hedgehogs that sea urchins resemble?

Magnum pop-up dinner at Royal T

Many people in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles have stepped up to show their love and support for Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunamis shattered the country on March 11.  The Magnum crew pair of Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell was no exception.  The dynamic duo recently ran a pop-up dinner event in Culver City, the third installation after successful runs at Biergarten and Pal Cabron.  This time the pop-up dinner was at a Japanese cosplay maid cafe called Royal T, a most fitting backdrop for Chef Mahon’s inventive menu and Magnum’s efforts to raise money for Japan relief.

Chef Joseph Mahon, former executive chef of Bastide, incorporated hints of Japanese ingredients like miso, nori, dashi and yuzu both in his colorful tasting menu and the bar bites menu.  Dinner tastings were offered as 5, 7 or 9 courses with or without wine pairings.  His Magnum partner David Haskell brought life to each delicious plate with his brilliant wine, beer and sake pairings that together with the food narrated a beautiful story.  For 3 consecutive nights, the venue came alive with vivid installations of interactive kitschy art, funky pop music spun by a live DJ in the lounge and the friendly staff all sporting Magnum T-shirts.

The Magnum crew was kind enough to collaborate with me in fund raising efforts to donate to a wonderful charity in Japan.  The catastrophe of March 11 that has already claimed more than 14,000 lives also devastated the Japanese sake industry.  Sake has deep historical and religious roots in Japanese culture, and the fact that more than 200 breweries were affected (some completely destroyed) by the natural disasters will affect the country’s traditions, culture and economy forever.  Mahon and Haskell pledged to donate 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  In fact, the entire Magnum pop-up crew came together as one for this wonderful cause, with the staff also contributing 10% of their tips to the Japanese charity fund.

Chef Mahon started the tasting dinner with a delicious amuse bouche of cured Thai snapper with crumbled shrimp chips and pea sprouts.

Oysters were served warm with a generous drizzle of brown butter and lemon sauce, and crunchy green cucumber balls for textural contrast.  This dish was paired with a German Riesling, Von Buhl Brut from Bad Dürkheim.

Crispy salty potato chips imparted crunchy texture and playfulness into the potato chip soup with ramps and cucumber, and it was the luscious piece of fried oyster that was the shining star of the dish.  This was paired with a 2008 Slovenian Pinela from winemaker Ivan Batic.

Mahon’s Fennel Royale layered slick pieces of sweet sea urchin with apple foam, creamy fennel royale and flecks of nori powder.  The intense acidity of the paired 2009 Ligurian Pigato from Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Italy enhanced the fruity sweetness of the dish.

Silky crispy tofu with sunflower seed crust was accentuated with pickled vegetables, cilantro and dashi emulsion.  The pairing of Hitachino Nest White Ale was lovely, especially as it represented Ibaraki prefecture in Japan, one of the affected regions in the earthquake and tsunami.

Tender tuna slices encased around jicama, crab and mango were flavored with spicy mayonnaise and paired with a French 2008 Chenin Blanc from Francois Pinon ‘Silex Noir’.

Braised baby octopus with a nice subtle char on its surface was mounted on a creamy leek risotto with shaved cashews and a drizzle of savory pancetta vinaigrette.  A 2009 Jean-Paul Brun Chardonnay was paired with this dish.

Perfectly cooked moist ocean trout with lobster jus, garnished with fresh peas, pea sprouts, mint and oyster mushrooms, was paired with a 2009 Jean-Paul Brun ‘Villes Vignes’ Gamay.

Grass fed beef sliders with bibb lettuce and chipotle aioli were served both as bar bites and as adjuncts to the tasting menu on the first evening.  Cooked medium rare, perfectly moist and packed with flavorful juices, these sliders were beautifully done and one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Haskell did a playful pairing with Kikusui Funaguchi Junmai Ginjo sake from Niigata prefecture in Japan, again one of the prefectures affected by the earthquake.

One of the other standout hits of the evening was Chef Mahon’s miso cured hanger steak, tender cuts of beef fully infused with the sweet earthy aromas of miso, plated with creamed spinach, shiitake mushroom tempura, sesame seeds and ponzu sauce.  The meat was paired with a 2008 Domaine de Majas ‘Three Trees’ Grenache-Carignan red.

