Ludo Bites at Royal/T: A Different Perspective

This is not a restaurant review.  It’s not even close.

In fact, if I were a restaurant critic being paid to write a review, what I’m about to write would most likely get me fired. The fact of the matter is, I think that critiquing restaurants is something best left to professionals.

Last weekend, Katrina and I finally had our opportunity to taste the newly designed entrees Chef Ludo Lefebvre offered at his third pop-up installation – this time at Royal/T in Culver City. His stint at Royal/T now behind him, Ludo is likely enjoying a hard-earned holiday away from the frantic pace that he held for three straight weeks.

Where Ludo’s previous venue Bread Bar was just a restaurant, Royal/T is actually a restaurant inside of an art gallery, so you can enjoy your meal surrounded by modern art – paintings, sculptures, mixed media, photography. I found this appropriate, given Chef Ludo’s style.  And rather than  give a review of the food and the meal, I’d like to simply share my experience and perhaps give my thoughts on Ludo’s culinary vision.

I’m not a critic. I’m just a guy with a blog. I know my way around the kitchen, and can prepare some very good meals myself. But I’m not a chef. And I’m amazed to find that many restaurant critics on the web not only don’t cook on a regular basis – some have not cooked a single meal in their lives. Spending most every evening eating at various restaurants does not make you qualified to be a culinary analyst. It makes you an eater – nothing more. Some education is in order, and perhaps that education starts in the kitchen.

This doesn’t just start or stop at restaurants. It affects every type of business that provides a service. The question is how did we get to this point? The answer is very simple; We’ve become a nation of critics. Think about it: American Idol, Top Chef, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance – those are only a handful of shows on television that attract millions of Americans every night to watch people with actual talent putting it all on the line to be judged on television. And as such, we have become part of that process.  We’ve become so fixated on this that it’s seeping its way into almost every aspect of our lives.

The reviews of Ludo’s recent pop-up by food bloggers all over Southern California have been mostly positive, and it’s been reviewed more times than I care to count. Ludo’s web site has links to a lot of them, if you’re interested in reading what others who have experienced Ludo’s food have to say.

Given my unqualified opinion to rate restaurants, and my disinterest in doing so, I’d like to instead tell you what it was like to taste Ludo’s food, imagine his vision, and appreciate the strokes of a modern-day culinary artist. It seemed so appropriate to me that we were eating this food in the middle of an art gallery. Ludo is an artist himself. His paintings adorn the walls of the gallery, just as they did the walls of The Bread Bar, where his previous pop-up occurred.

I didn’t take pictures of the food, as so many food bloggers have already. There isn’t a picture I would have taken that hasn’t already appeared somewhere. If you’d like to see what the dishes looked like, feel free to read any of the many reviews available online. The pictures are all well-lit, thanks to a special staging area set up for food bloggers by Ludo’s wife Krissy – complete with a soft box and studio lighting.  It wasn’t that I was being lazy or disinterested.  I treated this visit to Ludo Bites as I would an art exhibit. I wouldn’t shoot pictures there either.

Ludo is an artist.  Yes he’s a chef but, most importantly to me, he’s an artist.  And in my perspective, his food is his art. When you visit Ludo, it’s not like sitting down for a meal of nourishment. Sure, you get that too. But it’s more sustenance for your soul, for your mind, for your inner child. His food is playful, fun, inspiring. No plate of Ludo’s food is laid in front of you without some kind of message behind it. Everything on the plate has a purpose. Nothing happens by accident.

Ludo loves playing with ingredients and processes. He doesn’t make mint chocolate chip ice cream. He makes ice cream tasting of sushi rice, mustard, or ginger. He doesn’t just serve fois gras. He serves it stuffed into a beignet with a puree of apricots.

The last time I had fois gras from Ludo, it was in a terrine – served in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich, except that the bread was infused with squid ink.  He takes a different approach to food. It’s an approach many find off-putting. And while I hate hearing the words “You just don’t get it,” perhaps some people just don’t.

