Food's Lunatic Fringe: The Mad Genius of LudoBites
Forget the whole food truck trend, and consider for a moment the idea of roving chefs and semi-rogue restaurants appearing within another food-space. Like a sort of culinary hobo with a spot on the guest list, Chef Ludovic Lefebvre works out of the tiny kitchen at Breadbar on 3rd Street, an invited squatter of sorts with a short tenure as the night-shift guy. Only it's his name that emblazons the temporary signage and the daily menu. It is LudoBites, the pop-up restaurant phenom that has tongues wagging, with a looming end-date on the horizon for their current residency.
With only a few more weeks to go at Breadbar (LudoBites closes shop August 22), the buzz seems only to heighten in the food world about the cunning and innovative offerings of Lefebvre. Helping to circulate the "idol" chatter is Lefebvre's somewhat new presence on Twitter, where he volleys daily soupcons of insight into his world (a mixed-up vegetable order, his day-off adventures), engages in banter with fellow well-known chefs and fans alike, reveals who will serve as his sous-chef du jour, and touts menu items. (With horror I awoke the morning of my long-anticipated dinner at LudoBites to read he'd been in a spill on his Ducati the night before; luckily as the day wore on he declared he'd limp for the evening, but not abandon service.)
The reputation that foams around Lefebvre is not as new as a viral marketing tool and cheeky pass-time as Twitter; the Frenchman's CV is an impressive study in accolades and fine dining, including wildly successful work at local eateries L'Orangerie and Bastide, where he became known as an irreverent, edgy "rock 'n' roll" chef. (Yes, that's rap and hard rock on the sound system.) Earlier this summer he gained attention nationally for his appearance on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, as he vociferously struggled with the challenges and kept the censors' hands busily pressing the bleep button. But his on-screen demeanor seems served with a generous side portion of mischievousness; there's a sly wink behind the bluster that lets you know that if the producers and viewers ordered up a fiery, foul-mouthed French chef, mon dieu, they'll get one.
All this chatter about Lefebvre and we've not even arrived at the food, which, reputation schmeputation, is why the man is worth talking about to begin with. Having set up his temporary home at Breadbar, Lefebvre works with what he's got and makes what he's got work. The concept is simple: Bites, or small portions, on a menu that changes daily and evolves based on whim and what's available. His food is brash and playful, but not alienating. He seems to follow an unwritten recipe of one part intrigue, a generous pinch of invention, a healthy portion of respect for classical technique, and always a dominant deference to seasonality. For example: That white asparagus soup you loved two weeks ago? Sorry--c'est dommage--but white asparagus are out of season. Next!
The daily menu appears at some point in the afternoon after the marketing and deliveries are done and the plans are hatched. Some items will carry over night to night, especially if they're met with praise from diners, some will see some modification, some will disappear, and some will stay away until they are perfected. A read of the black and white text is like an amuse bouche in and of itself, making the mind and the palate snap to attention. At play are not only words but ingredients; the night of my dinner there the Tuna, Watermelon, Red Beets, Vanilla-Wasabi Cloud made its debut. Cloud? What might a cloud be?
After a piece of Breadbar bread slathered in the musky salt-sweet of lavender butter, the Tuna, Watermelon, Red Beets, Vanilla-Wasabi Cloud was the first item we ordered. It simply had to be. The dish was a gently smiling nod to Japanese cuisine, with three cubes lined up on the narrow plate. There was a cube of beautiful, rich, ruby-red tuna sashimi, a shimmery cube of fresh watermelon, and a cube that looked like a coconut-bathed marshmallow. Voila: C'est le cloud! But the texture...get marshmallow out of your mind, because this is like one of those bewitching Japanese bites that shakes up your notion of texture. It was sweet and pungent, more yielding to the teeth and yet curiously airy than you'd expect. It wasn't offensive, it wasn't rhapsodic, it wasn't even quite fathomable. But it was a bite, and gone that fast. My palate was awake. Bonjour! And bring me more.
