LudoBites 7.0: Distilled Christmas Trees and Freedom
F. Friesema Jonagold apples
We have been down this road before, you and I, six-point-oh times at least. Ludovic Lefebvre cooks an exquisite dinner in a space not designed to accommodate dinner. Reservations are difficult to get, sometimes extraordinarily difficult. You feel slightly foolish walking through downtown L.A. (or wherever) with a nicely chilled Cheverny, but it is that or a glass of iced tea. You taste things you have not tasted before -- that you have not begun to taste before -- and you spend the next few months telling anybody who will listen about the crazy Frenchman who distilled his Christmas tree into vivid oil and used it to flavor your poached egg. Lefebvre established the pop-up as an economic model: What he loses in income, he recoups in freedom.
This time around it feels a little different: Lefebvre, whom Time called the chef of the future, and his wife, Krissy Lefebvre, who runs the front of the house, are reknowned as pop-up royalty now; they star in Ludo Bites America, a popular reality show on the Sundance Channel. Your great-aunt may know who Ludo is now. And while the restaurant always sold out in a flash -- all the seats for the current run were snapped up in about 30 seconds -- there's a certain zaniness missing (the seats are no longer filled with bloggers), the waitress tells you which fried chicken wings featured in which episode, and you can sense that people are vaguely disappointed when Lefebvre fails to erupt into one of the profanity-laced tantrums for which the show has become famous. It's probably a hipster thing: You were into it before it was cool.
But it's easy to become too meta about this, because there is always that moment in the evening when you realize: Damn, this guy can cook. Because Lefebvre, who probably would be running a two- or three-star restaurant in Burgundy if the dice had bounced a little differently, can channel his mentors Pierre Gagnaire or Marc Meneau as effortlessly as Emeril says, "Bam!" And there are so many good dishes at 7.0 that it can be hard to choose between them -- the lightly pickled dourade scented with cucumber and crunchy leaves of verdolagas, or the bouillabaisse milkshake, served with two straws, that sounds like the dumbest dish you can imagine until you take your first frosty sip. The lightly cooked squid in chorizo oil with a small mound of onion that had been reduced to ash, the kind of dish you're seeing in three-star Spanish restaurants these days, or the dream-soft salt cod panna cotta with a few chewy pearls of smoked boba at its depth. The loaf of testa with cheddar -- Lefebvre was intrigued by the American term "head cheese" -- or the soft, creamy egg with sharply briny sea urchin. To my surprise, I was blown away by the dullest dish on the menu: thin slices of rare "roast beef" that had been cooked sous vide in lard and served with a heap of powdery dried Oaxacan-style mole paste as garnish. It is almost a relief to report that the bacon crème brulee with underripe melon gazpacho was kind of a dud, although the peach with meringue and lavender was not.
Ludobites 7.0 is sold out for the duration of its run, but if you're feeling lucky, follow Krissy Lefebvre on Twitter (@FrenchChefWife). You'd be surprised how often something opens up.
See Colin Young-Wolff's slideshow for pics of opening night at LudoBites 7.0.