Tuesday, April 24, 2012

LudoBites: Best of Foie Gras (and its last hurrahs in CA)

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" - Edmund Burke

As anyone who loves food (or animals) in California already knows, legislation banning foie gras is set to be enforced starting this July. It's a controversial subject in the food world, that has had both sides of the protest up in figurative arms.

With all that is going on in the world, it may seem silly to be so caught up in the politics of food, especially a luxury item like foie gras - which most Californians either do not enjoy, find morally reprehensible, have no interest in trying, or simply find cost prohibitive.  It is a relatively small contingent of food lovers who truly appreciate the luscious lobes in all its glory.

With world hunger, poverty, political instability, global climate change - is it entirely self-indulgent to rise up about a luxury good?

Yes and no. You can make the argument on both sides - is it equally 'frivolous' for PETA activists to sensationalize and witchhunt this cause (comprised of a relatively small group of artisan farms), when chickens are raised on a massive scale in conditions a million times more horrendous and impacts a much wider population of both birds and humans (as uncovered by the salmonella outbreak of 2010 that sickened 1,500 people and triggered a recall of 500 million eggs)?  Why is foie the priority when the poultry industry has animals living in such squalor that they are passing on disease and risking human lives at such huge numbers?  Could it be that they know victory against the giant poultry industry would be all but impossible - whereas small farms that produce foie would be easy prey?

And to me, on the other side, it is much more than just a small group of 'the privileged' 'whining' that they won't get their treats anymore.  Nevermind that the whole system by nature is designed to ensure the animals are well taken care of (among other things, this produces quality food - quality foie fetches a premium price - so farmers have a vested interest in the fowl living well).  Nevermind explanations that ducks/geese are migratory birds that do not have a gag reflex and naturally gorge seasonally to prepare for extended flight.  Whether or not birds are harmed can and will be disputed ad infinitum and ad nauseum in the absence of empirical scientific studies - and as in any other industry in the history of civilization, there will be bad producers that should be punished individually for their practices versus triggering an unjust blanket policy that indiscriminately disables business for the good ones as well. But at its core the fundamental issue with the foie ban is that government is now legislating our diets - it's a slippery slope.  If we let this slide now, it is a matter of time before there are no more lines.  What's to stop them from determining that ALL meat represents cruelty to animals - afterall, we are ultimately taking their lives?  In fact, what's to stop legislators from determining whatever they want about what we should and should not eat?  What's next to go after meat? You can make an argument for anything if you really put your mind to it.
We absolutely need government to enforce standards of cleanliness and safety in the kitchen, for public health reasons.  If an animal is on the endangered species list - absolutely the government should step in to prevent their extinction. But outside of that, we don't need a nanny/big brother state to control what we can and cannot eat.

This is not a case of California boldly going where no other government has gone before - Chicago also sucuumbed to PETA pressure in 2006 and outlawed foie, but quickly realized it was "the silliest thing they've ever done" and repealed the law.  Here's to hoping California comes to its senses soon as well.

With foie a key ingredient in French cooking (and essentially civilized cooking dating back to ancient Egyptians), the upcoming ban effectively cauterizes the heart of French cuisine in the state.  Chef Ludo Lefebvre has been a vocal crusader against this ban - and has hosted foie-centric dinners in simultaneous heated protest of the ban and joyous celebration of the ingredient.  There was an 8-course all foie meal in collaboration with Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal that I could not afford - and then a 1-night-only pop-up titled 'Best of LudoBites Foie Gras' (which ended up stretching to two nights) that I couldn't get a reservation for.  But as luck would have it, kind friends @EatsMeetsWest and @dorkyfoodie connected me with a benefactor - @Limer35 who had an extra seat at his table - and off I went for a culinary adventure unlike any other!