The tasting menu ended with a yuzu crème brûlée topped with poached apricots and halved kumquats, paired elegantly with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The first evening of the pop-up event at Royal T drew in a full crowd, the packed room filled with happy diners who enjoyed Mahon’s food and the service from Haskell who personally poured every glass of wine with an explanation of each food and wine pairing.  Meanwhile, guests perused the silent auction table set up front, put together by the collaborative effort of acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs, local artisans and food bloggers who all donated private dinners, gift baskets, dinner certificates and many delicious food and beverage related auction items for bid to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The third and final night of the Magnum Royal T pop up event featured a special uni tasting menu to commemorate David Haskell’s birthday who paid homage to his uni enthusiast mother Liz Haskell.  Details of the uni dinner will follow in the next post.

Magnum events

Royal T

8910 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232-2326
(310) 559-6300

Random trivia: Did you know that potato chips were invented by Chef George Crum in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, when he tried to please a customer who sent back his fried potatoes to the kitchen for being too soggy and thick?  These thin crispy delights became a staple on his menu as ‘Saratoga chips’, and the rest is history.

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.


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?

Soba Pop at Breadbar on 3rd street

蕎麦  SOBA

…is Japan’s soul food.  Full of history and tradition, these simple but satisfying buckwheat noodles are loved by Japanese people of all ages.  Soba is an important part of the Japanese diet, making frequent appearances as classic kamo nanban lunches, warm nameko soba dinners, quick morisoba eats on a train station platform, and even take-out zarusoba packs at convenience stores.  Many holidays and celebrations embrace soba as a part of the festivities, and New Years Eve is not complete without a bowl or two of toshikoshi soba to bring in the new year.  Soba is rich in amino acids and antioxidants, only one of many reasons for its popularity in Japan.  Although I grew up eating soba like most Japanese people, I have to admit that as a child I always preferred udon noodles.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to really appreciate the craft, tradition and flavors of soba.

To get a glimpse into the world of soba, I recently took a soba making class with soba master Akila Inouye and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai through their website called mazumizu.  Learning about the complexities of soba making and taking on the challenge of trying to make these delicate noodles from scratch gave me a whole new perspective on this food.  The bowl of duck and eggplant soba that I had at Sonoko’s house at the end of the class was one of the most delicious and enjoyable bowls of noodles that I have ever tasted.  I was ecstatic to hear that they were sharing their passion and their craft with the people of Los Angeles in a 1-week pop-up restaurant event at the Breadbar.

Akila Inouye, the Founder and Master Chef of Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, Japan, has been teaching soba making for more than 15 years, and has trained many soba artisans who have gone on to open their own restaurants.  Sonoko Sakai is a bilingual and bicultural cookbook author and food writer who learned her craft from Akila.  Together they brought over 8 suitcases full of ‘shin soba’, the first crop of this year’s Kitawase buckwheat flour from Gunma prefecture in Japan.  Organically grown stone-milled buckwheat flour was made into two types of soba for the event, the typical Edo (Tokyo) style Nihachi soba, which uses a blend of 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, and Kikouchi, which uses 100% buckwheat flour.  Sonoko and Akila, with the help of soba student volunteers, have been working extremely hard to make this rare and special dining event possible, staying up till 4 am with prep work, and making fresh soba all day.

Considering that it was their first pop-up experience and first restaurant venture, I was nervous for them when I saw the long and comprehensive soba menu.  Pop-ups often consist of limited menus, offering maybe 10 items at the most, but Akila and Sonoko boldly opened their Soba Pop event with a 16 item menu with different types of dipping sauces and 2 desserts.  Perhaps a little too ambitious, but they really wanted to take this opportunity to show Angelenos how wonderful, delicious and diverse soba can be, and they managed to pull it off beautifully.

Sonoko brought out most of the dishes to the table, including an amuse bouche of farmers market vegetables with puffed soba.  Purple potatoes, fingerling potatoes and Japanese pumpking kabocha were prepared simply as an amani, slowly cooked with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.

No part of the soba making process goes to waste, as seen in the bowl of soba chips.  The uneven ends of the folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were quickly deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack while drinking beer.

