by Joshua Lurie
Dining at LudoBites has become imperative among a certain set of L.A. food cognoscenti. Racking up reservations in order to document the meals via tweets, photos and words has become increasingly fashionable. Many writers and bloggers follow him from restaurant to restaurant, hoping to snag prized plates from the highly talented and supposedly volatile French chef. For Ludo’s latest pop-up at Gram & Papa’s, in downtown’s Fashion District, the hype reached a fever pitch, with diners snapping up seven weeks of reservations in only 18 hours. I recently dined at LudoBites 4.0 on Mattatouille and Foodbuzz’s behalf, and the latest incarnation proved to be even more fierce and focused than Ludo’s previous effort at Royal/T.
The setting was an upgrade from Royal/T, where the glass walls made me feel like I was dining inside an aquarium. At Mike Ilic’s sandwich and salad shop - Gram & Papa’s – the brick walls and urban setting provided LudoBites with a propulsive energy that was lacking in Culver City. It also helped to have Top 40 songs ricocheting off the walls and an open kitchen where diners could actually see the star in action. If there’s any doubt that Ludo is a star at this stage, just flash back to L.A. Street Food Fest, where hundreds of people lined up for hours, just to taste his fried chicken.
We started our frenzy with Snapper Ceviche ($14), a high-acidity dish with juicy fish and sliced heirloom tomato dressed with crisp red onions, olive oil and cuts of jalapeno that imparted an added kick. The side of the bowl featured a smear of tart Meyer lemon paste, and the ceviche was showered with decorative chive flowers.
Ludo’s bowl of Burgundy Escargots ($13) were exceptional, plump snails bathed with onion studded, parsley-focused “green jus.” The escargots were plated on a pungent but creamy garlic flan and capped with a single violet. Edible flowers are a frequent Ludo garnish, and he used them to good effect at Gram & Papa’s.
Boudin Noir Mousse ($12) was a rich, pudding-like slab of congealed pig’s blood, dusted with sea salt. The boudin offered varied experiences as we navigated the plate. We encountered a sweet pool of vanilla-rich apple puree, a dollop of “wasabi” with pronounced horseradish bite, and, across the plate, a pile of chalky soy powder.
After eating the boudin noir, I returned to the garlic flan and decided it’s probably not a good idea to skip between plates at LudoBites, since the flavors are so distinct and bold. Better to take the dishes one at a time.
Black Foie Gras Croque Monsieur ($29) has become the closest thing to a Ludo signature dish…after his fried chicken, of course. He debuted the indulgence at BREADBAR last year, and it was welcome to see that he’d revived a variation on the item. The outrageous slab of foie gras was encased in crispy bread stained black with squid ink. We also encountered a buttery slice of Lamb Chopper sheep’s milk cheese and crispy prosciutto. On the side, we found a pile of marmalade-like lemon turnip chutney that did its best to cut the richness of the croque, not that it was possible.
Squid "Carbonara" ($18) was the only dish of the night that didn’t work for me. The cool, floppy cuts of squid were designed to resemble noodles, but between the texture of the “noodles,” the intensity of the Parmesan and the cool core of the pancetta, this was a challenging dish, and my tongue wasn’t up to the challenge. Still, the poached egg, cooked at precisely 63 degrees Celsius, was faultless, to the point that we peeled back the egg white and the yolk ever so delicately held its form. That was impressive.
Steak "Au Poivre" ($25) was in many ways the most basic dish, yet it was still impressive, with juicy slices of seared steak lavished with peppery sauce, topped with crunchy shallots and plated with addicting bone marrow polenta. The only element that didn’t hit was the roasted eggplant puree, which was nearly jet black and had a bitter finish.
As the sun set on downtown, we transitioned to dessert. Ludo yet again provided a twist on a classic with his Macarons ($12). It was similar to strawberry shortcake, but instead of using biscuits, he went with pleasantly chewy shards of strawberry macaron folded with Chantilly cream and sweet strawberries.
Dark Chocolate Soufflé ($13) was a masterful version, an airy soufflé served with a dish of molten chocolate sauce and a single scoop of vanilla-whisky ice cream with a pronounced alcohol kick and a subtle black pepper finish.
As we finished fresh-pulled shots of Intelligentsia espresso and jockeyed for the final scrapings of soufflé, it was impossible to ignore the merchandise wall, featuring LudoBites T-shirts and copes of Ludo’s “Crave” cookbooks. Still, since almost every dish offered a satisfying twist, it reminded me that Ludo is more than just a brand.