Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pop-Up Gourmet - Ludobites 6.0 – Sherman Oaks

Perhaps we should blame the housing bubble, perhaps the remaining high rents in the beau monde, or perhaps the lack of commitment of a generation of slackers. Whatever the cause, a hot trend in contemporary dining is the restaurant that is not, truly, a restaurant: a restaurant of the eye blink. A restaurant that is less a piece of real estate than a place of mind. Sometimes this alternative style is known as underground dining, which has the allure of a dining party consisting of people that you never wish to meet again. These gatherings are frequently one-offs, sometimes held in an apartment or an industrial venue, although some establish weekly or monthly schedules. One senses something of Tom Wolfe’s nostalgie de la boue – a loving admiration for dirt and depravity – that makes these occasional festivities fascinating, but with health departments not invited.

However, even in occasional dining there are status distinctions. Some prominent chefs are satisfied to cook for awhile, and then go fallow, only to sprout again. In my hometown of Chicago the best known example was Patrick Chabert’s occasional meals at Berutti’s in Buffalo Grove. Chabert was for many years sous chef at Le Francais, and some of that glory sticks to him still.

At present the star of the pop-up is surely Los Angeles’s admired chef and food trucker extraordinaire (Keep on Truckin’) Ludo Lefebvre, a chef with all the proper Parisian credentials (L’Arpege and Gagnaire) and with a stint of fine restaurant chefing under his toque at Bastide and l’Orangerie. Chef Ludo has received honors of various weight, including warmly admiring media attention.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Chef Ludo Lefebrve

Today Chef Ludo fashions himself as an occasional chef. Yes, he has a food truck, purveying what I am led to believe is sturdy fried chicken, found on the streets of Los Angeles if one is on his Tweet-list, but he has no permanent restaurant home. What he has, in contrast, are pop-up sites. He will rent a restaurant space and then will devise a fairly set menu for some six weeks. In our digital age, these spottings are labeled 1.0, 2.0, until the current iteration, Ludobites 6.0, open (and now closed) at Max’s, a modest but pleasant restaurant space in Sherman Oaks, located in “The (San Fernando) Valley,” along Ventura Boulevard.

From a friend who has eaten at five of these pops, I understand that Chef Ludo’s style changes with the iteration, creating disparate culinary selves. Sometimes his menu owes much to classical traditions, other times he is modernist, and on still other occasions there is a pronounced Asian inflection. Some meals are more precise and restrained, and others are profoundly energetic. Ludobites 6.0 is more ebullient than carefully composed.

This meal was characterized by robust flavors, but for the most part not a large dollop of precise technique appearing on the plate. I was told that the 6.0 cuisine was at some distance from chef Ludo’s cuisine at Bastide: not that one would wish to have a chef’s creations frozen in amber or molasses: no semifreddo he.

The first marquee dish - Escargot, Brussel Sprouts, Red Mole, Corn Ice Cream, and Tofu Squares – provoked a dollop of dispute. More than my tablemates, I found the dish excellent and after some weeks I recall it well. Chef Lefebvre did not prepare an authentic, classic mole, and so perhaps the false advertising burned some tongues: the sauce had very strong allspice tones, but I found the combination of allspice and snails and corn ice cream alluring and seductive. The dish was not designed for quiet contemplation. It was a excitable plate, to be avoided by the squeamish. Perhaps it wasn’t beautiful resting on china, but in this it set the tone for the meal.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Escargot, Brussels Sprouts, Red Mole, Tofu, Corn Ice Cream

Hamachi Vietnamese Style appeared as a wild salad, and so a theme emerged. Some fine slabs of Hamachi were showered with Vietnamese inspired ingredients, ginger and sprouts throughout: it was not a classic composition, but a tasty mound of vegetables. Without much of a culinary logic, it did not leave a large impression.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Hamachi, Vietnamese Style

Today everything is coming up mackerel: classic or contemporary. Should the trend continue, jack mackerel will perhaps be soon as endangered as Chilean seabass. This oily fish, once rarely seen at top tables, now shows up in the best society. Marinated Mackerel, Leche Del Tigre (a citrus-based marinate), Baby Leeks, and Verdolagas Leaves (aka purslane) constituted Ludo’s paean to ceviche. While the dish revealed well-chosen ingredients and was successful as an aquatic appetizer, the flavors or textures have slid from memory.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Marinated Mackerel, Leche Del Tigre, Baby Leeks, Verdolagas Leaves