Roasted nori seaweed made by a shinise long-standing historical establishment in Japan, that has been making nori for over 300 years, was brought to the US by Akila and Sonoko as part of their 8 suitcase caravan.  These pleasantly crisp seaweed wedges, full of ocean aromas and deep flavors, were served with freshly grated wasabi.

I loved the asazuke summer pickles made with Japanese cucumber, turnips and radishes, and the carrots that were pickled in miso.  Green yuzu rinds added a sensational level of aroma and freshness to these crisp and refreshing pickles that made me want to reach for a warm bowl of white rice.

Braised donko shiitake mushrooms, carrots, kinusaya snow peas and konnyaku were served as a traditional nishime dish, simmered in soy sauce, mirin, dashi, sugar and sake, and served on age tofu slices.  It was such a pleasant surprise to be able to enjoy simple Japanese comfort food at this event.  These are the every day dishes that nourish families in every household in Japan.

Cold artisanal tofu, or hiyayakko, was handmade that morning for the event and served with a heap of sliced green onions, bonito flakes, ginger and soy sauce.  The soft silky texture and creamy rich soy flavors of this freshly made kinugoshi tofu is something that I wish everybody could experience- it’s completely different from store bought tofu.

Rounding out the appetizer menu were marinated soft boiled eggs, ajitsuke tamago, served in a cold soy-bonito broth, and melt-in-your-mouth Kurobuto pork belly kakuni with carrots and kinusaya peas.  For a soba pop-up event, they really went above and beyond in preparing an extensive non-soba menu full of traditional Japanese soul food.  Everything was cooked perfectly, preserving the exact flavors of how our mothers and grandmothers used to make them.

We started our soba dinner with the most basic way to eat soba, mori soba, where the Nihachi soba is served on a bamboo basket with cold soy-bonito tsuyu dipping sauce along with grated daikon, scallions and wasabi for garnish.  This is the perfect soba dish to enjoy on those hot summer nights with a cold glass of beer.  I love the simplicity of mori soba where you can really taste the soba flavors in its most pure state and experience the koshi texture and nodogoshi of how the slippery noodles glide down your throat.

Hanamaki soba was served in a bowl hiyagake style where cold soy-bonito broth was poured over the Nihachi soba and topped with a generous heap of aromatic cut nori seaweed.  Wasabi and scallions were served on the side, but we really didn’t need those extra garnishes, as this bowl of soba was perfect on its own.  The broth was a katsuo dashi base made with bonito flakes, koikuchi shoyu dark soy sauce, mirin and zarame sugar to give it a round gentle flavor.

In a tribute to the bountiful and scrumptious local Southern Californian vegetables , Akila and Sonoko created a cold vegetable soba dish for their menu, full of fresh Farmers Market vegetables like Japanese cucumbers, asparagus, Japanese pumpkin, heirloom tomatoes, scallions and shiso leaves.  Soba granules were sprinkled on top for added texture, homemade pickled new ginger for a little flavor kick and a dollop of toasted saikyo miso for depth and aroma.

One of my favorite sobas of the evening was the cold duck soba for the wonderful caramelized shigure-style ginger duck that I would love to eat everyday on rice, bread, pasta or even salads.  Cold tsuyu broth was poured over Nihachi soba and topped with deep fried eggplant, soft boiled egg, scallions, fried tofu, crunchy soba granules, shiso ribbons and chopped asatsuki chives.  Full of flavors, colors, textures and so many toppings, this bowl of soba was simply amazing and delectable.

What’s a pop-up event without some unusual and new interpretations on classic dishes?  Chicken and eggs are usually served over a bowl of rice as one of Japan’s most quintessential comfort foods, the oyako-don, which literally translates to ‘parent and child donburi’ in a playful twist of ‘which came first?’  Seasoned jidori chicken, soft boiled eggs, asparagus and scallions were served over soba in a hot broth for a comforting bowl of Oyako soba.

Toro toro pork soba with braised pork belly, nameko mushrooms, scallions, wax beans, yellow bean sprouts and mitsuba delivered what it said it would- toro toro pork that melted in my mouth.  In the same way that ‘pow’, ‘bam’ and ‘zip’ indicate onomatopoeic expressions of sounds, ‘toro toro’ is a phenomimetic Japanese word to describe how something easily melts like liquid.

