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Hatchi with Walter Manzke

August 24, 2010
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One of my regrets at Church & State was that, on the two occasions I dined there during Chef Walter Manzke’s tenure, he wasn’t in the kitchen.

And on the second visit, I felt that it showed in the food.

Now I’ve eaten at many restaurants with absentee chefs (e.g. John Besh’s August, Tom Colicchio’s Craft, Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys, Gordon Ramsay at the London, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern, Jose Andre’s The Bazaar, etc) and had no problem with it because I knew the name on the door wasn’t the man behind the stove. But Church & State under Walter Manzke was never intended to be that.

So when Walter Manzke surfaced at Hatchi after he left Church & State, I jumped at the chance knowing he would definitely be in the kitchen.

In a departure from his French bistro fare at Church & State, Chef Manzke decided instead to take diners around the world in eight dishes.

Given that we were at Breadbar, dinner began with the now familiar epi bread but this time with foie gras butter. Relatively subtle, the foie gras imparted a gentle livery-ness, punctuated by the honey gelée on top, which was flecked with gold leaf. I guess if you’re going to do foie gras butter, you might as well make it luxurious.

The first cocktail of the night was barman Michel Dozois’s Untamed Cherries, made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, cherries, yellow chili peppers and organic rum. Sweet to begin, this cocktail soon became about the heat of the chili peppers. Perhaps too much heat. Capsaicin tends to overpower most dishes you pair with it.

To whet our appetites for our around the world trip, the amuse bouche was a deconstructed shrimp cocktail. Essentially a skewered grilled shrimp atop a shot of ceviche sauce, which provided the acid.

Our journey began in Mexico, with a Yellowtail Ceviche with Jalapeno and Tomatillo Sorbet. One of my favorite dishes of the night, the yellowtail was fresh and plump but what made this dish sing was the jalapeno sorbet, which added both heat and a refreshing cold bite.

Leaving Latin America, we travelled next to Thailand with a White Corn Curry Soup with Mussels and Coconut Tapioca. The mussels were well cooked but the soup was exceptional, with the sweetness of corn playing nicely off the subtle curry and the tapioca balls adding an interesting textural counterpoint. Again, another great dish.

Next up was Spain with a Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with Garlic and Sherry. I love Santa Barbara spot prawns, which is lucky given their appearance on menus all over town, but mine unfortunately came out overdone. I also found the tapenade on top slightly heavy handed.

Moving on to Vietnam, we were presented with “Banh Mi” Pig’s Feet Sliders. I can’t say that these reminded me of banh mi except for the picked vegetables, but what’s not to like about panko breaded pig’s trotter patties? The homemade siracha sauce definitely added the requisite Asian kick.

Back to Europe, this time to Italy via an English Pea Ravioli with Soft Egg and Parmesan. Whilst I’m usually a sucker for a perfectly poached egg, this dish underwhelmed me. The English pea ravioli seemed bland, especially after the big flavors of the banh mi pig’s feet sliders. Perhaps if I’d started with this dish, I may have enjoyed it more.

Next to France, Chef Manzke’s usual stomping ground, with an old favorite from Church & State, the Tarte Flambe with Caramelized Onion, Bacon and Gruyere. Essentially a flatbread pizza, perfectly crispy, sweet with caramelized onions, salty with bacon and rich with gruyere. Perhaps a safe choice for Manzke, he’s had plenty of time to perfect this dish and it showed. My favorite dish of the night, which perhaps says to me that he’s best when working within his French roots.

The second cocktail of the night was the Hidden Secret, a concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice, grape tomatoes, maraschino cordial and True organic gin. Less overwhelming than my first cocktail, definitely more fruity and sweet.

Onto dessert, we move to the Philippines with a Pandan Leche Flan with Coconut Sorbet. I love a good flan and this one did not disappoint. Rich and eggy, this flan brought me back to my childhood with the floral taste of pandan, and nicely balanced with the sweetness of the coconut sorbet and foam. This, to me, was Chef Manzke’s most successful Asian inspired dish and a dessert I would return for over and over again. Whatever his next restaurant ends up being, I hope he finds a place for this dessert on his menu.

The journey ended in Japan with a Chocolate Fondant with Bing Cherries, Black Sesame Ice Cream and Green Tea. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to enjoy this dessert. This was the only course I failed to finish and I HATE to leave food on my plate, so that speaks volumes. But one bad destination on a whirlwind around the world trip ain’t bad.

Like any around the world trip, I came home with some great memories and experiences, a few missed steps and lots of photos. Chef Manzke definitely showed his range with this menu and proved he’s happy to venture outside his French roots at Church & State and Bastide before that.

