LudoBites 007: The Final Night. The Final Seating. And Really, Really, REALLY High Expectations... Gram & Papa's. Downtown Los Angeles.
No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to dine.
If you live in Los Angeles, the hype is inescapable. The anticipation tremendous. Expectation builds with each version. Recently, the seventh installment was unleashed on the public. You'd think I was describing a Hollywood blockbuster summer motion picture franchise like the child wizard Harry Potter. I'm not.
The wizard I'm referencing is Chef Ludo Lefevre, and he has a lot of foodies under his spell. I was one of the few food fanatics who was yet to have his cooking spell cast upon me. I never met him nor tasted anything he's ever conjured up. That was until the final seating of the final evening of LudoBites 007 at Gram & Papa's in Downtown Los Angeles. This would be Lefevre's seventh pop-up restaurant event, engagement, extravaganza since the first one, LudoBites 1.0 back in late 2007. This would be my first LudoBites.
Naming the latest LudoBites after super spy James Bond is pretty ballsy, I thought. I was prepared to be on alert for any culinary nods to the studly secret agent man. Food infused with martini, shaken not stir-fried beef, incorporating sharks, barracuda or octopus(sy)? As long as this LudoBites 007 matched the skills of Sean Connery rather than George Lazenby, I'd be satisfied.
All I knew was that I was going in as a LudoBites newbie and had really, really, REALLY high expectations for this meal. Can you blame me? All the hoopla, his resume, the lore, the creations, the adulation, groupies, Top Chef Masters appearances, Ludo Bites America TV show, Krissy, crashing Open Table and the list goes on. How could I not go in with great expectations?
And if you consider that this particular LudoBites sold out all reservations in one minute, Chef Lefevre should consider learning to sing and play the guitar because this only happens to rock stars. Clearly, he already is a rock star.
But that night I was the skeptic in the wings at my first Ludo concert waiting to throw my boxer shorts up on stage.
Prawn & Scallop Ceviche
Ceviche was the very first LudoBite to hit the table. The Prawn & Scallop Ceviche, Aji Amarillo, Red Berries was a subtle version of a traditional ceviche where, perhaps, more lime, spice and onions would be experienced. Although it lacked gusto, its refined nature was still appreciated. The scallop was incredibly fresh. The bits of "corn nuts" gave a pleasing texture, flavor and aroma. However, at $28 for a dainty plate of a few oceanic proteins, it seemed overpriced.
Choucroute Tarte Flambée
A very flat, almost paper thin pizza arrived and looked rather dull. Under the dim light, it was close to monochromatic like desert camo, but after one bite, this colorless Choucroute Tarte Flambée burst with bright flavors. A popular Alsatian dish, this "pie baked in flames" was topped with chunky pieces of bacon-like meat, demure slices of potato and onion strips. The rustic flavors went well with the rustic presentation of the plate.
This won't hurt a bit.
Let me be perfectly clear about this: the ONLY time it's good to see somebody snap on a pair of latex examination gloves is when she's about to mow down on Ludo Lefevre's chicken. (Did that come out right? Nevermind.)
Masala Fried Chicken
This wasn't the famous Ludo Fried Chicken or LFC on the final night's menu. Something a little more exotic was in store for these tender birds. Pieces of Masala Fried Chicken rested on a thin film of Chicken Fat Vinaigrette. Its crispy skin, succulent flesh and astounding Indian flavors united as one addictive force. Brined, sous vide cooked and finally sauteed, this "fried chicken" transcended all other fried chicken with its dynamic flavors and irresistible combination of satisfying textures.
Glove Lickin' Good!
And, yes, the gloves were absolutely necessary. After devouring one piece, the aftermath of chicken fat, juices and other fowl flotsom was smeared all over the hand condom.
Lavender Ginger Lemonade
A perfectly apropos serving of Lavender Ginger Lemonade reset the palate and refreshed the spirit. Every element of the cool, lightly sweet beverage was clear as crystal and harmonized nicely.
Salt Cod Panna Cotta
Salt Cod Panna Cotta, Whipped Fingerling Potato, Smoked Tapioca looked like the loveliest lump of mashed potato I've ever laid eyes on. Garnished with edible flowers, the whipped fingerling potato achieved a delightful creaminess with notes of sour cream or Greek yogurt, highlighted by onion and concluded with a salty finish. Interesting in a good way.
Foie Gras Crudo
Also interesting in a good way was Ludo's Foie Gras Crudo. Included on this seemingly random plate were Raw Mushrooms, Grapes, Brioche and Hazelnut Oil. All the elements worked well together, however, the slabs of foie were just simply the most ridiculously creamy things I've ever put into my mouth. It melted faster than the Wicked Witch of the West doused in water. I know the whole idea of LudoBites is sharing, communal, blahblahblah, but, I had to have another bite. That foie gras ban in California starting 2012 is going to be tough to digest after tasting this delicious LudoBite.
Braised Oxtail Beef
I love oxtail. It's one of my favorite cuts of beef. I'm very pleased to see it popping up on menus all over town and at all types of restaurants. Ludo's Braised Oxtail Beef is, not surprisingly, the oddest oxtail I've ever eaten. Cooked with Rainbow Carrots, Shallots and Amaranth, it's sort of a down home country dish. Peasant-like, if you will. Oxtail is one of those toss away parts after all. But the thing about Ludo's oxtail is that it's served cold like revenge. I would never consider eating or serving this dish cold but Ludo did and it actually worked. I was surprised as anybody. The hunks of oxtail were tender and boneless. The cold meat, spicy greens and onion made for an oddly refreshing bite. Strange but good.