Salmon “a l’huile”, Somen Noodles, Carrots, Red Wine Vinaigrette, and Grilled Salmon Roe was my least favorite plate of our night. This was ultimately a straight-up seafooder. With the exception of the creative escargot dish, the other courses to this point were presented within well-trod traditions. I do not complain about the quality of the ingredients, but I was surprised at the lack of buzz.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Salmon "a l'huile," Somen Noodles, Carrots, Red Wine Vinaigrette, Grilled Salmon Roe

Although White Rice Veloute, Poached Egg, Spinach, and Christmas Oil does not either read or look like a dish that one might expect a celebrity chef to prepare, the dish in its hidden and unsuspected way proved to be delicious: three-star comfort food. Perhaps the Christmas (conifer) oil might have been more dramatic, the dish worked nicely.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - White Rice Veloute, Poached Egg, Spinach, Christmas (Pine) Oil

Impressive, too, was Chef Ludo’s Boudin Noir “Parmentier”, Apples, Mustard Tapioca, looking for all the world like an Asian roll that might have emerged from one of David Chang’s kitchens. Parmentier indicates that the dish ennobles the potato and its promoter, but the apples and mustard tapioca provided the necessary kick for what would otherwise have been sausage and mash.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Boudin Noir "Parmentier," Apples, Mustard Tapioca

A quick glimpse of Beef Tartar, Celery Root Remoulade, Red Port, and Foie Gras Powder suggests that an explosion must have occurred in the kitchen, splattering the good china. As such, this was the most revealing dish of the evening. The precision that one might have expected was knocked aside in a riot of carnal taste. As an abattoir of flavor, the dish succeeded with the port and foie gras providing the savory core, but as a plate, tonight Chef Ludo was less Rodin than Jackson Pollock.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Beef Tartar, Celery Root Remoulade, Red Port, Foie Gras Power

Foie gras continued into the next dish, which was one of the most compelling of the evening: Roasted Pickled Foie Gras, Honey, Autumn Fruits (Pear and Pickled Ginger), and Rose Flowers. Although my taste for Foie Gras has waned as its celebrity expanded, the rose flower compote made this dish a memory of summer, a moment of desire.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Roasted Pickled Foie Gras, Honey, Autumn Fruits, Rose Flowers

In contrast Cod, Smoked Potato, Bell Pepper, Pil-Pil Sauce, and Amaranth lacked drama. For me the thinly sliced and crispy smoked potatoes were the high point of a dish that seemed fundamentally pedestrian.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Cod, Smoked Potatoes, Bell Pepper, Pil-Pil Sauce, Amaranth

Even fine chefs are prone to stumble when confronted with hunks of protein. Perhaps because of their more compact form, appetizers are often more successful than the main course. Main courses often are variations on the tried and true without a novel conception. Fortunately this was not true of the two main courses prepared by chef Ludo. Maybe these dishes required less technique, but they both were exceptionally creative: brilliant and challenging combinations.

The Braised Veal, Leek Salad, Button Mushrooms, Fresh Black Truffle, Green Onion-Garlic Parmesan Bubbles was the most explicitly molecular of the dishes on the menu. One might imagine that Green Onion-Garlic Parmesan Bubbles would not be an ideal match for braised veal, but in fact the match was joyous. The combination of textures and tastes, although surprising, were celebratory. Hypermodern cuisine has the potential to enter the history books in the right hands.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Braised Veal, Leek Salad, Fresh Black Truffle, Green Onion-Garlic Parmesan Bubbles

Better still was Chef Ludo’s paean to Korea: Marinated Korean Steak, Crispy Kimchi, Radish, Bone Marrow, and Shiso. Tonight the chef was working with Asian ideas, and the creativity of Crispy Kimchi was marvelously provocative and managed to bring the dish together in gustatory common cause.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Marinated Korean Steak, Crispy Kimchi, Radish, Bone Marrow, Shiso

I was disappointed by the Cantal Cheese Mikado, White Chocolate, Candied Black Olive, another explosive presentation, but one in which the cheese and white chocolate mirrored each other visually, but did not contribute to a greater insight into either.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Cantal Chesse Mikado, White Chocolate, Candied Black Olive