Is this a sign that his own highly anticipated restaurant will feature an international menu? Probably not. I think this was more about mixing it up and flexing his chef muscles.

But, whatever his next dining concept may be, I’ll be there, hopefully on opening night, to support one of the most talented chef’s currently working in LA.

And, before that, I’ll hopefully have a chance to try his next pop-up menu at Test Kitchen.

A menu I’ve been promised will again be a departure from this Hatchi tasting.

Hatchi at Breadbar with Walter Manzke
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

Hatchi at Breadbar with Walter Manzke in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Breadbar on Urbanspoon

Not just meat and potatoes at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse

August 10, 2010
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I’m the antithesis of a meat and potatoes guy.

Which explains why I haven’t set foot in a steakhouse for as long as I can remember.

So it wasn’t until I received an invitation to Fleming’s to try the new additions to their menu that I ended my self-imposed exile.

Now, I’ve always considered Fleming’s the epitome of the steakhouse. But in May of this year they tweaked their menu to offer smaller portion sizes of two “New Classics” (a porcini rubbed filet mignon and a peppercorn steak), two new seafood offerings (a Tillamook Bay petrale sole and a salmon nicoise salad), two new apps (roasted mushroom ravioli and lump crab lettuce wraps), and two new sides.

An attempt to provide more variety, healthier choices and smaller portions, the new menu targets the demographics the steakhouse has lost ground in – women, business people with shrinking expense accounts, and the “not meat and potatoes” crowd.

Which would be me.

Roasted Mushroom Ravioli: portobello and shiitake mushrooms, porcini butter sauce. Simple, earthy and satisfying. Umami + fat + carbs = happiness.

Lump Crab Louis Lettuce Wraps: butter lettuce, avocado, bacon, egg, tomato, chives. It’s a lettuce wrap, I’m a carnivore. Maybe I’d order this “for the lady”.

Tillamook Bay Petrale Sole with crab beignets and lemon butter sauce. When I saw crab beignets, I was understandably excited. They were unfortunately not the best part of the dish.

Salmon Nicoise Salad. A filet of Scottish salmon, truffled deviled eggs and individually prepared vegetables, topped with a kalamata olive aioli on a rosemary crostini. Pretty much a deconstructed nicoise salad.

Peppercorn Steak. Prime New York strip, cracked black and white peppercorns, served with a shotglass of Fleming’s “F17″ steak sauce. Served here with sauteed French green beans, shiitake mushrooms and porcini essence. Classic steakhouse fare kicked up with a great, spicy steak sauce. Big, bold flavors. We’ve left salad and seafood territory far behind here.

Roasted baby carrots tossed with golden raisins and California mission almonds.

Chocolate Lava Cake served with vanilla ice cream and chopped pistachios. Kinda 2005 but, to be fair, this wasn’t part of Fleming’s new menu but one of their long standing favorites. Incredibly rich, if you’re a chocoholic, you’ll love it. I’m not. But I do love a good creme brulée.

Tahitian vanilla bean creme brulée topped with fresh, seasonal berries. What’s not to love?

The highlight of the new menu for me was the roasted mushroom ravioli. Its simplicity allowed the umami of the roasted portobello and shiitake mushrooms to shine through, complemented by a porcini butter sauce and just the right amount of sharpness from the cheese.

The peppercorn steak was another standout. A classic prime New York steak au poivre, it was well executed. But what made it shine was the “F17″ sauce served in a tall shot glass with it, so named because it’s a secret blend of 17 ingredients, which gave the steak a real kick. It’s no secret that one of the main ingredients is a healthy dose of chipotle peppers!

As for the seafood dishes, sure, I enjoyed them but I’m probably not coming to Fleming’s for seafood. And as for dessert, well, I’m not one to pass up a good creme brulee.

With so many new restaurants in Downtown LA, Fleming’s may not be my first call. It’s not really a “destination” restaurant. But, having said that, it’s good to know they are evolving with their diner’s tastes.

And if I was looking to eat at LA Live, I’d definitely return.

For the meat and, err, ravioli.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
800 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 745-9911

Fleming's Steakhouse in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Sage Sings Loudest at Aria

August 5, 2010
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Most people come to Vegas to gamble, to party and to sin.

Truth be told, I don’t gamble and I can party much harder and sin far worse in my hometown of Los Angeles than I can in Vegas.

My sin in Vegas is gluttony. Add to that worshipping at the temple of Michelin, whose bright stars cast a long shadow over Vegas, and idolizing the three French gods of cuisine who have set up outposts here (Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire), I’d say I have my fair share of penance to pay.

So it’s surprising, then, that the best meal of my recent trip was neither Michelin starred nor devised in France.