In the same way, ‘kari kari’ describes the high pitched crunch and crackle of an object, in this case the crispy gobo fried burdock chips and dried shrimp that were generously topped over a meaty tempura onion ring, deep fried Japanese kabocha pumpkin, and yuzu over Nihachi soba and hot bonito broth.

My favorite soba dish of the evening was the Kikouchi soba, the only soba made from 100% buckwheat flour (all of the others were made with Nihachi soba, an 8:2 blend of buckwheat and wheat flour).  Gluten-free kikouchi soba is made with pure buckwheat flour and water only with no binder, making for a delicate and unstable soba that really tests the skills of the maker.  Done right, Kikouchi has an intense nutty fragrance and rustic flavor that is unlike anything that you’ve ever tasted before.  Due to the extreme difficulty in making Kikouchi, the Soba Pop event at the Breadbar was limited to 10 servings per day.  The Kikouchi was indeed intense and full-bodied, going especially well with the ground walnut mori-tsuyu dipping sauce that augmented the nuttiness of the soba flavors.

We finished our extravagant soba pageant with 2 desserts, a plum wine umeshu jelly with blueberries, white currants, Okinawan brown syrup and crunchy soba granules.  I brought a large bottle of Choya umeshu for the soba event, as it was BYOB, and this umeshu jelly tasted even better than that.  The other dessert was a Dattan soba jelly with blueberries, Okinawan kuromitsu brown syrup and soba granules.  Coupled with the soba granules, this savory jelly was like a vast field of beautiful golden wheat farms exploding in my mouth and perfuming my nares.

There are many ‘pop-up’ restaurants and events springing up in all parts of LA, introducing everything from street food to molecular gastronomy based cuisine to fine dining.  Soba Pop is an entirely different experience- it truly is a limited-time engagement that cannot be replicated, as Akila and Sonoko use the fresh new shin-soba crop of buckwheat flour from Japan that is only available now.  You can’t get delicious Kikouchi and Nihachi soba using shin-soba outside of Japan, and it’s a rare treat to be able to experience these delicate artisanal noodles at our local Breadbar.  Soba Pop is only open until Saturday August 28th, so hurry and come experience the wonderful aromas and flavors of real soba from Japan, made by a real Japanese soba artisan.

Mazumizu website

Log on to Akila and Sonoko’s Mazumizu website to register for their upcoming soba making classes


8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
310 205 0124

Random trivia:  Did you know that Dattan soba, also called bitter buckwheat, is a super food or sorts, containing 100 times more Rutin than buckwheat flour?  It is also believed that Dattan soba contains an element that suppresses the production of melanin, the cause of age-defining freckles, sun spots and skin splotches.

Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe- Sri Lankan Hopper Night

If you live in Los Angeles and love food, chances are you’ve already had a ‘pop-up’ restaurant experience.  Whether you’ve sampled squid carbonara with pancetta at LudoBites 4.0 in downtown LA, or any of the monthly Hatchi dinners at the Breadbar in Century City, you know you love these limited pop-up engagements.  It’s a wonderful way for adventurous LA diners to taste new flavors while chefs get an opportunity to share their creativity and vision.  I’m a big supporter of pop-up events and always love to see what local chefs have in store for us.  Every pop-up dining experience has been amazing for me, but with famous chefs preparing deconstructed, liquified, powdered and all around reinterpreted food at most of these events, a new type of pop-up called Street Food Mondays comes as a breath of fresh air.  Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has teamed up with Chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe to bring back, for some, and introduce, to others, the wonderful culture of street food.

When we travel to foreign countries, we don’t go to 3-Michelin starred restaurants to find out about their culture.  We venture into their local markets to take in the sights and aromas of the local bounties, and we taste the elements that fuel their energy by sampling local delicacies.  Street food is the very essence of culture, honoring food that nourishes many generations and defines who we are today.  Simple but hearty and comforting food that sings to the soul often evokes powerful childhood memories and comes with interesting life stores.  Street Food Mondays opens up these magical realms to us and brings us a step closer to understanding the world around us.