Surely the grandest creation of the evening was Chef Ludo’s Crème Fraiche Panna Cotta, Caramel Sauce, and Caviar, a bravura dish that several at the table found reminiscent of his work at Bastide. Here were textures and flavors that did illuminate each other: sweet, salty, sticky, and smooth. It was an electric presentation. Let us have caviar for dessert each and every evening for eternity.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta, Caramel, Caviar

Finally we were served a very hospitable Warm Carrot Cake, Coconut, Thai Curry, Mango Sorbet, with Kaffir Lime Oil. This was another Asian melody: one in which curry proved that when well-handled be a source of dessert pleasure.

Ludobites 6.0 (at Max), Sherman Oaks, CA - December 2010 - Warm Carrot Cake, Coconut, Thai Curry, Mango Sorbet, Kaffir Line Oil

Given my recent experiences with San Francisco restaurants, I found that Ludobites 6.0 was less vegetable-centric than I expected: this was a protein-based cuisine. The evening was none the worse for that, but less about the chef as gardener-in-chief.

One of the advantages to running a pop-up restaurant is a lack of commitment to a flavor profile. And so Ludobites 7.0 might be an occasion for a new invention of self for Chef Lefebvre.

Ludobites 6.0 (now closed)
(at Max’s)
13355 Ventura Boulevard
Sherman Oaks, CA
We Are Not Modern – Comme Chez Soi – Brussels

At a recent conference on the convergences and divergences of food cultures – there actually are such funded academic gatherings – I argued that cuisines could vanish. While appearing robust, they are often, in reality, distressingly fragile. For dramatic emphasis I pointed to the remarkable disappearance of classic French cuisine, a cuisine that has gone from dominant to absent in less than half a century. Here was a cuisine that could never die, but did exactly that. Where can one find those wondrously heavy sauces that so admirably contributed to lowering life expectancies among the rich and powerful? The days of roux are done. Do diners dream of mirapoix? Grand restaurants in Paris – and New York – once ladled out the cream and the butter, and every well-made sauce was flour-based: the gluten-or–lactose intolerants were in the closet. Vegans had to live by a code of don’t ask, don’t eat.

Classic French cuisine was the venerated culinary style for over a century – the natural zenith of cuisine. But when it came crashing down with a push from Nouvelle Cuisine, a nudge from Gault-Millau, and a prod from the health police, the collapse of the caloric tower was total. Who cooks Escoffier today?

Some restaurants exist that are classic-lite – La Grenouille in New York is one – but their cuisine, as presented today, would be thin gruel for the beau monde in 1960.

The night the conference adjourned, I found myself in such a restaurant, the double Michelin-starred Comme Chez Soi (“Just Like Home”), that reflects a classical-lite cuisine with all of its loving style and its drawbacks. Comme Chez Soi is a restaurant that abjures the sharp elbows of the contemporary style. Its heart is in the 1890s – along with its splendid Art Nouveau décor - even if the kitchen is producing a more contemporary version of a classical cuisine at which Careme might scoff. This is a restaurant that is run by the fourth generation of the Wynants family, a low country tradition. But it isn’t your granddad’s restaurant, even if it might wish to be. For many decades the restaurant was run by the great Belgian chef Pierre Wynants, and currently the kitchen is managed by his son-in-law Lionel Rigolet. Perhaps it is true that contemporary diners would rise in anger and disgust at the true classics, but such a claim reminds us that there are limits that you are what you eat. Sometimes dishes are unavailable: there are some culinary selves that we can not be.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010

I began with a light amuse of crackers with pink peppercorns, nice and spicy if not particularly daring, and a much more engaging pair of smoked halibut mille-feuilles. The latter were classic in style and conception, but with enough drama and visual appear to keep any contemporary diner sated.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Crackers with Pink Peppercorns and Smoked Halibut Mille-Feuilles

My second amuse was, in fact, a trio: the third, fourth and fifth tastes of the night. The best of the three was a warm geleed fish consommé with microdiced vegetables. Any classic restaurant must be skilled in stock, and Comme Chez Soi shines in the broth department (if broths can be said to have a department). Further, in this one could see the compulsion of the classic restaurant for dicing, mincing, and chopping: mirapoix as religion. I suddenly shuddered to realize that dicing has become a lost art in modern cuisine. When does one find knife skills today? Not often.

