Last week, I found myself playing host to two friends from Germany visiting L.A. for their first time. On their last night in town, they asked me to join them out at a few bars before their flight in the morning. I had to politely decline, of course, knowing full well that I had previously scheduled a reservation for Ludobites 7.0 at downtown’s Gram and Papa’s, a slot that had taken a fair amount of wrangling to a obtain. I explained to them with great gusto the importance of a Ludo Ledfvre dinner: a renowned chef creates a menu only available for a few weeks, served in a guest location, with seats that fill up faster than a Bundesliga finals match. It as a bit odd explaining a “pop-up” restaurant, much less one that was booked solid in less than a few seconds, to someone to whom the concept was completely foreign.
So, that brings up the obvious question. Why is so much importance placed on a single, near inaccessible meal? Is it simply assigned value because of economic scarcity, like with diamonds or Beanie Babies? The hell I knew. It was my first Ludobites, and given the meteoric rise in popularity chef Ludovic Lefebvre has seen after the debut of his reality show, Ludo Bites America, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was my last. I had read over the accounts previous dinners rapturously, and was eager for the answers to these questions as anyone else.
It soon becomes obvious that after seven iterations, LudoBites, though reliably sporadic in it’s cooking, has in all others ways been whittled down to a science. It’s all here: The spunky repurposed dining room in an offbeat section of town, the rooster themed street art decking the walls, the waiters who proudly announce their involvement previous services like they were tours in ‘Nam. Krissy Lefebvre, Ludo’s wife, serves as the unflappable host, giving off the developed poise of a magician’s assistant who has become quite comfortable with being sawn in half. I suppose it’s a little like being a studio aide for Jackson Pollack, or a roadie for Ozzy Osborne in the 80’s. The equipment remains the same, but little else. The finer details always end up at the whim of a madman (a phrase I use in the fondest sense).
But before you’ve time to think about it too much, you’ve popped open your first illicit bottle of pinot noir (there’s a wink-nod BYOB policy) and dishes have begun to hit the tables in burst of two and three. There is a caramelized onion flatbread, seemingly unremarkable until the taste of bottarga, a Sicilian delicacy of salted fish roe that rarely makes it out of the province without being hastily consumed, smacks the tongue with a burst of briny umami.
There is a bouillabaisse milkshake, served with pink straws poking out for each guest, which tasted like a suitably creamy diner shake that a prankster thought to spike with a half-bottle of clam juice. The next afternoon, when the summer sun was hot enough to liquefy asphalt, I found myself instantly craving that velvety drink once again (a cruel Pavlovian trick from a man who rarely keeps his dishes around for long).
There is a prawn and scallop ceviche: fat cubes of white seafood, doused in Peruvian yellow chile and red berry nectar. The stinging heat comes first, giving a slight tingle to the lips, but it is slowly enveloped by the ripe sweetness of the fruit, leaving a lingering taste of each sensation.
“How does how he come up with this?” you wonder, “Was he alternating shots of Sriracha and fruit punch?”
Still, the dinner presses on, the dishes becoming more complex, if not slightly more convoluted.
Pungent Jamaican chicken wings that come with a pair of latex gloves to protect the fingers. A bizarre painting made from squid, chorizo aioli, and crunchy bits of jet-black ash that is easily the most beautifully presented of the night. A decadent bowl of soft scrambled egg, sea urchin, and caviar that makes anything Petrossian puts out look downright plebian. Wobbly tentacles of tandoori octopus that cut like a perfectly cook steak and come paired with tangy dollops of yogurt. Ludo manages to recreate the sensation of the high-powered Indian oven surprisingly well. I would assume he doesn’t have an upturned jet engine fired up in the back of Gram and Papa’s kitchen, but then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
There are some slight misses of course: the compressed pig heads sandwich tasted like barbecued head cheese, a idea that I hope becomes replicated soon by an enterprising pit master, but all subtlety was unfortunately obliterated by the heavy doses of vinegar in the North Carolina-influenced barbeque geleé. The foie gras dim sum in truffle cream sauce sounds tantalizingly buttery, but ends up tasting like, as one of my dining companions put it, the lean cuisine of Ludobites. Of course, most chefs spent entire years perfecting dishes; this man has whipped these up in a matter of months, if not weeks. Imperfections are the only way to be sure that Ludo has not actually sold his soul to the toquéd devil.
Indeed, the man juggles enough ideas in his head that its safe assume that his pop-up format is the only way for him to remain artistically sane, much like Picasso adopting a new period every few years.
There is a juniper-tinged salt crusted pork shoulder, the same dish he cooked on the Today Show while chatting in French with David Gregory. Here, it came with a Guinness sabayon and an Imaginary Chourchoutre (the latter which could be affectionately dubbed “sauerkraut slime”). There was an epissosé risotto, made from a runny, stinky cheese that most would find off putting until it’s transformed it into one of the most savory mac n’ cheese renditions in existence.
Ludo’s cooking drops allusions to the old-school French masters with the frequency that Jay-Z and Kanye drop fashion designers. It is his fanaticism for global flavors, though, that makes his work all the more astounding, and the reason his dinners are, and will continue to be, crammed to the last seat. He is constantly hungry for new inspiration and his repertoire of tastes seems to grow at an exponential rate, a trait that should be terrifying to any potential imitators.
As a diner all you can do is marvel at the imagination he pours into each dish, knowing full well that in few weeks it’s on to the next one. For a man that has his own reality show, the results end up feeling pretty surreal.
Gram & Papa’s
227 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015