What better liaison to serve as our guide than Bill Esparza who is an avid seeker and connoisseur of international street food.  Street Food Mondays debuted last month with Ricky’s fish tacos, attracting a line of customers that spilled out onto the sidewalk.  The second in its series occurred this past Monday to feature Priyani Dissanayake’s Sri Lankan Hopper Night.  Priyani used to serve authentic Sri Lankan fare out of a restaurant called Priyan’s Ceylon Café in Northridge which has unfortunately recently closed.  It was a special treat to be able to enjoy her famous hoppers for this one-night only event.

Hoppers, or appam in the native language, are thin Sri Lankan pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and palm toddy, and most often eaten for breakfast or dinner.  The batter is fried in a small wok-like pan called an appachatti with a little bit of oil to give it its characteristic bowl-like shape.  Plain hoppers were served with sime sambal, a chile based condiment.

Egg hoppers are these same hoppers but with an egg broken into the pancake as it cooks in the pan.  We ordered our egg hoppers with a wonderful mutton curry cooked on the bone with a rich and seductive blend of spices.

Although it has the same name, string hoppers, or idiyappam, are different from regular hoppers.  String hoppers are made from steamed rice flour and curled into flat spirals, similar to Vietnamese bun.  Our dish came with a light and aromatic coconut sambal made with grated coconuts and chile spices.  For the side we chose chicken curry that was fully infused with a perfect blend of flavorful exotic spices.  As much as India is famous for their curries, Sri Lanka is just as famous for their diversity of distinct spices.

Small round fish croquettes filled with moist fish flakes and elongated beef croquettes stuffed with a creamy minced beef filling served as satisfying bite-sized eats with the spicy chile sauce.

Sri Lankan biryanis are known for being spicier than Indian biryanis, but Priyani kept the heat level under control for her Los Angeles diners at this event.  Her chicken biryani was made with chicken curry, hard-boiled eggs, cashews and an unforgettable smokey eggplant curry.

My favorite dish of the evening was the lampreis, a Dutch-influenced Sri Lankan dish that derives its name from a Dutch word meaning ‘lump of rice’.  Lampreis generally constitute rice cooked in stock, eggplant curry, meat cutlet or frikkadel meatballs, plantain curry, blachan made from dried prawns and spices, and meat curry all wrapped up and steamed in a banana leaf.  Priyani’s lampreis had chicken curry, shrimp sambal, generous chunks of tender fish cutlet, sime sambal and sweet green banana curry all fully infused with the phenomenal aroma of the banana leaf.  Each component was carefully cooked with love, and combined together it was an explosion of wondrous flavors.

Our satisfying meal concluded with a Sri Lankan dessert called wattalapan, a steamed coconut custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery and cashew nuts and seasoned with cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.  Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from sugarcane and palm tree, and used widely for both sweet and savory dishes in Sri Lanka.  Due to the use of jaggery instead of refined sugar, the custard had a dark, earthy sweetness that reminded me of pure molasses.

Thanks to Bill Esparza and this wonderful pop-up event, I was able to get a good introduction into Sri Lankan street food.  Despite the fact that Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures, authentic Sri Lankan food is hard to come by, and it’s unfortunate that Priyani’s restaurant closed down.  More Angelenos are showing interest in good food and making an effort to seek delectable eats these days- it’s my hope that they will support authentic street food and mom-and-pop stores just as much as celebrity chef restaurants.  Street food is where the heart is, and Street Food Mondays are where the food is.  Street Food Mondays at Angeli Caffe by Street Gourmet LA, which not only introduces new flavors to our community, but also embraces cultural diversity and the very essence of ‘soul’, is the most welcomed pop-up act to hit our food community today.

Angeli Caffe

7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 936-9086

Street Gourmet LA website:


Priyani’s Ceylon Fusion available for catering.  Contact Priyani at Priyanidisa@yahoo.com

Random trivia:  Did you know that raw cashews are caustic due to its outer lining that contains urushiol, the same chemical found in poison ivy?  Exposure to urushiol can cause a severe skin reaction, which is why all cashews available for consumption are steamed or roasted.

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!)’