Mackerel with cucumber, marinated in yuzu, was also impressive, the only use of fruit on Comme Chez Soi’s menu. And even in Brussels, mackerel has made its mark. Every fish gets its fifteen minutes of fame, and this is mackerel’s turn. The third of the set Fried Crawfish with several dabs of a quasi-Chinese sweet sauce was a disappointing bite, reminding more of little more than a cheap and not very authentic Asian restaurant. Any restaurant that has linen napkins should be very cautious when considering investing in a deep fat fryer: grease does marry graciousness well.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Trio of Amuses: Warmed Gelled Fish Consomme, Mackerel with Cucumber, Fried Crawfish

The first post-amuse dish, a carpaccio duet of Dublin bay prawns and lobster with lemongrass and raw minced gambas (shrimp) with ginger and lime, showed off Comme Chez Soi to its best effect. Here was a dish that revealed that mosaics were once a delight of the pampered diner. It was a jigsaw in spirit and in practice. While the lemongrass lent the plate a modern twist, the twist was simultaneously discreet and effective. It was restrained and classic, but very intriguing. CCS is traditional but not embalmed.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Carpaccio of Dublin Bay Prawns and Lobster with Lemograss and Raw Minced Gambas with Ginger and Lime

While it is not quite fair to term the second dish a soup, it revealed again the height of broth. I was served steamed dab with snails from Namur, bouillon with shiitake and Chinese chives. The flavors were rich and the presentation restrained. Perhaps the dab was cooked more fully than one would find at Le Bernardin, but it was moist and rich and happy in its little ocean.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Steamed Dab with Namur Snails, Bouillon With Shiitake and Chinese Chives

Scallops with Puy lentils and cucumber roll with Colchester flat oysters proved again to be properly restrained in the lite-classicism that I was learning to appreciate. CCS rarely challenges the diner with clashing tastes, and this was certainly true with this subtle dish. To be sure oysters and scallops are not usual partners, but neither are they oysters and blueberries. The restaurant as current style demands provides a dollop of light sauce, a well-made accompaniment.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Scallops wiht Puy Lentils and Cucumber Roll with Colchester Flat Oysters

The greatest disappointment of the evening was the main course of roasted halibut with Chiloë peppers and king crab, smoked emulsion of parmesan and old balsamico. Halibut has a strong and “fishy” taste, and can easily be overcooked. By overcooked, I don’t mean inedible, and I did not return the dish, but lacked appeal, even when set off by the balsamic sauce. Visually it was subtle, but lacked a spark on the keyboard of taste.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Roasted Halibut with Chiloe Peppers and King Crab, Smoked Emulsion of Parmesan and Old Balsamico

The first dessert, “pear with multiple flavors,” was close to the contemporary style with a set of plated thematic mini-desserts. I particularly enjoyed the pear ice cream and “Poire William” soup with its brandied kick. While it was not as startling or as deconstructed as a fully modernist dessert, it revealed the possibilities of pear.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Pear with Multiple Flavors

The final scheduled dessert emphasized chocolate and coffee, but as I avoid caffeine, I pleaded for a fruity exchange, and I was graciously blessed with the highpoint of the evening: a fully classic Lime Soufflé with Lime Sorbet. Nothing adventuresome. Just a perfect presentation of a canonical dish. Yum. When done right, the oldies are still goldies.

Comme Chez Soi - Brussels - December 2010 - Lime Souffle with Lime Sorbet

Given current styles, it is hard to suggest that Comme Chez Soi is an essential restaurant. Yet, I would mourn if it disappeared. In its restrained classicism, served in a striking Art Nouveau dining room, it is graceful and loving. Perhaps the main course disappointed, but most of the dinner captivated me, revealing the pleasures of restaurants from the days when I started my trek through the culinary forests. But, I wonder, could a restaurant in thrall to Escoffier survive the footfalls of modernism? Can a restaurant, in sympathy with anthropologist Bruno Latour, shout that “we are not modern” and survive?