A description of one of Ludo’s entrees may elicit the words “What the hell is he thinking?”  But once you’ve eaten that dish, you may very well say “What the hell was I thinking?” As is the case with many of the dishes Ludo presents you with, everything comes into view once you savor that first bite. In the beginning, I was challenged by Ludo’s food. I now find it inspiring.  He inspires me with his food and provides the one thing that is hard to come by these days, especially in restaurants – perspective.

Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed last Sunday from Chef Ludo:

  • Tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream, soy sauce gelee, and smoked ginger
  • Celery Root Soup with Black Truffles and Parmesan
  • Egg Meurette with Red Cabbage and Lardo
  • Fois Gras Beignet with Saffron and dried apricots
  • Fried Chicken with Polenta, grilled baby corn, and mole
  • Pork Belly Confit
  • Chocolate Mousse with Jalapeno

If Ludo’s ahi sashimi with sushi rice ice cream and soy sauce gellee was Mount Kilimanjaro, his fried chicken was Everest. It was a master stroke of technique and planning. The chicken was completely deboned and brined for 48 hours, before being deep fried to a crispy outer layer that would make Colonel Sanders throw in the towel. And where you might expect fried chicken and gravy, you’re served creamy polenta and a mole that had enough spice to lift you right out of your pants.

It’s fun not knowing what to expect.  It’s absolute magic when you watch everyone at the table grinning while they chew.  This is the beauty of Ludo’s brush strokes.

At one point in the evening, I said to Katrina “With his mastery of technique and playful ingredients, I would love to taste a classic dish like Cassoulet or Coq au Vin from Ludo.” She turned to me and said “Do you think he may be beyond that?”  I thought about it, and yes I do. That’s certainly not to say that I think Ludo feels above the French classics – he’s a classically trained French chef.  He’s simply taken his craft far beyond the standards. He can probably do those dishes as well, or better, than most French chefs. But he’s more interested in putting his own stamp on modern day cuisine. This would be like asking Eddie Van Halen to play “Louie Louie” or requesting that Stephen King write a romance novel.  Sure, they could probably do it – but why the hell would they?

When I read a critic pick apart one single dish of Ludo’s, or an element on the dish that didn’t work for them, it’s akin to reading someone write that a painting didn’t work for them because the artist used yellow in the sky instead of blue.  Or perhaps the brush strokes seemed too harsh for the composition of the piece.  Would these same people go to a gallery showing and write that one or two paintings ruined the whole experience for them?

Doubtful.  Even if they did, it would be criminal if you considered that these same critics had no formal art training. Put into the perspective of this article – Ludo the chef and Ludo the artist, it should be clear where I’m going with this.  If it didn’t work for someone, they simply didn’t see his vision.

No one ever took a shot at Ansel Adams by saying he needed to branch out by shooting more human interest photographs. The man shot pictures of mountains and rocks.  He did that, and he did that well.  And while Picasso was often criticized by drawing almost grotesque facial expressions, no one doubted the man’s mastery and importance to his craft.  I would certainly hope that people can see the similarities between artists like these, and an artist like Ludo.

Heston Blumenthal wrote in The Fat Duck Cookbook that, upon opening his restaurant, many of his customers complained about not getting the standard dishes they expected, about the food not being hot enough, or not cooked as they wished it had been. If you know much about Blumenthal and his restaurant The Fat Duck, he’s not much unlike Chef Ludo. His food is challenging, out there. Blumenthal is well aware of this. And he hoped that he’d gradually lose the people who would always be resistant to this style of cooking, and that there would be enough adventurous diners to make his place work.

Eventually, there were. And it did work. So much so, that The Fat Duck is consistently ranked the #2 restaurant in the world, having held the #1 spot in 2005.  And should the day come that Chef Ludo opens his own establishment, this same path is almost certain.

Ludo is not a conventional chef. He does not serve conventional dishes to his customers. Therefore, it would be short sighted to analyze his food in a conventional way. To do so would be missing the point entirely.

