Ludo Lefebvre doesn't like the music. “What is up with this fucking music?” he mutters to his cooks in his thick French accent.
“I don't know; didn't you pick it?” one of them ventures.
“I don't know, maybe, I don't know what it is. No. No. I can't stand this fucking music.”
Lefebvre is pacing, stalking up and down behind the kitchen line, which also serves as the counter at Trois Mec, which is also where you'll most likely sit if you are part of a party of two. The music, innocuous indie rock of some sort, would be barely noticeable if it weren't for the chef's displeasure.
Trois Mec is tiny — 24 seats in all — and two-tops sit at the counter, which looks directly into the kitchen. It affords you a view of everything that happens throughout service: the cooking, the plating, the chef's vexation with the soundtrack.
At first, this kitchen drama is captivating: the charismatic chef's brooding presence, at once charming and menacing; the barked orders and the “yes chef!” responses; the careful assemblage of plates of food.
But then, as those plates begin to arrive in front of you, your focus shifts. After a flurry of fun snacks (a tiny tart shell brimming with fresh herbs, a madeleine imbued with the warm sting of curry), a plate is set before you that requires all of your attention. A confited and deboned chicken wing lies under paper-thin slices of fresh white asparagus. Around it, a dashi-like, umami-intense broth is dotted with English peas. On the side of the bowl, a smear of perfect chicken liver mousse, sprinkled with brioche crumbs, is provided. You can add dabs to the dish, ramping up the richness of what is already an extraordinarily flavorful and imaginative bowl of food.
Trois Mec translates to “three dudes” — those three dudes being Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who just happen to be three of the biggest names in L.A.'s food scene. Shook and Dotolo, who also own and operate Animal and Son of a Gun, consult with Lefebvre on the food and other aspects of the restaurant. On nights when Lefebvre is unable to be at Trois Mec, one of the other two will run service, but this is mainly Ludo's show.
Lefebvre rose to fame in L.A. as the chef at L'Orangerie and then at Bastide, but he is thought to have really come into his own with his cult-status pop-up dinner series, LudoBites. Trois Mec is his first time back in the kitchen full-time since he opened Lavo in Las Vegas in 2009. In the meantime, he has cultivated an increasingly high profile, culminating in his run as a judge on The Taste alongside Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson.
Lefebvre's star has been burning brighter, his personal brand growing ever larger. So it's interesting to see him do something so small, so focused and so utterly personal.
There are a lot of rules broken at Trois Mec, things that would be risky for any other set of chefs. The reservation system is controversial enough to have gained international attention: Once a fortnight, at 8 a.m. on Friday, tickets go on sale online, and you'd better know at 8 a.m. exactly when you want to dine and with how many people, because if you pause to consider, most slots will be taken by 8:03. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner — $97 per person, which is inclusive of tax and tip but not alcohol save the Lillet aperitif presented upon arrival. Your ticket cannot be refunded or changed, though you may transfer it to another party.
The space is no easier to find than tickets are to procure. It's housed in what was once a cheap pizza joint in a strip mall behind a gas station on the corner of Melrose and Highland. There's no indication from the outside that this is anything but a pizza place — the original yellow sign proclaiming “Raffallo's Pizza & Italian Foods” still adorns the building, and you'd be forgiven for stumbling into the place looking for a slice — although you'd immediately be greeted by a chorus of “Bonjour!” from the staff, at which point you'd probably realize that this is no pizza joint. Far, far from it.
So what is it, exactly? A high-priced, fine-dining restaurant featuring only a single tasting menu? A casual hole in the wall with counter service, where the cooks serve as waiters and the preferred soundtrack is hip-hop? (Lefebvre's mood lifted dramatically once the indie rock gave way to Suprême NTM, a French hip-hop group from the '90s.) Or is it a dream restaurant, the natural culmination of a trend in which chefs present exactly the food they want, in the setting they've chosen, with no compromise given to the traditional trappings of restaurants? Yes, yes and yes, it is all of these.
Though it may be new to Los Angeles, the idea of a world-class chef cooking out of a small, nondescript space has become common in Paris over the last few years. “Bistronomie,” as it's known, takes the concept of haute cuisine and removes all of its bells and whistles. Of course, it only works if the food is as captivating as the space is plain, if the egoism of proclaiming, “I'll do it my way, screw the norms” is followed by a payoff on the plate.
I never ate at LudoBites, but from everything I've heard from those who did, and from looking at the pop-up's menus, it's clear that Trois Mec is quite different. Perhaps it's the involvement of Shook and Dotolo; perhaps it's simply an evolution. But this food, while still fanciful and full of mirth, is more elegant, with more classic French influence and technique. Slightly pared back, it's not as concerned with the whizbang factor.
In fact, one of the best dishes is a simple plate of potato pulp, ramped up with an ungodly amount of butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion. It is as ridiculously rich as it is ridiculously delicious.
Vegetables are presented as revered elements, worthy of being fussed over individually and put together on the plate in an exact dance of contrast and compliment. Carrots are barbecued, their sweetness cooled by creamy avocado and dollops of yogurt, then spiked with acid and perfume from wedges of blood orange. The whole dish gets a burst of vegetal freshness from a smattering of watercress.
Even with this simplicity, some things are stunning in their creativity. One dish was like a backwards cream puff, a pure white fantasy: whipped cream imbued with salted cod, garlic and thyme surrounded a layer of barely warm, fragrant sushi rice, topped with shaved radish. A lime-and-honey vinaigrette was barely perceptible. What was perceptible was that the dish hit the palate on every conceivable level: the comfort of the rice and cream, and the excitement of the cod and radish; the treble and the bass, the elegant waltz and the wild ride.
Dessert has barely changed since opening: Fresh strawberries come with almond ice cream, olive oil cake and an outrageously floral rose ice that clarifies all the other flavors. One night, the bowl also was home to a multitude of tiny elderflowers, and the act of eating great spoonfuls of the little flowers felt both childlike and dramatic.
This is not the overly precious cooking of the avant-garde. There are no sauce swooshes or pretentious platings or the sense that what you're consuming might be visual art rather than dinner.
This is food that has moved beyond those trappings into a realm where the pure pleasure of eating trumps all. It's enough to calm your frustration at the difficulty of getting a reservation and the nervy, unmarked location that's hidden in plain sight. And as much as I find the French hip-hop soundtrack charming, it's hard to care what music is playing. It's hard to pay attention to anything at all, really, apart from the exultant melody playing out in the space between your plate, your mouth and your heart.
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TROIS MEC | Four stars | 716 N. Highland Ave., Hancock Park | No printed phone number | troismec.com | Dinner: $78 + 18 percent service charge | Wine served | Limited lot parking