“We’re going to get killed [on the blogs] tomorrow.” — Kristine Lefebvre
“*%*)#(*$(&%(*&$)(*$)(*#$#!!” — Chef Ludo Lefebvre (translated from French)
I think Wednesday night’s LudoBites was the closest I have ever been on a reality show. The same thing would have been said for Chef Ludo and his wife, Kristine, but silly me, they both already actually have been on reality shows – Ludo was on Top Chef Masters not too long ago (and just finished filming a Top Chef Masters reunion in Puerto Rico this past weekend), and Kristine popped up on The Apprentice (and was fired 14 wanna be Donalds later). Who knew that that experience actually would be very helpful to dealing with a very rough night?
Let’s back up. LudoBites is the restaurant version of those Christmas tree lots we see everywhere: seasonal. Chef Ludo, formerly of high end restaurants L’Orangerie and Bastide, pops up somewhere, creates a killer, fantastical menu, and executes. But, like a J.Crew coupon code, it lasts only so long. At his last pop-up, at BreadBar, he was resident chef for a trifle three months. LudoBites now is at version 3.0 at Culver City’s Royal/T (former home of the super kawaii Hello Kitty exhibit that Jodi wrote about a few months ago), and Ludo is there for only 13 days.
Given the very short stint, reservations for LudoBites 3.0 were probably one of the hottest tickets in town outside of tickets to Michael Jackson’s funeral. So, when a friend of a friend mentioned that she and a few others had an empty spot in their group reservation and asked me if I wanted in, I jumped at the chance.
The meal, the service, and why Kristine Lefebvre declared, “Miss Irene doesn’t matter” after the jump.
The night started out well enough. We met there at 8:30 (surprisingly, parking wasn’t a problem) (more surprisingly, Royal/T is located in what appears to be an area zoned for car dealerships and businesses park-type businesses), and Ludo’s wife, Kristine, greeted us. We weren’t seated so promptly. When we finally were, Kristine stopped by to apologize: apparently, on what was already an understaffed night, one of their very few sous chefs walked off the job mid-service at 7:30 (that’s post meridiem, people – an hour or so after dinner service began) without having prepped any of the dishes he was supposed to prep. So, relying on what they learned on their respective reality shows (I never thought I would write those words about any reality show contestant), Ludo and Krissy improvised: rather than a full length menu offering over 8 or 10 unique dishes, plus dessert, they converted service to a five dish (including dessert) $39 pre fixe menu. Then, Krissy, in Apprentice Project Manager mode, went around to all the tables to explain what happened and deal with disappointed guests who were there for the fois gras beignets, bar none.
Course 1: Tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream. Yes, you read that right. It’s like Morimoto gave himself permission to deconstruct the sushi.
This was a reincarnation of a similar dish Ludo put together for LudoBites 2.0 at BreadBar. Here, the tuna was fresh and quite tasty, just raw enough to eat and digest without worrying about the fish going upstream later. The sushi ice cream was soft, dense like sushi rice, both on your spoon and in your mouth. Together, interesting, in the best, most thought-provoking way possible.
We waited for the second course to come out. And then waited some more. And then, finally:
Course 2: Our menu originally stated that the second dish would be “Squid, Chorizo Oil, Kimchee Puree & Red Onions.” Alas, the kitchen didn’t have the right ingredients prepped, so the already modified menu had to be adjusted yet another time. Instead of squid, we’d be getting scallops with butter, squid ink powder, and diced pineapple. There also was a flower in there that apparently was edible, but I stopped eating flowers after a traumatic incident in Berkeley in which someone called me a starving hippie.
This was by far my favorite dish of the night. The scallops were soft and succulent, like little pillows of the sea; the squid powder gave the pillows a nice crunch, and the pineapple added an unexpected sweetness. And, best part: there were a good 6-8 scallops in the dish. I went to a wonderful restaurant in Seattle once (Restaurant Zoe), where I had the best scallops of my life – but at $8 for only two, it was a pain in the wallet.
We finished these off, and the waiting continued.
Course 3: The udon with veal and white curry finally arrived.
Everyone agreed that the white curry actually tasted an awful lot like Zankou’s famous garlic sauce (which they are so stingy about!). I actually liked eating this on its own, which may be gross the way eating ketchup packets is gross, but I found that it didn’t add a whole lot to the already very rich udon. Problematic was the fact that this one was uneven: in our group of 10, it was much too salted in some, fine for others. In addition, note to Ludo: udon requires chopsticks!! The veal, though, was very tender, the best part of the dish. The salt overshadowed the veal, unfortunately; a few in our group just couldn’t finish it.
