Imagine an unsweetened bowl of oatmeal, tinted leprechaun green with puréed parsley, flavored with garlic, swimming with the black, elongated, frankly unattractive bodies of fried escargot. The slippery texture of the oatmeal mimics what we imagine exudes from the snails: the earthy taste of the snails rhymes with what has been tamed out of the cereal and subsumed by a strong, bitter lashing of licorice, perhaps from a few drops of the liquor pastis. Or picture a supple, pale cylinder tiny as a child’s thumb, herbed raw beef hand-chopped with bits of water chestnut and folded into a slip of moistened rice paper, like a reinterpreted Vietnamese summer roll.
Los Angeles has a long tradition of traveling chefs pinning down nights like DJs, from Nancy Silverton’s antipasto nights at La Terza to Laurent Quenioux’s evenings at Vermont, Fred Eric and Octavio Becerra’s dinners at the old Flaming Colossus to Michel Richard’s residencies pre-Citrus. It’s all the fun of running a restaurant, without all of the responsibility. But Ludovic Lefebvre’s Ludo Bites at Breadbar seems as much like a revolution as it does like a party, a hardcore democratization of cuisine.
The first time I stopped by, Ludo Bites was more or less a wine bar without the wine, its patio tables filled with regulars, its menu dominated by ripe cheeses and their lovingly crafted condiments, a few vegetable dishes, and the same high-end cured meats you can find at places like Cube and Porta Via. The guys from the Beverly Hills Cheese Shop seemed as vital to the operation as the chef — Norbert Wabnig, the cheese-shop owner, presides over the counter like a sushi chef — and the waitresses, as well as Breadbar co-owner Ali Chalabi, make a big deal of the basket of Breadbar bread and the imported Echire butter. (Eric Kayser, the baker behind Breadbar, is one of the best in France. His naturally leavened baguettes are almost worth the airfare to Paris and the interminable lines outside the Rue de Bac flagship, although Breadbar’s loaves aren’t quite up to that level.) The roster of favorite suppliers on the back of the menu includes local heroes like Weiser Farms and Peacock Farms as well as Four Story Hill and Petrossian.
But Lefebvre’s résumé includes some of the best restaurants in both France and Los Angeles — he was the chef most recently at L’Orangerie and Bastide — and I suspect his ambition was too great to let him remain a tapas chef for long. Even with a team of two instead of 20 and a tiny coffee-bar counter instead of the vast Bastide kitchen, he’s let his cooking creep in the direction of grand tasting-menu cuisine, elegantly plated, laced with caviar and truffles and foie gras when appropriate, priced nearly as gently as the gastropub down the block.
It is occasionally easy to figure out what Lefebvre is up to: miso soup with bits of foie gras in the place of tofu, spicy guacamole made with mashed, long-cooked broccoli instead of avocado, sliced heirloom tomatoes dressed like a Greek salad and garnished with an ice-cream scoopful of airy feta mousse. There is tradition behind spiking deep-chocolate mousse with hot chiles — surely, an Aztec would have enjoyed it — and behind his habit of glazing bouncy potato gnocchi with a Gorgonzola velouté. You may never have had mimolette with honeycomb or the Loire chèvre called Le Cornilly with what tastes like homemade Nutella, but the logic is there.
Still, Lefebvre’s culinary references can be dizzying. Some nights, there is a luxurious serrano-ham croque monsieur, the bread tar-black with squid ink, nudged toward impossible richness by a slice of foie gras nestled in with the cheese — a version of this sandwich is one of the signatures of Lefebvre’s French mentor, Pierre Gagnaire. A cool bowl of beet soup looks like borscht, but the flavor is unmistakably that of Spanish gazpacho, and the dab of sour cream turns out to be a spoonful of whipped goat cheese. A bowl of udon noodles, cooked softer than any Japanese chef would dare, is seasoned with the French-style Sri Lankan curry blend called vadouvan, but with its citrus-peel tang and burnt-onion sweetness, it tasted more like a bowl of the thick Iranian soup asht than like anything else, a four-culture carom shot that somehow seemed absolutely right.
It is perhaps unfair to write about Ludo Bites. It is already harder to get into than the UCLA film school — there are only 180 seats a week, for which you are competing with regulars — and the experiment is scheduled to end December 21. (A longer run, with more nights, may kick in after the first of the year, but then again, it may not.) The quality of some of the food may approach that of a starred Parisian restaurant, but Breadbar is still a bakery: You will sit on backless stools or wobbly patio chairs, you will get to know your neighbors rather intimately, and you will decant the Vosne-Romanée you brought from home into juice glasses. The waitresses are charming, but they probably don’t know any more about the provenance of the goat cheese than you do. But still — this has the feeling of a transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene, like Joachim Splichal’s few months at the Regency Club back in the 1980s or the first months of John Sedlar’s experiments with Southwestern flavors at the old St. Estephe, and it is probably something you want to see for yourself.
If you want to experience vanilla panna cotta with caviar, and you really should taste the combination at least once, Ludo Bites is the only choice you have.
Ludo Bites at Breadbar, 8718 W. Third St., L.A., (310) 205-0124. Ludo Bites open Tues.–Fri. 6–10 p.m. BYOB; free corkage. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Small dishes $7–$11; larger plates $15–$26.