Comme Chez Soi
Place Rouppe 23
Brussels, Belgium

Friday, December 24, 2010

Loaves and Fishes – Le Bernardin – New York

Nearly twenty years ago I had one of the most splendid and memorable meals of my life at Le Bernardin. As it happened, and although we did not realize it at the time, it was the last restaurant meal that I had with my father who died soon afterwards and whose given name was Bernard. How is that for irony! To be sure the circumstances of that meal cast a somewhat nostalgic glow on all that fish, but we both knew immediately how wonderful the meal was. Chef Eric Ripert had recently arrived at Le Bernardin, still working with Gilbert Le Coze.

Some fifteen years later I finally returned on my own dime: Dismay ensued. Chef Ripert was not in the kitchen that night and he had his mind on other matters (he was consulting on a failed restaurant opening). There were some astonishing dishes (a flight of raw fluke, for instance), but one dish was so overcooked that I returned it to the kitchen, caught between embarrassment and anger, perhaps the only time I have done that at a restaurant of serious mien. The expeditor had apparently gone AWOL. Other dishes were not brilliant either. And, as I noted at the time, the bread was cold and stale, which, when returned to the table, was presented warm and stale.

Five years later I returned. And Chef Ripert’s mind was now firmly focused on the plate: my wife and I were delighted with our choices, although as seems generally true at Le Bernardin, the less that the seafood is heated, the better for all concerned. Still before I discuss the courses, the great and embarrassing failure of Le Bernardin is still their bread service. Unlike most grand restaurants, they do not bake their own bread, and it shows. The bread was a notch above the slabs from five years back, but they were still mediocre and some slightly stale. When one compares the bread service with Per Se or Jean-George, well, one cannot compare the bread service. Think Olive Garden. Perhaps Chef Ripert believes that we should all live gluten-free.

The pictures tell the story: here is a chef who creates exquisite compositions with raw or barely warmed fish – oceanic and from the shell. The striped bass tartare with a watermelon radish carpaccio was a delight for all those who love radish (my father did and he passed that passion on). The scallop slivers with mandarin puffs and scorched lemon were a nearly perfect composition of sweet scallop and tarted-up citrus.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Striped Bass Tartare, "Watermelon Radish Carpaccio," Mustard Oil, Red Dulce Seaweed Vinaigrette

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Scallop Slivers, Mandarin Puffs and Scorched Lemon, Rosemary Vinaigrette

Much the same could be said of the warm lobster carpaccio, hearts of palm and orange vinaigrette. Perhaps Chef Ripert overuses vinaigrette (although that serves to preserve the fish), but each dish stands on its own. The smoked yellowfin tuna “prosciutto” was stunning visually and compelling as an artwork for the mouth. Here is sashimi with a Gallic accent.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Warm Lobster Carpaccio, Hearts of Palm, Orange Vinaigrette

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Smoked Yellow fine Tuna "Prosciutto", Japanese Pickled Vegetables and Crispy Kombu

Slightly – but only slightly – less successful was the barely cooked wild salmon with braised burgundy snails, heirloom potatoes, and pernod scented sauce. I felt that the combination was a little less than brilliant, but each ingredient worked on its own terms. Baked lobster with mole puree was not as strongly flavored as I expected, but at least the good, clean lobster was not overwhelmed.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Barely Cooked Wild Salmon, Braised Burgundy Snails, Heirloom Potatoes, Sweet Garlic Parsley, and Pernod Scented Sauce

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Baked Lobster, Mole Puree, Stuffed Baby Cabbage and Bacon Bordelaise

Desserts were appropriately modern, if less memorable than the raw seafood. Pistachio mouse with caramelized white chocolate was pleasantly architectural, and the chestnut mousse was well-prepared and echoed with the baked chestnuts being sold by winter vendors on New York streets. But one does not dine at Le Bernardin for the dessert.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Pistachio Mousse, Caramelized White Chocolate, Lemon, Bing Cherry

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Chestnut Mousse

Chef Ripert cooks in a modern style, but without the experimental techniques that one sometimes found at L20 under the leadership of Laurent Gras (Gras’ seared foie gras with cotton candy and bee pollen is a dish as memorable in its own way as Tom Keller’s Oysters and Pearls). Still, at Le Bernardin there was a commitment to quality this night as there had been some two decades back.

I understand from the proficient staff that the dining room will be restructured and revamped, and that some recognize that the bread service is not up to par (I hope that the chef is included in this worried minyan). I rather like the dining room, but in this Christmas season, let us not forget the miraculous pairing of loaves and fishes.

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
New York
212 – 554 - 1515