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episode 50 :: a new england christmas

I never understood why we always ate fish on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. In fact, I think I didn’t even realize the monotony of it until I was twelve.  Never questioned it either.  I just ate my yearly Christmas Eve tuna casserole with a humble side of STFU.

It turns out that it was an Italian tradition. And apparently Jesus was a vegetarian.  Who knew?

In an Italian or Sicilian house, you never eat meat on Christmas Eve out of respect for the birth of baby Jesus.  I didn’t get these important details until much later, as I spent the latter part of my life spending Christmas Eve feasting on an array of animal flesh — roasted chickens, steaks, and pork roasts.  No disrespect to the birthday boy intended, of course. Had I known, lobster and crab would have been on the menu for certain.

In this episode, Greg Cain from finelobster.com returns to the show to share some of the traditions of a New England Christmas, and answers all of the questions about lobster I didn’t get a chance to pester him with the last time we had him on.


Listen to episode 50 now

Looking for a last minute gift idea that will blow the roof off the place?  Why not treat someone you love to a live Maine lobster, delivered right to their door. And if you’re worried about freaking the family out by having a live sea creature delivered to their house in a box, there’s always frozen lobster tails, crab cakes, lobster bisque, or a gift card.  Of course, Greg has a holiday special offer that will certainly get you in the holiday spirit.  Listen to the show (or read below) to find out more.

In this episode:
• Tuna Casserole – a Christmas Eve tradition I never knew about until it was too late
• Fishing along the California coast may soon be a thing of the past
• Avery Brewing’s Sui Generis Barrel-aged Sour Ale (courtesy of Rick from Big Foamy Head)
• Anthony Bourdain’s new book “Medium Raw” hits bookstores June 8th
• Greg Cain from finelobster.com visits
• How to make your own lobster bisque
• Top Chef Quickfire Challenge Cookbook review
• A year-end send off: Clip collage from My Life as a Foodie 2009

Music in this episode by Nickelback.  Buy the song in the iTunes store. Additional music by Michael Giacchino.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY OFFER:
Orders from finelobster.com totaling $100 or more qualify for FREE 2-day shipping.  Order $125 or more and they’ll throw in two FREE lobster tails!  Who the hell is going to say NO to that?  Enter the coupon code FREELOBSTER at checkout and enjoy a nice lobster feast courtesy of Fine Lobster.

Happy Holidays!  See you in 2010 – harder and stronger.  Be safe out there, kids.

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episode 49 :: the mighty duck

I had my first taste of duck when I was 14.  A friends father had returned from a successful hunting trip just a week before and they were hosting a big duck feast with family and friends.  I think it was baked – I can’t remember.  I only recall that it was perhaps the juiciest piece of dark poultry flesh I’d ever eaten, and every single one of my mother’s theories about why we never ate it (it was too greasy, it was too gamy, etc.) were whisked away with that first bite.

In this episode, I’ll show you just how easy it is to make one of the most popular of all classic French Bistro entreés — duck confit. Courtesy of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, I’ll explain that with a simple handful of ingredients, a few duck legs, some patience, and basic cooking technique, you can prepare duck in the most tender way possible.  Because – and let’s face it – anytime you’re cooking and storing something buried in its own fat, there’s no way things can possibly go wrong.


Listen to episode 49 now

In this episode:
• Why was Tiger Woods forced to air out his dirty laundry to everyone?
• Dogfish Head Chicory Stout
• Dan Patrick proves why America’s general perception of beer (and food) is all wrong
• Rick Sellers’ well documented piece on the Northern California Duck Off
• Preparing Duck Confit
• Paula Deen gets hit in the face with a big salty hunk of karma
• Chef Ludo is back, and better than ever – all month long at Royal/T
• Top Chef Season 6 Pre-Finale Recap

Music in this episode from Saliva.  Buy the song in the iTunes Store.

Purchase Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook from Amazon.com – it’s the perfect holiday gift for your chef spouse.  Or hell, just get it for yourself.  You know you can’t live without it.

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