Saturday, August 20, 2011

LudoBites 007: License to Thrill / The Living Daylights

LudoBites - you could call it extreme cooking, with unpredictable locations and kitchen conditions, thrown into the crucible of not a lot of time - yet churning out consistently inventive culinary creations. Time magazine's "chef of the future". New twins.  And now Ludo Bites America on Sundance Channel, a fun format of culinary road trip / cross country adventure + drama of world class chef meets small town kitchens + inside look into husband and wife as business partners and how that works.  Is there anything that Ludo and Krissy Lefebvre can't do?

Ever since the team pretty much invented the pop-up concept in LA, they've been steadily attracting legions of fans ready to pounce on the first hint of a reservation. So when LudoBites 007 was first announced, to be held at Gram & Papa's August 3-September 10, food lovers across the city scrambled to get their OpenTable accounts ready to trigger one-click reservation requests, in hopeful and eager anticipation of the figurative 'opening bell' of availability. The lucky ones snagged reservations - but many met with disappointment when, in just 1 minute, all dates and times were fully booked. Such is the draw and the power of LudoBites.

Though that is the fairest way to offer out the limited number of reservations, it still leaves those of us - myself included - who didn't get one, all the more crushed to read about yet another amazing menu via other people's blog posts.

And this time all my favorite ingredients were on the menu. 

I was despairing of needing to move to some small town like Mobile, that may be on the itinerary for LudoBites America 2.0, in order to ever have a chance to taste his food - when a fellow blogger reminded me that - hello - I could just try to catch cancellations when they are announced.  But where was I to find 3-5 other people ready to drive like a bat out of hell, to downtown LA, on a moment's notice?  I considered hanging outside the place, like KevinEats did, to try to catch a table - but again I didn't know anyone else passionate enough about food to wait around, in the backyard of Skid Row, for the possibility of getting a table.  Plus, I work in the Valley, and office hours are 9-6, so there's no way to get downtown in time to snag a walk-in at 6.  And everyone is going to be vying for walk-ins on weekends.

So, I begrudgingly came to terms with the fact that I was going to miss out on LudoBites.  Again.  Until last night. 

On my way back from D23 in Anaheim, I realized that downtown was sorta on my way back home - and since I left the event a bit early - I was in the downtown area by about 5:15.  I was by myself, but screw it - if I waited around for people to do things I wanted to do, I'd never get anything done.  And this was on my way home.  However, I had spied on Twitter that walk-in seating was 'al fresco' on Skid Row - so, being the way I am, I Googled time of sunset: 7:35pm.  Plenty of time to eat and get outta there before The Living Daylights are gone literally and figuratively, if I got the 6pm seating. So, I crossed my fingers and reset my Waze app with a new destination:  Gram & Papas.

I was relieved when I arrived, that it was just a block from the California Market Center in the fashion district (though I had a bit of a scare last year post Unique/Artisanal LA, after dark and I couldn't find the lot where I parked - but this time there was a spot right around the corner, on Santee) and there was a meter that was free after 6pm.  So I plugged in a few quarters and went on my way.  In front of the place were two couples already waiting - one with a reservation, one without.  There were only two tables for walk-ins - so I was ecstatic when I realized I had a good chance of getting the other one!  And when Krissy herself came to the door to greet everyone, and said that I could have the other table - that totally made my week (it'd been a rough one)!

So, I kicked off the meal with a Lavender Ginger Lemonade ($4) - no cocktails are on menu due to lack of liquor license (lots of people were going BYOB) - but this was the perfect drink for me after the long week - lavender for destressing, citrus for refreshment, and ginger to contribute a subtle kick to wake up the tastebuds.

I wanted to order everything on the menu - but with limited stomach capacity, decided on the ones that either contained my favorite ingredients, or had unusual combinations of ingredients that you probably would not see on anyone else's menu. I went with a few small plates, the better to sample more dishes.

