Friday, June 26, 2009

LudoBites: The Real Story

I nervously glance at myself in the mirror, wondering if I should wear something a little less bright. Maybe a pale blue dress? Or something white so I appear pure and good rather than dark and villainous?

I sigh, and settle on the bold print I’m already wearing. The dress really doesn’t matter, and I can’t be late tonight. Tonight is too important to be worrying about things like my wardrobe.

As I maneuver my car through the finally idling rush-hour traffic on West Third Street, I am awash with an almost overpowering sense of déjà vu. Has it really only been a six days since I dined at Ludo Bites? It seems impossible. But then again, the entire situation seems impossible.

First, my thoughtless review of LudoBites that I posted early Monday morning. Then my weak defense of said review on Monday night – a desperate claim that “Hey, it’s okay for me to pass a quick judgment on Chef Ludo’s labor of love – I’m just a storyteller!” And then, finally, my decision on Tuesday afternoon to delete everything and bear my Christian soul for the “whole world” of LA food bloggers to see.

The drama of the situation was foreign to me. I wasn’t used to that sort of thing – hurting people. Being hurt. People actually taking notice of what I, a neurotic 25-year-old from “the OC,” had to say. I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of “the Hills,” but without all the staging, hair extensions and trendy clothes.

It was wretched. My heart ached with remorse, and I couldn’t sleep Monday or Tuesday night as I ruminated over my disrespectful actions.

When I’d woken up that morning I’d expected for the day to progress in much the same manner. But then around mid-day, I received an e-mail from Will at Food Digger extending an invitation from Chef Ludo and his wife Kristine for me to join a dining event with fellow LA food bloggers. The eleven course meal would be followed by a special viewing of Ludo’s episode of “Top Chef Masters.”

I was in shock when I read his note earlier that day, and I’m still in shock when I pull up to a meter near Bread Bar at a quarter to 7 pm on Wednesday night.

“Is this really happening? Am I really here?” I wonder in disbelief. My hands quivering, I read and reread the restrictions on the sign in front of my car – a routine action that is unnecessarily difficult in my current state of mind.

“What if this is all a joke? What if they’ve changed their mind? What if Ludo starts yelling at me in French? I won’t know what he’s saying without subtitles!” I think, my head bursting with worst case scenarios.

“What if… what if… what if…” is my chant the entire stretch of sidewalk before the restaurant. It’s my chant as I walk through the painfully familiar glass door. And it’s my chant when I see Kristine, Krissy, across the room – busy making the final preparations for her husband’s special evening.

I arm my face with a smile and walk forward, pleading with God to give me strength to handle whatever might come my way that evening. A painful moment passes before Kristine spies me once again standing awkwardly in the middle of the open-air space of Breadbar. I long for something – anything (except Pink Yellowtail Champagne) to take the edge off, but then Kristine’s face warms.

She’s seen me. And I know that everything is going to be okay.

The evening takes off from there. Will arrives with wine and his Food Digger business partners, Brian and Marshall, and casual conversation begins flowing as glasses are filled with white wine.

“Do you want some?” Will asks me, extending a glass.

I hesitate, apprehensive about how it might appear once everyone else arrives. I’m already anxious about how they will respond when they see me there crashing their party. Even with Kristine and Ludo’s gracious reception, my peers may be less forgiving of my blogging faux pas and unexpected presence.

Finally, I nod. “Yes, I’d love some.” I respond, my voice surprisingly clear considering the emotional dishwasher that is tearing up my insides.

The other guests begin to filter in, and I discretely sip my wine as I meet Javier from Teenage Glutster, Kevin from KevinEats, Cathy from Gastronomy, Victor from Grubtrotters, Pam from Rants and Craves, Sook from Yutjangsah, Alli from Alli411, and Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas. Everyone is impossibly nice -- completely normal and seemingly nonplused by what has transpired in the past 60 hours. Even Danny of Kung Food Panda and Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, who I had met at the restaurant that past Thursday night, greet me with smiles. I’m floored by their graciousness, but as Will urges us to take our seats, I can’t help but feel the slightest nudge of pressure to have a completely different reaction to Ludo’s food. Everyone’s eyes are kind and disarming, but I know they are all secretly wondering exactly what I myself am wondering.

“Will I/she like it better this time?”

The first course is placed before us – a deconstructed Bloody Mary served in an oversized spoon. Cameras are unveiled, and my comrades light up the table with their flashes. I stare down at my square white plate and take a moment to give myself a pep talk.

“Remember, Diana, tonight is about keeping an open mind, stretching your palate beyond the familiar. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad – it just means you haven’t had an opportunity to experience it yet.” I tell myself. “Plus, different can be good – you’re really different.”

Satisfied, I take a deep breath, slowly lift the spoon to my mouth and slide the playful amuse-bouche onto my tongue.

