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LudoBites 4.0: From Menu to Mouth, a Meal of Mastery

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A few hours before I headed downtown to dinner at LudoBites 4.0, I shot a link to the menu over to a friend via instant message. "This is where I'm eating tonight," I explained, probably inserting one of those cornball smiley emoticons. I swear I heard her gasp over the interwebs, then the fury of her fingers as she typed me a strict order from a couple thousand miles away: "Promise me you will get the seared foie gras pina colada." I assured her I would. In fact, I had a sense that this mealtime mission would be all about the menu, as in the entire thing.

Frankly, when it comes to the pop-up magic of Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, this is the only sensible eating plan.

For the fourth installation of LudoBites, Lefebvre has popped up at Gram and Papa's, a sandwich shop by day, and on select nights until the end of May, a trendy eatery where the food will delight.

As part of a table for six seated with a wide-open view of the kitchen, we put our server through his paces as we did the basic menu math: How do you get 10 appetizers, 4 main courses and 2 desserts into 6 hungry Ludo-enthusiasts--a group which includes 1 person off red meat, 1 LudoBites first-timer, and 1 suppressing terror of sharing dishes? Add 2 bottles of BYO wine and 4 cameras for foodthusiast-style memory making, and we were ready for a full-on experience.

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In the past, diners have raised criticism against some of Lefebvre's wilder creations, while others have endured hours in line just to have a bite of his fried chicken. If you stare at the menu on any given night--and bear in mind, it will change on whim, or thanks to availability of ingredients--you might start to over-think the words. Garlic flan? Mozzarella mousse? Cauliflower ice cream? Ham soup? All I can do is to urge you to chill out, have a taste, and be ready eat your words.

Our 4.0 foodventure began with the aromatic and floral honey-lavender butter you will want to slather first generously on your rock-salt studded baguette, and then, in your wickedest food fantasies, maybe on yourself--hey, I'm pretty sure it's good for your skin, too. The plump sphere of Brie chantilly was a rich as a spoonful of butter. The escargot were the most supple I've had the pleasure of biting in to, bathed in garlic and a spritely green jus, giving way to your bite as they ought to. Should you have come to the table a disbeliever, these escargot will shatter all negative snail-as-food stereotypes.

We took turns dipping our spoons into cups of the coolly aloof white asparagus veloute, whose snow-white creaminess belied astonishing depth courtesy the briny punctuation of salmon roe, the earthy sweetness of candied olive, and the bewitching strands of fennel that swam in the bowl. The ham soup was a Willy Wonka-ian creation (think Violet Beauregarde's beloved gum that had a whole meal in one morsel) that was like sitting down to a hot ham-and-swiss sandwich with a side of mild cornichons and a mug of Guinness.

The carrot salad was gorgeous and refreshing, while the red snapper ceviche gave the appetizer course some requisite heat. The pork cheek terrine, a chance for Lefebvre to spotlight his French technique for an ingredient and preparation that is re-gaining popularity thanks to old world snout-to-hoof frugality and a reverence for the classics, wasn't a huge hit at the table, but I loved its sleek fattiness and the blunt counterpoint of its accompanying potato and apple. The scallops were seared beautifully, the sizzling brown scars breaking the white-on-white of the protein and the tree-like thin slices of cauliflower draped across. A hint of curry and caper took the dish to the realm of the exotic, while the cauliflower ice cream was like a whoosh of chilly air penetrating a stuffy room and shaking you awake.

And the foie? Of course we didn't skip that. At $29 a plate, it's the priciest item on the menu, and, even in the face of an I-don't-actually-want-to-know amount of butter in all the other dishes, probably the richest. Perfectly seared, the quivering mound of fattened liver practically bounced in my mouth, amplified by the totally unexpected tropical sweetness of the coconut ice cream, pineapple, and rum it was paired with. Tastebuds, you are on vacation. Just sit back, savor, and relax.

Of the four entrees, the Monkfish was the most visually stunning, but, while it was a true celebration of spring, the two meat dishes were the stars, and the Squid "Carbonara" perhaps the least successful dish of the menu. Using ribbons of squid as the foil for noodles, a shimmery 63-degrees poached egg oozed its creamy yolk and merged with bits of pancetta, parmesan snow and sage; much like the above mentioned pork terrine, this was not a huge hit, and while my modest bites weren't unpleasant, I wanted to love the dish more. As I started to think of alternatives for its preparation--thinner ribbons of squid, perhaps?--I realized I would either need to try an entire bowl of it myself another time, or just accept that I wasn't going to be totally in love with every item.

The steak "au poivre" was a sultry piece of meat, tender and buttery, paired with a rich slash of polenta enhanced with the rich "meat-butter" of bone marrow. But the lamb--oh, the lamb! Mild, just pink enough in its rarest parts and crispy in its fatty parts, I tackled my own handicap of an at-capacity stomach to take the honor of getting the last morsels free from the bone. For this dish, though, I would want Lefebvre to heed the wisdom of fashionistas who advise ladies to remove one accessory from their outfit before heading out the door; the unnecessary bracelet or scarf, what have you, in this dish was the piece of smoked eel on the plate. Don't need it. Don't distract me from that lamb. Or that bowl of peppery, butter-laden, velvet-smooth mashed potatoes that comes with it. Meat and potatoes, baby.

It's not so much that we saved room for dessert--to forgo the sweet ending just wouldn't be acceptable. Fresh strawberries topped with whipped cream and dried lavender was a cheerful, lightly sweet note. However, the showstopper--and the meal-stopper, since, my goodness, we were done!--was the Dark Chocolate Souffle, which emerged and didn't sink until our spoons were pushing into it and extracting hot, fluffy, airy bits of its dusky goodness, taken to a sweet extreme with the side of chocolate cream and the vanilla black pepper ice cream.

Post-meal, the inevitable comparisons arise. Where does LudoBites 4.0 rank in the incarnations? For me, this was the strongest for several reasons. Still creative, (yes, that "mad genius" of last summer at Breadbar) and innovative, but not unapproachable, the dishes showcased Lefebvre's skills, technique, and respect for the ingredients on a menu that was, on the whole, the most successful.

But if you've made it this far through my words about food, you may begin to wonder, if you haven't already been or have a reservation, where this leaves you. The fleeting nature of the pop-up spot means it's get-while-the-getting-is-good, and soon after the reservation book was opened, the getting was done.

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However, cancellations happen, and with waitlists and the occasional walk-in, you may still be able to score a table for 4.0. And since Lefebvre is indeed a man-about-town, you'll likely see him popping up here and there for different special events, and hopefully a 5.0 is in the near future. To keep up, you can follow Lefebvre and his front-of-house goddess wife Krissy on Twitter, for info on 4.0 table openings and upcoming events. (And maybe a little behind the scenes gossip, too.)

Speaking of the near future, it doesn't get much nearer than tonight, when Lefebvre returns to the hot kitchen of Top Chef Masters for a Season 2 rematch between ousted Season 1 competitors, airing on Bravo. Will our hometown French-import put his money--or his cooking--where his mouth is? You'll have to tune in with the rest of us to find out.

LudoBites 3.0: Appetite for Invention
Food's Lunatic Fringe: The Mad Genius of LudoBites