View more photos in the Ludo Bites slideshow.
Picture a slice of Spanish chorizo, then imagine that flavor transferred intact to a cool, cream soup — animal funk, smoked paprika and all. In the bowl, arranged like building blocks, are cubes of juicy, ripe melon at the height of its summer muskiness. Toward the edge of the bowl, splinters of tart ice break the surface — ice that expresses the essence of cornichons and pickled onions, with a texture as jagged as its taste. You are sitting on the sidewalk at Ludo Bites at Breadbar, nothing but a potted plant separating you from the flow of ambulances rushing to the trauma ward at nearby Cedars-Sinai, but your mouth might as well be a thousand miles away.
This is an era of chiefly cured meats, planks of unvarnished wood heaped with chef-made lardo and Friulian speck, parslied terrines and smooth rounds of foie gras mousse, but this dish is something new — a charcuterie plate expressed as soup, a catalog of sensations compressed and attenuated but somehow reconstituting itself with gunshot intensity in every bite. Even if you had never heard of Ludovic Lefebvre, even if his pop-up restaurant Ludo Bites has no more meaning to you than untranslated Sanskrit scrolls, that soup alone is enough to establish his command.
A lot of the food-world interest in L.A. this year has been focused on what Parisian culinary theorist Hervé This calls molecular gastronomy, the application of industrial- food science to refined restaurant cuisine. At Providence, Michael Cimarusti and his pastry chef Adrian Vasquez occasionally present cocktails in solid form, cinnamon “pearls,” or sauces thickened with a smidge of gelling agent instead of a quart of cream. The Bazaar, the molecular-cuisine fun house in the SLS Hotel, has been pumping out José Andrés’ popular takes on Ferran Adrià’s famous gels, infusions and foams. Half the chefs in town are using sous vide, a process for cooking foods for long periods of time at extremely low temperatures, and the people at dinner parties who used to talk about sustainable sunchokes and Genoese pasta stampers are now talking about sodium algamates and Pacojets instead.
The first chef in Los Angeles to embrace molecular gastronomy was Ludovic Lefebvre, who learned his trade in the kitchens of French new-cuisine heroes Marc Meneau, Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire, before he was lured to Los Angeles to run the kitchen at the late l’Orangerie. During his short but memorable term at Bastide, he served snowballs of frozen Iberico ham fat served with raw egg yolks; risotto sprinkled with freeze-dried coffee;, and langoustines finished with a spritz of Nehi orange soda. It was a virtuoso effort, and it is interesting to imagine the direction L.A. cooking might have taken if Lefebvre had been embraced the way Grant Achatz was in Chicago or in New York.
Lefebvre himself soured on molecular gastronomy. The first Ludo Bites, a brilliant temporary restaurant he operated for a while in Breadbar near the Beverly Center, was more of a reinvented tapas bar, and then he disappeared for a while to open a restaurant in Las Vegas whose appeal lay more in the floorshow of half-naked women making out in bathtubs than it did in his cuisine. And back in L.A., running the current Ludo Bites at Breadbar as the culinary equivalent of a Comme des Garçons pop-up boutique, practically alone in the kitchen instead of commanding a massive brigade, there isn’t a hydrocolloid or a tank of liquid nitrogen in sight.
So Lefebvre may no longer be a molecular gastronaut. And whatever his gift, his cooking is clearly not aimed toward mass appeal — a disastrous encounter with pig’s ears on Top Chef Masters déemonstrated that. But his cuisine is thoroughly modern: precisely set eggs poached at 65 degrees centigrade, served on a layer of the mushroom marmalade called duxelles; or barely gelled prawns painted with a rosemary-scented vinegar emulsion; or foie gras terrine served on a crisp, maple-infused pastry, with a pungent, bittersweet paste made of, I think, puréed Meyer lemon peel. There is a version of the gooey Auvergne classic aligot, except that the Cantal is melted into polenta instead of puréed potatoes, and at the bottom of the little crock is a spoonful of soft meat taken from a braised oxtail, whose plainness actually accentuates the nutty sharpness of the cheese.
Sliced heirloom tomatoes are garnished with an ice cream scoopful of airy feta mousse. The plate holding fresh cod with spiced butter is decorated with green almonds and a Nike swoosh of what appears to be the puréed tuna sauce that usually accompanies Italian vitello tonnato. And if you are fortunate, you will run across Lefebvre’s fried sweetbread impaled on a splintery licorice twig, fragrance saturating the entire delicate gland — a take on a specialty of Alain Passard at the Parisian three-star restaurant L’Arpège, although Lefebvre subtly inflects the direction of the dish toward Alsace, with a bit of Passard’s famous mustard ice cream and a transparent lozenge of jellied sauerkraut juice, here renamed “invisible choucroute.”
If you ate at the last edition of Ludo Bites, you more or less know the drill. You call in advance to reserve a table, because there are only 30 or so seats and space is tight. You have to bring your own wine, and you should probably plan on both a white and a red, because the New Zealand sauvignon blanc isn’t going to cut it with the hanger steak with charcoal oil. You steel yourself for a couple of hours on a hard stool or in a metal chair — like a culinary hermit crab, Ludo Bites occupies the shell of a bakery — and you realize that earnest service and diner-level tableware are part of the package. You will pay perhaps a third of what you may have paid for comparable food at Bastide.
Lefebvre and his wife, Kristine, could be the spokespeople for cuisine in the current economy, a stunningly handsome couple with dozens of reality-show appearances between them, a testament to the beauty that can be found in a world of reduced means.
LUDO BITES, at Breadbar, 8718 W. 3rd St., L.A. (310) 205-0124m www.ludobites.com. AE, MC, V. BYOB. Street parking. Limited run, until late August, Tues.-Sat. evenings only.