LudoBites 3.0: Appetite for Invention

Whether you're a die-hard Food Network devotee or have just caught snippets of "chef talk" here and there, you may know that a chef is expected to put him or her self on their plates. Who you are must reveal itself in the interplay of ingredients, textures, styles, colors, and tastes in any given dish of your creation. For many, this is hard to do, and for many more, hard to understand. A steak is a steak, no? Well, no.

During the summer, Chef Ludovic Lefebvre ran a smashingly successful pop-up restaurant at Breadbar that gained him a legion of devotees who professed not only a willingness to follow him on Twitter, but to wherever his next roving kitchen would land him. This month his LudoBites is installed alongside a provocative art exhibit called "In Bed Together" at Culver City's cosplay teahouse and cafe Royal/T. It is only fitting that Lefebvre's food be paired with art, since the artistry of his food both challenges the eater to think about what they're eating as well as re-think food altogether.

Towards the end of the run of the last LudoBites (technically it was version 2, ergo this is LudoBites 3.0) a meal I shared there with a fellow food enthusiast provoked her to remark the next day that it seemed almost impossible to eat regular food after a meal at LudoBites. The same was true for me last week when I sat down twice at the temporary eatery, the first as a guest of Fooddigger at a hosted preview dinner, and the second on night two with a group of friends. The meals, comprised mostly of the same dishes, were reminders that the only new frontier in food truly is invention. As children we're scolded "don't play with your food," but in the kitchen there is no reason not to. This does not escape Lefebvre, for whom the pursuit of invention, then perfection, seems to be on par with pleasing his diners' palates.

The dishes at LudoBites will change, or in some cases evolve, and so fair warning, what I ate last week may not be what greets you on the menu if you are headed there in the coming weeks. Not surprisingly, at least one of the dishes had been altered between my first and second visit; these changes come from customer feedback, availability of ingredients, and Lefebvre's calculated whim. What has proven to be irksome to a few, and delightful to many, is the fact that there are none of the same dishes on this menu as were seen at LudoBites 2 this summer. Lefebvre's wife and house manager Krissy will tell you without skipping a beat that once the tattooed Frenchman in the kitchen nails a dish, he doesn't want to churn it out again and again.

His quest for new tastes and combinations takes him on all manner of journeys, and he draws from multiple sources of inspiration. One menu item, the Hanger Steak, is accompanied by a complex, multi-dimensional, tantalizing mole sauce. Did he check out every book in the library on traditional Mexican cooking? No. Did he take a class? No. He spent the day in the East Los Angeles home of the mother of the young foodblogger known as Teenage Gluster, and learned from a real pro.

The proof is on the plate, as you drag a glistening slice of perfectly cooked and marinated meat through the modest dab of the spicy, chocolatey "Mexican-French" sauce and your tastebuds begin to dance. But there's more on that plate: there's baby corn on a cob in a husk, which makes you do a double take with your eyes and, once bitten, will draw the corners of your mouth upwards into a grin; there's crunchy escargot that will make you forget anytime in your past you've had to turn them down because you just couldn't imagine eating them (which, incidentally, isn't me, since I love the little buggers, but these aren't your steakhouse snails, mmmkay?); and lastly there's the yielding, tart bite of a baby leek to bring balance to the flavors.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Both meals I had this week were served in progression, as in moving from the top to the bottom of the small-ish menu. (The size of the menu is, to some extent, proportional to the amenities of the location; Royal/T's kitchen is smaller than Breadbar's, and to boot has no walk-in storage, meaning Lefebvre and his talented and hard-working staff have the added challenge of limited prep options and must produce in a very cramped space.)

The wonderful upshot to the smaller menu is its affordability. As part of the party of 8 dining last Thursday we ordered two of each savory dish and three of each dessert--that's 12 dishes, folks--to share for the whole table, which left us each with a tab of $45. If you're in a smaller party, you'll still fare well, since currently menu items range from $5 to the mid $20s. There's talk of bringing back one beloved item, the Foie Gras Croque Monsieur on Squid Ink Bread, which was last nibbled by lucky attendees at the opening party of DomaineLA, the phenomenal new wine shop on Melrose who happens to have created the wine list for the event. If you'd rather BYO, you'll have a reasonable $15 corkage.

