Tuesday, February 21, 2012

LudoBites 8.0

It may seem counter to my bloggerly being, but until this latest round, I'd never attended LudoBites.  Something about all the frenzy that surrounds it makes me want to run in the other direction.   Between the phone-in hoops you have to jump through to get a reservation, and the gaggle of female bloggers who, under the 'Ludobitches' moniker, have branded themselves as groupies of happily married chef Ludo Lefebvre, it all just sounded like a scene I'd rather not deal with.   It's like my reaction to Downton Abbey -- when everyone is freaking out about something, I decide I'm too cool.  But then, one night in late January, a friend's plus-one bailed and I was invited to sit in.  And I couldn't deny my giddiness.  I got in to LudoBites!  With zero effort!  And as will no doubt be the case when I finally break down and watch Downton Abbey, I totally ate my words and thought it was amazing.

LudoBites is a really fun concept: at his whim, Chef Lefebvre takes over the kitchen at some restaurant for a very limited time, and creates a full menu of shareable items, all with his signature mix of the best ingredients combined in unexpected ways.  When I got there, the air seemed charged with the collective excitement of all the diners who made it into the fleeting pop-up.  The T-shirt-clad waitstaff provided excellent service, and affordable carafes of tasty house wine (in addition to a list of wines and beers) made you feel that, despite the high caliber of the food being served, this wasn't an ostentatious meal.  Our group of six ordered everything on the menu, and were treated to a string of strange and wonderful tastes and textures.
The meal started off with pure indulgence: chicken tandoori crackling, followed by brioche with yuzu seaweed butter.  The former, the creamiest chicken liver mousse dolloped on a square of crisp chicken skin.  Salty, fatty, mineraly goodness; tastebuds piqued, big-time.  The latter, a fluffy, buttery brick of brioche so comforting that a child would swoon over it, but spread generously with a decidedly grown-up compound butter with the bright Asian notes of yuzu and salty seaweed.  I seriously spent the rest of the meal contemplating getting an order (or nine) of the brioche to go.

One of the most elegant dishes of the night was simply called 'Scallop, Leek, Potato, Black truffles' (first photo), a combination of soft, mellow flavors, punctuated with dots of an herb sauce and pops of briny roe.  One of the most challenging was Uni Crème Brûlée, a bizarre combination of sea urchin, sweet custard, a hint of coffee, and salty salmon roe.  Once you got past the initial shock of completely uncharted culinary territory, it was actually quite delicious.

Raw beef has surely never looked as beautiful as it did in a dish of Raw Beef, Radish, Beets, Eel.  Thin slices of radish and tart green apple, and a blood-red beet puree offset the richness of the meat. 

Opulence came in the form of soup.  Based on its looks, I expected the dish of Foie Gras, Tamarin, Turnips, Daikon to be a ramen-like broth, characterized by fattiness and salt.  So, I was totally shaken by the first spoonful, with its intense tamarind sourness.  I was also taken aback by the amount of foie gras in the dish: I don't know, it was just...a lot.  Not my favorite, but others at the table loved it. 

OK, that's enough.  I realized when I wrote two epic posts on the Istanbul Eats walking tour that I don't particularly like writing posts that are endless lists of every bite.  I get bored, so I suspect you guys do, too (correct me if I'm wrong?).  Sure, there were more outstanding dishes --  an excellent red wine braised duck, perfectly cooked John Dory, and a kooky take on lemon meringue pie that tasted as delicious as it looked whimsical were just a few.  So, I offer you a link to the rest of the photos from the night, artfully shot by my date, Erin Ramos.  And instead of the itemized list, I leave you with this.

The best part of the night for me (aside from the part where in my head I decide that Chef Ludo himself designed the night's awesome 90s-hip-hop playlist) was my vantage point.  Overall, I wasn't thrilled with the space:  Lemon Moon is a cafeteria in an office complex, and the ambiance of its bright, spacious dining room just didn't match the excitement of the night.  But it has an open kitchen, and from my seat, I could watch as one chef prepped plate after plate, using an empty glass display case as his work station.  He was meticulous about every detail, and I watched as Chef Ludo peered intently over his shoulder, hanging on every drop of sauce, making sure each dish was just perfect.  In that moment, all the LudoBites fanfare made sense: every item I was served was at the highest level.  Chef Ludo and his team took great pains to achieve harmony from a wild array of complex flavors, to make every plate beautiful.  A world of mindful effort is behind every bite.  He's pulling out all the stops, putting all he has out there.  In that moment, I totally got the LudoBitches.  There is most definitely something hot about a man who works so hard to ensure that I, that all of us there, feel taken care of (and seriously, the French accent doesn't hurt, either).  This meal made me feel taken care of -- how can I dare act too cool for that?

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LudoBites' last night is tomorrow night!  Get there!

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