LudoBites 7.0 – Los Angeles, CA
By 3:58PM, I was already logged to opentable.com continually clicking the reserve button only to have the same message staring back at me: “Reservations Will Open At 4PM”. No worries I told myself, better safe than sorry. After all, I wasn’t sure what to expect from LudoBites, Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s wildly popular pop-up restaurant. Its last iteration crashed Open Table, sending throes of hopeful diners into collective mutiny– I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
A minute passed and all of a sudden I was in! For a split-second I didn’t register what had happened but quickly regained my senses and shifted to auto-pilot, clicking on dates and filling out blanks. Before I knew it, I had a reservation to Ludobites 7.0. Success!
Little did I realize how lucky I was… turns out every table for every night had sold out in under a minute!
On opening night, my party of four ended up ordering the entire menu, which turned out to be a smart decision: the amount of food was perfect, keeping my palate constantly engaged and curious.
Things didn’t quite start off with a bang though. An underwhelming “onion tart” (grossly reminiscent of CPK!) was the opening volley. I’m not sure why Ludo named this a tart as it was really just sweet caramelized onions on top of crisp flat bread. The shaving of bottarga on top could’ve elevated this dish higher, but the dried roe should’ve been more liberally applied– I wanted more briny funk!
Thankfully, our second dish of Compressed Pig’s Head and Cheddar redeemed the first. The plating was playful, like that of a sandwich, with the compressed head meat stuck in between crackers, creeping out the sides. The meat reminded me of pork rilettes, only this was more gloppy and smacked with an intense porky flavor, as if Ludo had the distilled the very flavor of pork into a gooey mess. While the cheddar added another whirl of complexity, and the barbeque gelee brought some tang and spice into the dish, I just kept going at the compressed head– offaly tasty stuff.
A dorade ceviche with cucumber water, cornichons, and jalapenos arrived next. It was predictably refreshing with a spicy kick, reminiscent of the Aguachiles served at Mariscos Chentes. Slippery but firm, the slices of dorade were a welcome break from the usual seabass and shrimp ceviches served elsewhere, but I wish I could’ve tasted the fish more as the dressing was quite tart and cucumbery.
One of the best dishes of the night arrived in a humble tin ramekin: salt cod pannacotta with whipped fingerling potato and smoked tapioca, topped with crumbles of black olive bread. Bacalao reinvented through Ludo’s eyes. The pannacotta and whipped potato were luxuriously smooth, and I loved the liberal use of salted cod (apparently Kevin felt it was lacking). Pearls of smoked tapioca were a fine nuance, but the crumbles of black olive bread was pure genius, adding more savor and crunch. Our table enjoyed this so much we ended up ordering two.
Next, a bowl of slow cooked scrambled eggs and uni arrived with a dollop of caviar. There was also a champagne beurre blanc sauce, but I couldn’t detect the champagne. Not to worry though– the dish was still fantastic (pretty hard to go wrong with those ingredients though!). Luscious creamy eggs were the texturally perfect, the caviar was like a cannon, blasting out cannonballs of oceany briny goodness, and the beurre blanc sauce tied everything together (tying dishes together with emulsified butter is often a win in my book).
A plate of Plancha Tandoori Octopus with Yogurt, Cauliflower, and Grapefruit arrived next. As I ate this, I scratched my head in wonder at Ludo’s creativity. It’s amazing how Ludo manages to marry seemingly disparate ingredients into a cohesive dish. Not a single component was superfluous, with the octopus providing heft, chew, and char; the yogurt balanced it with tang; cauliflower gave textural crunch, and the bits of grapefruit were magical: their acidity somehow made the dish *snap*.
Our table agreed the tomato soup that arrived next was a bit of a mystery. It was overly sweet, without that tang I love from tomatoes. There was a nice crunch from the carrot and baby endives, but in the end it was still a mediocre dish. Nevertheless I kept going at it, spoonful after spoonful, wondering what was drawing me to the dish when my friend Matt yelped out, “this tastes like Chef Boyardee!”. And there you go. The dish was unconsciously nostalgic, evoking memories of something I’d eat as a kid. Would I order it again? No.
The bowl of orange soup was whisked away and in its place stood a plate of foie gras ravioli topped with crispy kimchi surrounded by a black truffle sake cream sauce. I took a bite and enjoyed creaminess of the foie melding with the sake cream sauce, but the real star was the crispy kimchi– it brightened the dish and kept everything from getting too rich. The only fault? The pasta skin. It was too gummy and doughy– improve this and Ludo’s got a real winner on his hands.
We started the move into heavier dishes with duck covered in beets and radishes and surrounded by a beet-cherry sauce. A spicy saucisse (basically a sausage patty) flanked the duck, but it proved to be unnecessary as the bird was stellar and could’ve easily stood on its own. Phenomenally juicy, tender, and flavorful, I wonder if the the duck was cooked sous vide.
The second protein dish to arrive was roast beef with horseradish cream and dried mole. I looked at it warily, as I’ve grown weary of heavy protein courses. They sink like boulders in my stomach, dulling my palate, and often fail to inspire. Thankfully, we had a winner here– the beef was left practically rare, just the way I like it. The classic pairing of creamy horseradish was also welcome, but what really stole the show was the dried mole (the dark mass at the top-right of my photo) that were so crunchy and umami-laden, it was as if someone had made crispy breadcrumbs out of harissa, the savory African chili spread.
The last savory course was an epoisse cheese risotto, studded with bits of crunchy hazelnuts; in the center was a gleaming golden egg yolk while a fistful of herbs were strewn on top. Just like the octopus, I was yet again surprised by Ludo’s focus, deliberation, and restraint. The balance of flavor and texture was flawless, with the pungent epoisse cheese was tempered by the peppery herbs. Similarly, the rice was cooked to a perfect al dente, the hazelnuts added a welcome crunch, and the egg ensconced everything in a wonderful gooey richness.
The first dessert Ludo served was riff on a Peach Melba, an Escoffier classic. The lavender wasn’t overpowering, the textural contrast from the peaches, meringue, and ice cream was spot-on, and the whole dish was just plain delicious and comforting.
The last dish of the night was a crustless lemon tart with limoncello and thyme. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a success. The limoncello was heavy and lumbered about the dish like a drunken linebacker; the thyme was similarly overpowering, and unlike the lavender in the previous dessert, I felt like I was straight up eating thyme instead of using it to flavor the dish. And why no crust Ludo? I’m sure you know that’s the best part of every tart
And just like that, opening night at LudoBites was over. I knew Ludo was creative and wasn’t scared of innovative flavor profiles, but I honestly found my last LudoBites experience (6.0 in Sherman Oaks) lackluster. If you’re still reading at this point, I’m sure you’ve realized my experience tonight couldn’t be more different.
Ludo, you’ve managed to surprise and entertain, shock and delight. You’ve upended expectations and at one point (during the octopus dish), even made me yelp with pleasure. Luckily, I’ll be dining there again with friends next week. I can’t wait to return!