Back to the menu. You're here for the food, right? (Okay, some are here to get gussied up and giggle and get Chef Ludo to take a picture with them. It happens.) It's more than fair to say the food is beautiful, both visually and epicurally. You may begin with a bowl of the zingy Caramelized Curry Peanuts, then downshift to dip your spoon into a warm bowl of bread soup. No, not a "bread bowl" like at a chowder house or the cafeteria at Magic Mountain. Bread soup. As in made of. It's velvety smooth, like a piece of hearty rustic bread warmed and buttered, and accompanied by two cheery white shapes, the first of which is a shimmering, slow-poached egg, and the second a bobbing piece of a fluffy Gruyere marshmallow. The marshmallow admittedly is so light and airy that it fades away immediately, but the egg--oh, the egg! For me, this was the first time I broke my own rule of not eating eggs out-of-context (yes, pho and other noodle soup lovers, that means I can't face the egg in those dishes) and I'm glad I did. This dish is like a lazy lunch on a chilly afternoon cozied up to the fire.

Other highlights of the menu are the Foie Gras Beignet, which delivers a whopping 2 oz of poached foie held inside a glistening, fried orb of sweet dough, paired with a tangy celery root remoulade. Anti-foie activists, veggies and vegans, steer far clear of this one. It is indulgent, rich, and luxurious, and the foie in this preparation allowed to shine in shape, texture, and taste since it has not been pulverized, chopped, or reassembled in any way. The scallop comes in a ceviche-esque preparation, with the sweet brightness of pineapple, the roundness of brown butter and the playful sprinkling of "black powder" (squid ink) for that extra pow--one of my favorite dishes. The Veal Udon is also a standout, with the hearty depth of a meaty, salty broth, the slippery slither of noodles, the gash of sesame miso, and the soft slabs of tender meat. Utterly crave-worthy!

Dessert varied for us from night to night; the first night showcased the most intensely fudge-like sliver of chocolate cake perched in a sea of coconut soup and topped with the explosive spicy surprise of crushed pink peppercorns (memo to any chocolatiers out there: please make me a dark chocolate and pink peppercorn truffle. I will be a customer for life!). Night two offered up a pistachio creme (think fluffy, shocking green studded with crunchy pistachios) with a slice of lemon poundcake, and Lefebvre's fiery jalapeno chocolate mousse with the coconut soup and mashed rum bananas. We'd first encountered the mousse when he demo-ed the dish live at the Los Angeles Magazine food event; here the spice was tempered with the tropic cool of the coconut. But I won't lie...I missed those peppercorns something fierce.

During Thursday's meal a conversation stirred among us about the appeal of a restaurant being based on food versus "vibe." The best, I'd wager, master both. This is indeed the case with LudoBites, so far no matter where the vibe is created. During your meal you'll most likely be greeted by Ludo himself, as he visits his guests and checks to make sure you're enjoying your meal. You'll of course be greeted and seated and well-treated by Mrs. Lefebvre, who has gone so far to make her "foodie" guests have the most illuminated experience by setting up a photography "light box" on a table in the dining room. Hey, smart move from a smart lady; when food is art like Chef Ludo's dishes, it only makes sense to do them right in the flood of food blogs by enabling the photos to look as good as possible.

But will you make it to LudoBites this month? Well, some of you may already have a reservation, and those who missed out on making one last month might fear all hope is lost. While the initial bookings were "sold out" in about two days, consider the fact that many a friend and co-worker of yours is bedridden with some cold or flu, and some wallets were emptied in Black Friday madness, so there have been some cancellations. To see if anything is available, drop a line to the reservations email, or follow Krissy on Twitter (she's @FrenchChefWife, naturellment!). And, whether you make it to LudoBites 3.0 or not, rest assured, Lefebvre's appetite to serve you his inventive cuisine is far from sated. There will be more in the coming months, though whether it's pop-up or permanent remains to be seen.

LudoBites 3.0 @Royal/T
8910 Washington Blvd, Culver City
Dinner various nights through Dec. 22
*Note: Do not call Royal/T for reservation inquiries!