The first thing I notice is the chill that embraces my mouth. A bolt of tomato and celery leave their identifiable mark, and then an unfamiliar gel-like texture makes a surprise entrance. A blast of heat finishes the experience, and I pause a moment, contemplating what it is that I just had in my mouth before looking up into Cathy’s eyes.

“I should hate it, but I don’t.” I say, a bit thrown. I turn toward Sook. “It’s good, right?” I ask her, desperate for her confirmation that I’m not crazy -- that my taste buds actually do function properly (even whilst drinking wine).

She smiles and nods, and I’m finally able to relax and enjoy the meal that Chef Ludo has prepared for us.

Up next is a tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream, shishimi togorashi and crispy onions. It takes a moment for me to orient myself. Tuna, good. Crispy onions, really good. But ice cream? On fish? I hesitate, before remembering what it is I’m here to do.

I don’t have to love every dish. It’s not about loving every dish. It’s about growing as a diner and experiencing something completely unique – something that I couldn’t get at my favorite Izakaya down the street.

The ice cream is still startling, but not in the displeasurable way I imagined. I finish my plate, marveling over the “trick” Ludo has played on my tongue.

His tricks continue with the chorizo, onion, cornichon soup – a cool emulsion that looks like cream of tomato to my eye, but is redolent with a distinct sausage flavor.

“How is not oily?” I ask Cathy and Sook, confused that the lush soup doesn’t leave a slick trail on my tongue.

They shake their heads, equally bewildered. I take another bite, attempting to figure out how the soup is so smooth – did he puree a piece of frozen sausage? It’s perplexing, and more importantly, thought-provoking. It is the most discussed dish of the evening.

We follow the soup with a cube of king red salmon with smoked vinegar, watermelon, and mint. Ludo instructs us to eat the salmon first in “one bite” and then to immediately eat the watermelon after. The light flavors are refreshing after the soup – it’s a nice intermission that is followed by my second taste of the shrimp with sweet and sour sauce, rosemary and lemon zest.

Our plates are cleared by the present servers and then Kristine approaches with our next course – the foie gras tart on a maple crust served with lemon paste, raw button mushrooms, and four spices.

“Diana’s favorite.” Kristine jokes as she sets the immaculate slice of tart in front of me.

I smile, but my palpitating heart betrays a different emotion. It’s only my third time trying foie gras, and my first two experiences the week before were admittedly a challenge for me. I snap my photos, taking time to capture my food nemesis from different angles before piercing the cold tart with my fork.

“Open mind, open mind, open mind.” I chant as I slide the first bite into my mouth. My French roommate had told me I might like foie gras better cold, but I am still not prepared for what comes next.

The sweetness of the maple crust juxtaposed against the rich foie gras is a mesmerizing combination that is even further punctuated by the burst of fresh lemon. I don’t just like it, I love it.

“I love this!” I tell Ludo with excitement when he passes by the table. He smiles – of course, I do.

“I loved it!” I tell Kristine when she comes by to take my empty plate.

I feel like the small children in the Pull-Ups commercials who declare to their mothers with pride, “I’m a big kid now!” I want to shout it from the roof tops – declare it to the world – call my mom and foodie brother.

DianaTakesaBite likes foie gras now!

The lush seared diver scallop served in a subtle sea of a port wine and crème fraiche emulsion is another of my favorite dishes of the evening. The sweet shallots and subtle kiss of orange zest pair well with the delicate sauce.

The halibut with spiced butter, fresh porcini mushrooms, tonnato sauce, and lettuce that follows is another incredibly thoughtful dish. I can scarcely believe that I had a less positive reaction to a similar preparation with cod the week prior. The execution tonight is flawless – the flavors come together in perfect collusion.

“I’m starting to get that nudge.” Will says to me, as we dig our way through the flaky white flesh of the fish.

It isn’t until he says it that I realize I am getting full as well. I’d been so caught up in the experience that I hadn’t even registered the food baby forming underneath the belt of my dress. Despite the “nudge,” I still clear my plate and do the same with the next – the duck with almonds, crispy skin puree, tapenade and turnips. I love the pairing of the sweet almond brittle with the perfectly pink duck breast beneath, but given my affinity toward things that do not contain olives (I like olives even less than raw meat), I am less enamored with the tapenade on the side.

Our final two courses – the cheese plate with five different types of cheeses and spreads, and the panna cotta with caviar and caramel sauce ends our culinary journey with refinement. The high quality cheeses are superbly paired with their accompaniments, and we easily demolish the two platters set before us. Food bloggers are not shy when it comes to securing their share of a feast – especially a feast like this one.

The panna cotta with caviar and caramel arrives at the table while we are still finishing the cheese course. We are in a hurry to finish so we can begin watching Ludo’s episode of “Top Chef Masters,” and before I can even think about the seemingly bizarre combination I am putting into my mouth, I am swooning over the dish that Kristine likens to “milk duds with popcorn.”