The first one out was Salt Cod Panna Cotta, Whipped Fingerling Potato, Smoked Tapioca ($12) - this was an interesting double re-intepretation of the classic fish+some kind of cream sauce+side of carbs/veg dish, and entree vs. dessert.  Panna cotta is usually served as a dessert, but here Ludo infuses it with savory flavors normally used in a main dish.  Salt cod instead of something like vanilla or caramel, topped by whipped potato instead of cream.  And smoked tapioca balls to evoke caviar, swimming in a shallow lake of olive oil.  I absolutely loved the concept and taste of this dish - each bite a surprise, because you see the shape and presentation of a dessert, but then in sneaks delicious savory flavors in smooth olive oil, accented by fleur de sel crystals (?).  The consistency of the panna cotta though was somewhere between creme brulee and a hearty goat cheese (though not quite as crumbly).  I ended up ignoring the croutons on the side after tasting a few - I wanted them to be a bit more crispy vs. hardcore crunchy.

Onion Tart, Bottarga ($10) was next - beautifully presented at generous size on a chopping block.  Loved the well-balanced interplay of caramelized onion with creamy cheese with the distinct taste of bottarga (one of my favorite ingredients), punctuated by fragrant sprinkles of thyme.  All on a light, almost paper thin crust.  Truly lovely piece that I'd order again if I could ever get another seat at a LudoBites 007 table.
Next up: Egg, Sea Urchin, Caviar, Champagne Beurre Blanc ($18) I couldn't leave without trying this one as sea urchin triggers a Pavlovian response in me. Add egg, caviar, champagne and butter to the mix and you can get me to do practically anything.  Just reading the name, made me think this could possibly be the most perfect dish ever made.  Loved the playfulness of layering egg upon (fish) egg, upon...ok sea urchin doesn't count, those are actually gonads. But it was pretty much like surf & turf: egg edition.  And then making that connection from caviar to champagne, but in beurre blanc.  The dish was pretty amazing - the egg was wet-scrambled into small pieces, light and rolls over the tongue, flavored with the unique taste of uni (though this could have been more pronounced), taken over the top in a great way with the luxurious champagne beurre blanc 'sauce', plus the generous briny dollop of caviar.  Garlic (?) flowers added a light and beautiful extra touch of seasoning.  This is another one I could eat 10 of, if I can get back in again.

Foie Gras, "French Dim Sum" Crispy Kimchi, Sake-Black Truffle Cream ($28) - loved this dish of course - not only because it featured truffle AND foie (I die) - but because it's such an almost feverish fusion re-imagining of a classic Italian dish.  And it's aptly named, as with its asian-inspired flavors the pieces were more akin to dumplings than ravioli. The yin/yang of smooth, earthy, buttery foie with the 'brash', bold, crunch of kimchi worked unexpectedly well together.  I would have liked a little less of the oils from the kimchi, but overall a truly great dish.  And the light, foamy and intoxicatingly fragrant sake and black truffle cream was the perfect counterbalancer to tie everything on the plate together.
And of course, I had to save room for dessert.  The Lavender Tropezienne Tart, Aloe Vera, Lychee ($10) was a gorgeous (and giant) dessert that was like Christmas to me.  Like some beautiful forest scene, the morning after snowfall, pure and untouched.  And then the surprise of juicy summer fruits (strawberries and lychee) hidden inside.  I don't really have words to describe this beyond that.  Except maybe to note that it was so huge, it was almost a meal in itself - I took it home and had it for breakfast and it was just as good.

All in all, an inspired and amazing meal, one of the best I've had this year.  To those who may be weary of all the hype, and crowds, and possibly having the living daylights scared out of you by having to be downtown etc. etc. - get up and go try it for  yourself, now, and you'll see the reason for all the hype.  If you go early enough, before they even open for the night - based on last night it seems like you'll have a good shot of getting a table, and you'll be out of there before dark.  Is it worth all the trouble?  YES.  Go.  Now.

(They are still completely sold out.  But you can follow Krissy on Twitter for latest table opening alerts, or stand by outside the place before opening like I did...good luck!)
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks mains)
Probability of return visit - 100% (if I can even get in!)


LudoBites 007 at G
ram & Papa's
227 East 9th St, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Ph: 213.624.7272

Parking: Free on most streets after 6pm; $3 flat rate after 4pm in lot on Santee between 8th and 9th


LudoBites @ Gram & Papa's on Urbanspoon  Ludo Bites 007 at Gram and Papas in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

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