View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “Ludobites” slideshow.
Gram & Papa’s is thrumming on a chilly Tuesday night, its narrow kitchen crammed elbow to elbow, its few tables filled with musicians, museum directors, film people and bloggers, who tweet the arrival of each course as if it were the president of France. Clouds of Brie chantilly appear, cheese whipped to approximate the texture of Viennese schlag; racks of spring lamb sprinkled with shavings of Japanese bonito; lengths of baguette served with lavender butter and whipped bacon fat; and poached white asparagus served with fat disco rails of dehydrated foie gras powder. There are paper-thin ribbons of the multicolored carrots from Weiser Family Farms arranged into a salad; a cheese soup that replicates the flavors of a liquid ham-and-cheese sandwich; and the famous croque monsieur, substituting jet-black squid-ink bread for the brioche and sautéed foie gras for the ham.
A pleasant, organic-leaning lunch counter by day, the restaurant became LudoBites for a few weeks this spring, and every available reservation for the run was snapped up almost immediately after it was announced on LudoBites’ Twitter feed. If LudoBites were a concert, it would be a secret White Stripes show at the Roxy, which even stout industry connections couldn’t get you in to see.
To the followers of online media in Los Angeles, even just this column and the Weekly’s Squid Ink blog, LudoBites is a well-known brand name; an umbrella word for the broad swath that Ludovic Lefebvre is cutting through the L.A restaurant scene even though he hasn’t worked at a proper restaurant in years. The chef, a Burgundy-born veteran of some of the better restaurants in France and the head of the kitchens at Bastide and l’Orangerie here, was early on the phenomenon of pop-up restaurants, temporary fine-dining establishments shoehorned into lunch counters and art galleries for a few nights at a time, and the legend of his rosemary-scented fried chicken was strong enough to lure people into a four-hour line at a local street-food festival.
He has been the designated villain on a couple of seasons of Top Chef Masters, the irascible French guy whose accent was thick enough to mandate subtitles. His logo, a black coq waving a kitchen knife, is recognizable from a hundred yards. He and his wife, Kristine, Twitter addicts both, are the Ricky and Lucy of French cooking, and thousands of people follow his forays into the Eastside for homemade mole and to the southside for chicken and dumplings.
If the terms “degustation,’’ “sous vide’’ and “maxed-out platinum card’’ are familiar to you, I suspect you are aware of the crisis of haute cuisine at the moment: the number of chefs required to pull off a reasonable semblance of the best cooking in Paris and Lyon, the huge capital investment in infrastructure and napery, and the relative timidity of palates facing restaurant checks bigger than their mortgages. If you want to make more money, you have to open more restaurants — I would wager that neither Wolfgang Puck nor Joachim Splichal could even remember the name of every restaurant they run, much less the provenance of the turnips. The most interesting chefs enjoy cooking for their peers, who can rarely afford to eat at their restaurants, and to loathe the compromises investors tend to impose.
This is why you’re seeing culinary-school graduates behind the wheels of food trucks, running high-quality sandwich counters and developing really delicious chocolate. This may be why Ludo, who hit the wall while developing the menu for a Las Vegas restaurant that turned out to feature half-naked dancers wrestling in bathtubs, prefers bohemian poverty to indentured corporate life: more time to surf.
LudoBites, even LudoBites 4.0, which winds up its run at May’s end, feels revolutionary, new. And it’s not just because of the lunch counter, or the proximity of the chef. If it were, then a sushi bar might feel like LudoBites, or a market tapas bar like Bar Pintxo in Barcelona, or a high-end counter restaurant like Ko in Manhattan or l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. At these venues, although you are sitting within reach of the areas where the chefs themselves make — and hand you — perfectly sculpted course after perfectly sculpted course, you are still passive participants in the ritual of cuisine.
I have always tended to be what music geeks call a First-Album Guy, someone who prefers the struggles and rough thrashings of early inspiration to the polished music on albums yet to come, and my feeling is that it is we, the first-album guys, who LudoBites is destined to please. Wouldn’t you rather have seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers thrash through an early set at a club like Eddie’s, not far from where Gram & Papa’s sits now, than witness a technically superior show from the luxury suites at Staples Center? Don’t you wish you had the chance to hear No Doubt stumble through a ska set at an Orange County punk-rock picnic? Is it cool to nibble on a somewhat overfirm Santa Barbara spot prawn from the improvised kitchen of a genius, grazing through the deconstructed cocktail sauce and perhaps inhaling a gram of powdered mango deep into your lungs as if it were a gram of terrorist anthrax spores? I could be wrong — the dish definitely needs an edit — but I think it just may be.
That being said, the idea of progress has to be involved — plenty of lousy bands also play rough early shows. The squid carbonara, Lefebvre’s take on Nobu Matsuhisa’s take on the classic izakaya dish, has been improving every week: Its “noodles,’’ cut from lightly boiled calamari, are glazed with a light Parmesan-pancetta emulsion, and arranged into a nest with a poached egg at its core — with your first bite, the barely thickened yolk leaks out and forms a luxurious sauce. And the appeal of LudoBites lies with the idea of its perfectibility — that the blood-sausage mousse really will become lighter and a bit more sharply seasoned, that its apple purée will show greater perfume of the fruit and that the artificial wasabi will eventually be replaced with a dab of the infinitely better real stuff.
Here, you are part of the creative process, or at least it feels that way. LudoBites is a rough sketch on its way to becoming a restaurant, the edges not quite sanded, the execution still a little awkward, the exquisite touches not quite in place. Anybody who has ever worked as an editor knows well this sensation — it is the excitement of encountering a wonderful yet imperfect manuscript that requires a little help before it blossoms into greatness.
When you are handed a bowl of something like Lefebvre’s choux farci, a French home-cooking staple given a twist by the foie gras the poached cabbage leaves encase instead of the usual bready dumplings, nudged toward Los Angeles by a hint of kimchi in the consommé, you are perhaps willing to forgive the slight overcooking, the imperfect clarification of the consommé, and the childlike dice of crunchy watermelon radish tossed in as a garnish. The impression is less a dish than notes toward a dish, and you feel privileged to have been present at its creation.
If LudoBites ever becomes a proper restaurant, with wine service, a fixed menu and reservations available through OpenTable, the stuffed cabbage could well become one of its famous dishes, Food & Wine will laud the inspiration, and the issues of broth clarity and poaching time will have been fixed. The spontaneity of the moment will have been lost.