It was at Sage, Shawn McClain’s contemporary American ode to the farm-to-table/artisanal/sustainable/seasonal ethos.

Now, let me be clear, those terms hold no particular draw for me. I’m just as happy for my produce to be exotic, my fish to be endangered, and my truffles to be out of season. And, come on, this is Vegas, a neon outpost in the desert, a place where money trumps ideology and possibly the least sustainable city in America. After Rick Moonen’s recent droning on about sustainable seafood in Vegas on Top Chef Masters, I was just about ready to slap him and his ilk across the face with a Chilean sea bass.

No, what brought me to Sage was that, after the buzz had quietened and the dust had settled on the new CityCenter’s more talked about restaurants — Gagnaire’s first US outpost Twist and Bar Masa/Shaboo’s $500 hot pot — Sage emerged as the most interesting new restaurant in Vegas.

Not that Shawn McClain doesn’t come with accolades. Esquire magazine’s “Chef of the Year”, James Beard winner for “Best Chef Midwest” but it’s safe to say he’s not a household name outside of Chicago.

Yet.

The restaurant space itself is everything you’d expect in Vegas from the newest Dubai-funded casino on the Strip. Opulent, expansive, classy and swathed in plum and gold. This is not a restaurant you wander into from the casino floor.

This is a destination.

And the service there was impeccable. Probably the best I’ve received in ANY restaurant. Ever. Friendly without being intrusive, knowledgeable without being pretentious, and generous. Complementary champagne when we sat down, complementary sauternes with our foie gras custard brulée because our server insisted it would complement it perfectly (which it did), a complementary appetizer because one item we ordered was not available, and complementary hot chocolate espressos with our dessert. Sure we told them one of our guests was celebrating a birthday, sure the DSLR gave me away as a blogger, sure I know the hot chocolate is standard, but the service was still above and beyond.

Unlike many other Vegas fine dining restaurants, Sage does not offer a tasting menu. So we built our own from the appetizer menu.

Amuse Bouche | Cured Salmon / Radish / Puree

Vancouver Island Kusshi Oysters | Piquillo Pepper and Tobasco Sorbet / Aged-Tequila Mignonette
I love kusshis by themselves but the piquillo pepper and tobasco sorbet was stunning. A perfect cold and hot complement to the briny oyster. With a nod to Mexico, the mignonette sauce was made with aged tequila rather than vinegar.

Heirloom Beet Salad | Duck Prosciutto / Point Reyes Blue Cheese / Roasted Walnuts / Celery Vinaigrette
Here’s where I eat my words for saying I don’t care about salads in general and farm-to-table, seasonal vegetables more specifically. Because this was one of my favorite dishes of the night. Simple in its preparation, the beets were soft and flavorful, the vinaigrette perfectly balanced, the blue cheese creamy, and all sitting atop slivers of duck prosciutto.

Foie Gras Custard Brulée | Bing Cherries / Toasted Cocoa Nibs / Salted Brioche
If the beet salad was one of my favorite dishes of the night, then this was without doubt my favorite and one of the best mouthfuls of food I’ve enjoyed in ’10. I love foie gras, I love creme brulée, and I can honestly think of nothing better than combining the two. Except perhaps shaving a torchon of foie gras onto it and serving it with a sweet and salty salted brioche. Absolutely craveable and made all the better by the complementary glasses of sauternes that our server insisted we pair it with.

Crescenza Cheese Mezzaluna | Grilled Mushrooms / Braised Black Kale / Parsley Emulsion
Essentially a creamy cheese filled pasta shaped like a half moon (hence the name), this dish was sent to our table by the kitchen to apologize for one of the dishes we’d ordered no longer being available. Of the two pasta dishes we tried, this was the stronger although nothing extraordinary. Still, the pasta was pillowy and well made, the mushrooms adding a nice, meaty texture to the dish.

Roasted Sweetbreads | Glazed Bacon / Creamy White Polenta / Marinated Chanterelles
I’m a big fan of sweetbreads. It’s one of those dishes that, if it’s on the menu, I’ll almost always order it. The breading on the sweetbreads here was less crispy than I would have liked although the polenta it sat on was very good, having soaked up all the juices of the sweetbreads and bacon. Bacon is one of those things I’m really getting over although, thick cut like this and glazed, it was a welcome addition to the dish.

Maine Lobster Ravioli | Lemon-Olive Oil Puree / Baby Spring Peas / Mascarpone / Fresh Mint
This dish was a disappointment. The sauce overpowered the taste of the delicate lobster to the point that I wouldn’t have known I was eating lobster if I hadn’t read it on the menu. Overall, oversalted and rather leaden.