Squid ink manically splattered across the dish, black ash powdered haphazardly and streaks of bright orange sauce further energized the kineticism of this Pollock inspired plate called Squid, Black Ash, Baby Leeks, Spring Onions, Chorizo. Whereas the oxtail flipped the script with a cold presentation, this sashimi-like plate was served hot. The squid was fresh and popped when eaten with the sweet onion bulbs.
Pig's Head Compressed
You can't blame me when I pictured in my mind a pig's head smashed flat by a semi-truck hauling logs on the interstate. Fortunately for most diners, Pig's Head Compressed was prepared by Chef Lefevre and not me. Artistically put together, the compressed pig's head tasted very much like a head cheese with all the amazingly tender bits of noggin nuggets and gelatin. Served with Mimolette, Barbeque Gelee and Pickled Melons, this was a delicious bite of crunchy cheese, sour BBQ sauce and heady headcheese.
Egg, Sea Urchin, Caviar, Champagne Beurre Montee
This is the point when Ludo hit it out of the park. Egg, Sea Urchin, Caviar, Champagne Beurre Montee was a union of eggs, female gonads and bubbly. The only thing missing was shirako or milt, otherwise known as cod semen sac, then we'd have a real party.
You'd think one of these strong personalities would upstage another, but it didn't happen. Nothing was muddled. Every component shone and none took over. The eggs were whipped into a velvety frenzy with bites of rich sea urchin throughout and exquisite caviar rupturing as I ate rapturously. This was one of the best LudoBites of the night.
Crispy Tandoori Octopus
Next was the Crispy Tandoori Octopus, another spectacular dish. Combined with Yogurt, Cauliflower and Grapefruit, the Indian flavors were massive. Expertly cooked with 3rd degree burns on the octopus' exterior while the insides remained baby bottom tender. A pleasure to eat.
Foie Gras, Corn, Coconuts
This wasn't dessert, but it may as well been. Foie Gras, Corn, Coconuts was, for me, the carnivore's dessert. The coconut and sweet corn worked cleverly to bring out the dulcet side of the fatty liver. The seared foie gras with its sinfully crispy exterior popped when punctured releasing the heavenly, creamy liver. To live and let die for!
Duck, Cherry, Spicy Saucisse, Beets, Radish
Working our way down to the final two items, the Duck, Cherry, Spicy Saucisse, Beets, Radish really made the most of the excellent ingredients. A salty olive tapenade, sweet cherry duck and spicy duck sausage hit every part of the mouth. It was truly a celebration of flavors. The duck breast was exceptionally tender. Even the large slices of earthy, spicy radish brought its A-game. Brilliant.
Lamb cooked in fat "Moroccan Style"
At last the final plate was set on the table, Lamb cooked in fat "Moroccan Style", Artichoke, Mint. This one potentially had all the right moves. I love eating lamb and could not wait to see what Ludo did with it. But after one bite, I didn't want another. It's a good looking plate. On paper it sounds delicious. Unfortunately, I experienced meat that was much too gamy, greasy, fatty and completely disappointing. At $29, it was the most expensive of the LudoBites. I wanted to love it but it didn't love me back. Story of my life.
Lavender Tropezienne Tart
At this point, food didn't interest me whatsoever. I was at capacity. However, since this was my first LudoBites, I just had to try the desserts at least. The Lavender Tropezienne Tart, Aloe Vera, Peach was gorgeously displayed with powdered sugar, strawberry slices and a fresh sprig of lavender. The textures were perfectly crispy and creamy. The Cantal cheese oozed seductively.
Ludo's Chocolate Cake, Chipotle, Orange was dense in composition, almost like a brownie. The flavor of the chipotle overpowered the rest of the flavors. I should've stopped at the tart.
William Chi of FoodDigger generously supplied a bottle of 2003 Château Pontet-Canet, a red Bordeaux blend. It was an expensive bottle and likely was wasted on me. William was also the Daddy Warbucks who not only invited me to occupy one of the highly coveted, sold-out in one minute seats but also paid for our entire party of five. Thank you, William, from the bottom of my heart and belly! It was quite a night.
I, all in all, enjoyed the meal. The food was exceptional for the most part, although I'd be misleading you if I didn't acknowledge that the overwhelming hype did affect my experience. Clearly, Chef Ludo Lefevre didn't plan for 007 to be snapped up in one minute, so that fact shouldn't influence me. Good food is good food. I was very happy to be basking in the LudoBites phenomenon for the first time. It was exciting. And, apparently, for each iteration of LudoBites, it's deduced that the food gets perfected and, hopefully, better as each seating concludes, so, arguably, I attended on the optimal night.
I'm conflicted, but I have to say I had a great experience. Did I see God when I ate Chef Ludo's food? No. But he never promised anyone would. Was the food great? Yes! And that's all I should be expecting.
Perhaps the real problem is that I just don't enjoy the flavor of hype, at least not too much of it anyway.
Thank you, Chef Ludo.
And thank you Chrissy Lefevre and the LudoBites 007 crew.
LudoBites 007 was held at:
Gram's & Papas
227 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015