And more was what we ordered. The tables at LudoBites are large and communal, and I ate ostensibly as a party of four, though we ordered in pairs. Placing orders for just a couple of opening dishes, we opted to take on the meal like a journey and pause to negotiate next steps as we went. The staff there are happy to work with that, and though the place starts to really fill up and come alive around sundown, someone will always pop their head in to make sure you are being taken care of, and to see how your meal is going. That someone may well be Chef Lefevbre himself, who is prone to milling in the dining room when the night's pace allows, but it is most likely his charming wife Krissy, who will materialize out of the din and fray to offer you a warm greeting, make an inquiry, or simply share her mega-watt smile--one that doesn't quit even after wrestling a stubborn wine bottle's cork (it is BYOB with a modest corkage) or dropping some unruly silverware.
Our meal continued with Sauteed Diver Scallop, Red Port-Creme Fraiche, Bacon, & Potato, which featured two plump, perfectly cooked scallops nesting on top of creamy potato and amid a sea of wine foam and topped with bacon. Ah, yes, bacon... Without the frat-boy "pork fat rules!" buffoonery of an Emeril Lagasse, Lefebvre will assert his love for rich pork without screaming it, but rather sprinkling it on your scallop, or, in the case of our next dish, making it the key player. The pork belly was melt-in-your-mouth tender and rich, drenched in a sweet and tangy sauce, and paired with a cooling frisee salad and mustard ice cream.
Yes. Mustard Ice Cream. One quenelle of cool, creamy, savory mustard greets you atop a pile of coy greens. Not your typical waffle-cone fare, Lefebrve is injecting his summery menu with multiple unexpected ice creams (it was mozzarella in the artichoke veloute that night as well). Curious, indeed, but scary: Not in the least. By the time you've mopped up the last errant puddle of the pork belly's sauce co-mingled with the cooling moderator of the mustard ice cream you'll be a convert. It makes perfect sense. Fork down--you hadn't even realized before now that you'd wanted, maybe even needed, that mustard ice cream.
There was less mischief on the plate of the thick piece of black peppery cod paired with crispy chanterelles (oh, the butter...) mingling cheekily with bits of orange brioche, which was a new item that night. The fish was moist, robust and surprisingly hearty, as the white flesh acquiesced to the fork in meaty flaked segments. With just a tiny bit of room to spare to take one bite of our companion pair's fried chicken (you must--you simply must have this), we had reached the final moment: Dessert.
Chocolate Cup Cake, Foie Gras Chantilly, Candied Bacon-Almonds, Maple Syrup. (Don't pause, you read that right). The dessert item had made its premiere the night before, and we'd heard, we'd read, we'd seen someone's cameraphone picture. Krissy cautioned us to order one to share between two of us; though it was already downsized following feedback from the night before, it was still a powerfully rich treat.
There it was--a moist, brown-black cupcake, topped not with frosting, but with an almost quivering slab of foie gras chantilly. The sweet came from the candied bacon and nuts that were scattered on top and about the plate. Half was enough, although the whole thing was beyond... For those who eagerly whisper Sprinkles' word of the day in exchange for the daily confection, or who stand on line outside a new cupcakery awaiting another contender in the never-ending "best cupcake" contest, this might not be the stop for you. It's not the cupcake you'll compare to Crumbs (although, for what it's worth, the cake part was one of the most tender and best executed I've eaten, and I've eaten a lot of cupcakes in recent months), but it is the cupcake you'll write home about. Obviously, because of the meat factor--bacon is the holy grail of carnivores of late, and foie gras, although not without controversy, is a longstanding bastion of the gourmand set. There they both are, on your cupcake. Mind equals blown.
The weeks are waning for LudoBites, as the signs will come down as August draws to a close. No need to fear, though--talks are underway for where he'll pop-up next. It will be in Los Angeles. It will be after a much-needed short break. It will be something to taste, and something to talk about.
LudoBites @Breadbar 3rd Street
Tuesday-Saturday, dinner only, through August 22
8718 West 3rd Street
Reservations: Online/(310) 205-0124