Next, more waiting! The wait time between courses 3 and 4 was the longest, and our waitress seemed to be a little confused as to whether we would be getting a fourth dish at all. Finally, it was decided there would be a fourth dish: duck. And, for the lone pescatarian in our group: something not duck.
Course 4: Crispy duck with mole sauce, baby corn, and leeks.
I think that this was an improvised version of Ludo’s hanger steak with mole sauce, subbing in the duck for the steak, which was served earlier during LudoBites 3.0. I don’t think this was nearly as good as the hanger steak would have been: the duck just didn’t go with the mole sauce. It just didn’t. In addition, there was again a problem with consistency: some of the plates were undercooked, others were a little overcooked. When it was right, though, the duck itself was quite good.
The pescatarian in the group actually made out better: she had a beautiful citrus, brussel sprout and endive salad. Ludo, put this on the menu.
Finally, dessert: Fourme d’Ambert (that’s blue cheese for us pedestrians), toasted bread, pear poached in honey balsamic; or a chocolate mousse with banana rum sauce and maybe some wasabi? Everyone but one chose the chocolate mousse.
This was a bit of a let down. The chocolate mousse tasted a little stale, if chocolate can taste stale, and the banana rum it was sitting in was much too strong to the extent that it almost was spicy. Maybe a flambe would have made it more successful.
The cheese plate, with a balsamic poached pear, was great if you like blue cheese.
Overall, the food ranged from delicious to meh; it was uneven and inconsistent; and the service was slow and sometimes a bit unattentive (we had to ask for water refills constantly). And the first one to cop to it was Krissy and Ludo. I can’t count how many times Krissy came back to our table to apologize profusely. At the end of our night – five courses had taken almost 2.5 hours – Krissy beat me to this post: she listed everything that had gone wrong, noted that a few people actually walked out because the food was taking too long to come out, and took full responsibility for all of it. Like a good Project Manager. Then, Ludo himself came out to apologize. Well, first he cursed the chef that left him, then: “Not our best night … but c’est la vie.” The honesty and self-awareness was just a little startling: at most restaurants, when food comes out late, uneven, or cold, you’ll be lucky if your server gives you a lousy excuse. Here, Krissy did what good lawyers do: she got back to her clients.
They agreed to show us around a little bit to repent. First, a tour of the kitchen. “I don’t think you all will fit,” Ludo said. He was right. This kitchen is about the size of Mark Bittman’s.
Krissy next showed us the soft box, which is a handy dandy box full of very flattering light. Ludo and Krissy are smart businesspeople: they knew foodie bloggers would be all over LudoBites, so they invested in a softbox so bloggers could take perfectly lighted pictures of their dishes. When I told Krissy that I thought LudoBites was probably the most blogger-friendly space I’ve been to, she said, simply, “Well, why wouldn’t we? This is the way of food reviews now. We respect that.” The conversation turned to S. Irene Virbila (“Miss Irene”), the Los Angeles Times’ sometimes fickle food critic. “Miss Irene doesn’t matter. She doesn’t matter. What the bloggers write are more important,” Krissy said. [Update: Krissy later clarified to me that Jonathan Gold still matters. That should go without saying, but there it is.] Oh, snap. A snap motivated by a little anger over Miss Irene’s scathing review of her husband’s run at Bastide a few years ago? Yes and no, I think, because regardless of her motivation, she’s right, and her sentiment has been echoed by more than one snarky commentator on Eater LA.
Nonetheless, not that many restauranteurs would risk alienating a major food critic by stating essentially that their relevance has passed, so Krissy’s comment was pretty ballsy. And, I think, to a certain extent, pretty spot-on: S. Irene’s voice is not as loud in an era where bloggers have joined the choir. Indeed, Ruth Reichl stated as much during a speech to Columbia journalism students. So, will it be the likes of Kevin Eats (who also was present that night) and Sarah Gim who will be forced to don Ruth Reichl-like disguises in order to have unbiased reviews at restaurants?
Overall, then, a very interesting, uniquely disastrous nights at LudoBites, full of hits and misses, all handled with honesty and apology. I’m bummed about not getting a chance to have at that fois gras beignet, but, as Ludo said, c’est la vie. You can tell that there’s skill and excitement in the food, and I’d jump at the chance to try it again on a good night.
Photo credit for the above lovely food porn pics goes to Christina Kuo, who had a better camera than I did at the table.