The brininess of the delicate caviar juxtaposed against the silky panna cotta and sweet caramel sauce is revelatory – a ménage a trios of flavors and textures that is impossibly right. It is simple in execution, yet still sends a bold statement.

This is who Ludo is. This is what Ludo does. He takes risks. He plays with unexpected pairings. And he challenges his patrons to think outside their safe, boring box of familiar flavors and familiar preparations.

I get it now, and I can’t wait to go back for more.

LudoBites at Breadbar
8718 W 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Reservations can be made here.


TonyC said...

I'm still absolutely saddened by the lost of the first post. As far as many of are concerned, your opinion from that evening still stands. cest la vie.

Diana said...

Tony - I'm sorry you feel that way because this is probably the most honest, heart-felt review I've written on my blog.

FoodDigger said...

Hey Diana, although I can understand Tony's perspective, I'm still glad that you were able to grow as a blogger. I was honored that you were able to join us that evening. Good food, good company and good doesn't get any better than that. It was a pleasure dining with you. I'll talk food with you any time.

Jenn said...

Sounds you you had an enjoyable time. Thanks for that heart-felt review of you dining experience. It actually makes me want to go there even more now. I'm not as affected by reviews as some people may be. As long as there's food around, I'm there. ;-)

Gastronomer said...

That was really perfect. I'm sure it was a tough review to write, but you rocked the party.

And speaking of the party... Wednesday night was SO fun. Wish we could do it every week.

Will, are you reading? Hint. HINT.

Wesley said...

Great review. I feel the same way about the foie gras tart...YUM. You're in a picture (wearing your bold print dress) watching TV with Ludo on my blog post.


Elra said...

Wow, the caviars win me over. I can imagine the explosion of flavor in your mouth all together, yum!

Kirby! said...

Wow... great review. I am jealous times a thousand.

Steve said...

I'm not sure how any reader can trust the credibility of your opinions in light of your self-censorship and summary dismissal of your initial views, which were not harsh or uninformed at any rate.

Now Ludo may simply have had an off night when we were there; all restaurants have them. So post both reviews; you can always change an opinion. But your act of self-censorship, cloaked in some extraneous notion of religious forgiveness, is enough to alienate this reader.

yutjangsah said...

Diana, it was nice meeting you. I had no idea you were nervous at dinner. I think we may be a flavormatch in fooddigger parlance. Cheers.

Futile Sniffer said...

You've been Ludo-bitten!

Which of the many Ludo dishes that you have tried is your favorite?

That scallop looks and sounds amazing! :)

kevinEats said...

It was great to finally meet you Diana.

During dinner, I must say that I had no idea of the hubbub surrounding your prior experience at Ludo Bites. Perhaps that was a good thing?

I did go back and read a cached version of your previous post however. I didn't find it overly malicious, and would've liked to have seen it remain on this site.

Diana said...

Will – It was honor to BE there. Thank you so much for including me. Hopefully we can share another meal soon!

Jenn – Definitely check Ludo out before Ludo Bites ends in August. And get the chicken fried in duck fat! That will leave you smiling for a while! ☺

Cathy – Thank you so much! It was fun – we definitely have to get together again soon. Gotta align our tastes!

Wesley – I saw! I felt very special to be right there in front. Really nice pictures!

Elra – It was really incredible. I can’t wait to have it again.

Sook – So nice to meet you too! I’m glad I’m a flavor match with someone!!

Meg – I think my favorites are the chicken fried in duck fat, the scallop, the foie gras tart, the panna cotta with cavier and caramel, the oxtail with polenta, and the halibut dish. Hah, okay that is too long of an answer for the what’s your favorite, so maybe the first three I listed?

Kevin – It was great putting a face with the KevinEats name! I’ve been a follower for a while. I do understand why many people wish I’d put the other review back up, but ultimately, I feel that it isn’t an accurate depiction of the Ludo Bites experience, and thus isn’t really relevant any more. It reads false to me now, so I wouldn’t feel right putting it back up. Especially since it was so hurtful to Ludo and Krissy.

The Duo Dishes said...

Looks like you took up the offer to dine there again. There are definitely a lot of combinations there that would strike trepidation in the heart of most eaters. Regardless, your opinions are still interesting to read. Glad this was a better experience!

The Blonde Duck said...

See! You kicked ass and had class, unlike the knotheads who were mean to you. Jerks. Snarl.

Sara said...

I'm totally pissed about the caviar and panna cotta. I thought I invented that dish for last week's 24-24-24!!!!

I did have champagne and strawberries in mine though... so NA! :-)

Cheese plate looks fantastic too.


Melissa Good Taste said...

The chorizo, onion, cornichon soup looks fab-u-lous!

Kung Food Panda said...

Great to read that you like Ludobites and now that you like foie gras, I think it's about time for you to visit Montreal! =P

sue said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.