The concept of the dinner was a collection of Ludo's best foie dishes from past iterations of his pop-up restaurant.  I'd only been to two of them (007 at Gram & Papas and 8.0 at Lemon Moon), so I was really looking forward to 'caching up' on the unknown foie dishes.  To amuse our bouches: the meal kicked off with Foie Gras Cromesqui "MM".  These were basically croquettes filled with liquified foie and black truffles.  We were specifically instructed to just pop them in our mouths in one bite so that the liquid center isn't wasted leaking out onto the plate - but I couldn't resist the interior shot...look at that beautiful color! 
Next up was what was chosen by most in our party as favorite dish of the night: Foie Gras Dynamite, tuna, lichi this one showed off Chef Ludo's boundless creativity: a lobe of foie gras was seared, then placed in the center of a ring of tuna tartare, which is then blanketed by white balsamic and salmon roe infused mayonnaise and clementine sauce.  You would expect the heavy creaminess of the mayo to overpower the tuna and be driven to excess with the already rich, buttery foie - but Ludo skillfully balances all elements so that they work perfectly together - the clean, refreshing and untouched centers of the tuna tartare pieces and surprising juicy bursts of sweet lychee cutting neatly through the flavorful, rich sauce; the tiny, delicate orbs of salmon roe counterbalancing the butteriness of the whole of the dish texturally.  A unique and beautiful piece.
Next up was a new interpretation of my favorite dish from LudoBites 8.0: Foie Gras Miso Soup, radish, turnips. At 8.0, beautiful rounds of foie had been placed into a creamy mushroom soup with squid-ink dyed breadcrumbs and a bit of port, and blew my mind as I've never seen nor would ever think to put foie in soup, but it worked.  In this version, foie was placed into miso soup with some radish and turnips for crunch.  I didn't actually enjoy this soup as much, as I found it overly salty and pungent, and the overabundance of veggies (and their constant crunch) distracted from the gorgeously smooth texture of the foie.
Then another amazingly creative piece: Foie Gras Black Croque-Monsieur, Grapes this was basically a PB&J, all grown up, moved to a metropolitan city and running with an uppercrust of friends of culture and sophistication. And mastered the art of the dramatic entrance. Instead of peanut butter, there was buttery foie.  Instead of jelly between the bread, there was cheese.  Instead of plain white bread, there was squid-ink dyed black toasts, the better to contrast with and highlight the foie oozing out from it.  The jelly (grape) was pushed off to the side.  I loved the novel feeling of the incredible, lush flanks of foie running over the edges of toast and cheese - and those flavors (this I say as my eyes close and roll back at the mere memory).  The only thing I would have changed was maybe to pat the bottom of the sandwich with a paper towel first, as it was dripping in grease from the foie and cheese.  The jelly was not too memorable and didn't love the presence of pieces of seeds. 
Next was probably tied for my favorite of the night along with the Dynamite dish: Foie Gras "Crepinette," morels, pears, green asparagus I absolutely adored this in its unique texture and flavor. I enjoyed it so much I forgot to stop and take a "cross section" shot :( But essentially this was a lobe of foie wrapped in sweetbread casing then in caul fat, then smothered in an amazing mushroom sauce with bits of pear and asparagus.  When I cut into this 'steak' of foie it was like cutting into some juicy rotisserie chicken - the caul fat had that resilient texture of nicely roasted chicken skin, but underneath that instead of tasteless meat the inside was a smooth, creamy, and yes I'm gonna overuse the word luscious piece of foie.  I've never had anything like it and wish Ludo had a permanent space so I could go back and have more of this.  The asparagus added nice contrasting crunch, as did the small pieces of pear which also punctuated all the heaviness with a little bit of sweet.  There were also grilled ramps which had just a hint of char and nice salinity.
For the finish: Foie Gras Sundae, brioche, black berries - this I wanted to love but couldn't, maybe as I just recently tried Chef Gisele Wellman's foie gras ice cream sandwich at Petrossian - and Ludo's could not match it in creaminess. The foie ice cream at LudoBites in fact felt a bit dry and powdery...and the berries didn't taste super fresh as I expected them to.  But the pieces of brioche, toasted in duck fat - were divine.

All in all, another inspired meal from creative force of nature Chef Ludo - the best of the last hurrahs for a beloved ingredient (at least until the law gets repealed).  The experience was bittersweet given the context for the event - but I am grateful for people like Ludo who have the will and fortitude to speak up and stand up for what they believe, and for the right to be free from arbitrary culinary censorship.  I am grateful for friends, old and new, to share a common passion - and who never ceases to amaze me with their generous spirits.  It reminds me that food should be something that connects people, not divides. It would be too easy to demonize those who you disagree with, but at the end of the day I hope that until scientific studies prove definitively one way or the other, that the two sides of the foie debate can agree to disagree, and respect each other's right to choose.

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% (hopefully there will be more of these foie dinners before July!)

Best of LudoBites Foie Gras Night at G
ram & Papa's
227 East 9th St, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Ph: 213.624.7272

Website: ludolefebvre.com/ludobites

Best of LudoBites (Foie Gras Night 4/17/12) on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. OMG--I love me some foie gras! And all of that looks so amazing! Jealous!



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