It’s 7:42 pm and I’m approximately an hour and three minutes early for my friends and my Thursday night LudoBites reservation at Royal/T. The third incarnation of the pop-up restaurant starring Chef Ludo Lefebvre and his wife Krissy, who is as much a part of the LudoBites scenery as her husband, has only been serving for two nights, but the buzz is already hotter than a patch of asphalt in Death Valley in July.
In other words, you could fry an egg on it.
Or, in Chef Ludo’s case, poach an egg to 65 degrees and serve it over a bowl of bread soup with a gruyere marshmallow ($9) to create the taste sensation of a croque madame sandwich.
On most evenings, I would be embarrassed to be so early – especially since the other girls in my party of five won’t be arriving for another fifteen minutes for our pre-dinner drinks at the bar.
Tonight, however, I’m not worried about being a sore thumb in a room of Hollywood middle fingers and couples who like to feed each other in public. I won’t need to stand awkwardly by the door, pretending to be occupied with my cell phone or a copy of the menu. I won’t need to pretend to be anything other than myself – a slightly neurotic girl who loves to spend the majority of her money on food.
I’m among friends tonight – Esther from E*Star LA, Sam Kim of LAist, Linden of Gastronomnom, Maya from ShopEatSleep, Jessie and Rachael who work for Cube restaurant/marketplace, and other familiar faces from the LA dining community who are all eating there that evening as well. Even though I’ve only been to Royal/T once before, the dynamic space feels like coming home because of their welcoming presence. A smile steals across my face as I hug everyone in greeting. Before it’s even begun, I know the night is going to be a memorable one.
Despite all the fanfare, LudoBites is not just about the food – the caramelized peanuts with curry ($5) that rape my dining companions and I of all restraint and decorum as we fist them into our mouths; or the meaty hunks of confit pork belly with pickles mustard, vadouvan apples, and frisee ($12) that could turn even a vegan’s head.
It can’t even be reduced down to my two favorite dishes of the night – the veal with udon, ombu dashi, mushrooms and sesame seed miso ($13); and the marinated hangar steak with crunchy escargot, baby corn, bok choy, and black olive mole ($22). Despite the rapid-fire utensil-to-mouth action taking place at my table when these two dishes arrive, LudoBites offers more than what is visible on the constantly evolving menu.
It offers patrons an opportunity to broaden their palate beyond the usual. Before Thursday night, I’d never had veal or escargot, yet left with a new (enthusiastic) appreciation for both. I’m not sure that I would have felt as inclined to try either had I not been in an environment like LudoBites. With shared small plates, it’s acceptable to take one bite of something and decide, “Okay, that’s not for me, but there are still eight other dishes here that might be.”
But even beyond its conduciveness to taking gastronomical risk, the reason that LudoBites keeps its reservation book at capacity is because Chef Ludo and Krissy make the dining experience personal. They have transformed the dinner out into a celebration of both food and community. My party of five ultimately lingers at the restaurant for four hours – staying late enough to share a glass of wine with Ludo long after the final dish has been hustled out from the kitchen.
And we weren’t alone.
The same faces Sook, Sarah, Lauren, Angela, and I saw when we arrived were there throughout most of our time in the restaurant – hanging out at the bar, visiting friends at other tables, or like us, camping out like we were planning on staying overnight.
Nobody wanted the night to end. And, most importantly for Ludo’s current and future success, everybody wants to keep coming back for more – for the challenging food, the “a-ha” moments when taking a bite of something that hits every flavor sensation on the mark, and for the feeling that they belong somewhere in this crazy mass of city.
LudoBites will be taking over the Royal/T space for December 2nd - 4th, 9th -10th, 13th - 17th, and 20th -22nd.
8910 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232-2326