Smores
Although we were full from dinner, I had asked the restaurant to add a “Happy Birthday” to the dessert plating for one of our guests so we ordered a dessert to share, Sage’s modern take on s’mores. Disappointingly the dessert came out without the requested birthday wish but it was still remarkably beautiful and satisfying at the same time. Did it remind me of childhood s’mores? I don’t know. I didn’t grow up here. But the bruléed marshmallow was suitably sweet and sticky and the gingerbread crisp a great savory counterpoint.

To finish the meal, the kitchen sent out cups of hot chocolate infused with citrus. A fun and whimsical way to end the meal and the citrus finish was a nice touch to the chocolate.

So there you have it. Yes, there were a couple of missed steps but whether it was the gorgeous space, the opulent and classy ambiance, the wonderful service or the company of great friends, this meal transcended its faults and was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Possibly the meal of the year so far and definitely the dish of the year for the foie gras custard brulée.

For me, Sage is the best bet at CityCenter.

And, as I said, I don’t like to gamble.

Sage
Aria Resort and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(877) 230-2742

Sage in Las Vegas on Fooddigger

Sage (Aria) on Urbanspoon

K-grubbing at Ahn Joo

August 3, 2010
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Food trucks have become the cable television of the food world.

And I don’t mean that disparagingly.

Remember when cable TV was the last resort of the waning actor? Now it’s common to see big name film stars headlining shows.

And so it’s become with food trucks. From roach coaches that few Angelenos dared eat at to the darlings of the LA food scene. And now, it seems, you increasingly need TV celebrity to launch one.

Susan Feniger (Top Chef Masters) and Mary Sue Milliken have their Border Grill truck, Ludo Lefebvre (Top Chef Masters) has his fried chicken Ludo Truck and now Debbie Lee (Next Food Network Star) has her Korean pub grub Ahn-Joo truck.

Ahn-Joo has been serving the streets of LA for six weeks now but, way back in June, I was invited to their soft rolling. Serving a fusion take on Korean pub food with nary a Korean taco in sight, the menu is broken down into categories of small grub, medium grub, large grub and sweet grub.

Housemade kimchee of the day and spicy pickled cucumbers ($3). Lesson for the day: northern Korean kimchee tastes different to the more common southern Korean kimchee.

Spicy chilled buckwheat noodles with fuji apples and Korean veggies ($5). I think this would be great for breakfast. Or for a hangover. Fruit, veges, carbs, protein and sauce. All your major food groups in a plastic takeout container. Is sauce a recognized food group?

Seoultown spuds: garlic fried potato wedges, chile sauce drizzle ($5). Combine with the Korean Fried Chicken for a K-spin on the Colonel’s fried chicken and potato wedges.

Modern mandu: Korean potstickers ($5)

Korean fried chicken with garlic glaze and pickled daikon ($7). I’ll take this KFC over the Colonel’s any day. Does it come in a bucket?

Mama Lee’s meatloaf: ground rib eye, soy onion demi, crispy shitake ($7). Certainly not my mom’s meatloaf. If she made meatloaf, that is.

Korean nachos: fried rice cakes, smoky chile queso, soy braised pork, kimchee salsa ($7). Nacho regular nachos!

I loved Ahn-Joo’s take on Korean nachos with fried rice cakes taking the place of tortilla chips and soy braised pork, chile queso and kimchee salsa replacing their more familiar counterparts.

Their Korean fried chicken was also very good as were the spicy chilled buckwheat noodles, which I took to go and ate as an afternoon snack. The crunch of the fuji apples, radish and carrots played well off the chilled noodles. I didn’t get to sample the fuji apple eggroll with ginger mascarpone, which I subsequently heard rave reports about, but I’ll save that for next time.

And there will be a next time.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a Korean food truck not serving tacos!

Ahn-Joo
Twitter: @AhnJooLA

Ahn Joo in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Ahn Joo Mobile Cart on Urbanspoon

Food Paparazzi: It’s Their ‘Porn’ – ABC News

April 30, 2010

We’ve gone national!

The “food paparazzi” story that KABC7 ran in Los Angeles last week has been picked up and re-edited by the network for national news stations. That means it’s going out to over 100 cities nationwide!

Okay, so we share airtime. But there are my photos. There’s my blog. There’s my URL. And there’s my face and soundbite. Satisfied.

Next stop, guest judge on Top Chef or Iron Chef.

Please?

Food Paparazzi. The TMZ, err, ABC of Petrossian

April 26, 2010
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So there I was.

Camera focused tightly on me, mic in my face.

And the word just wouldn’t come.

“Recip… reciprocit… recipricosit…”

Why didn’t I just say “mutually beneficial”?

Photo courtesy of Food She Thought

For someone who considers himself a writer, this was disturbing. Words are my tools. I was at that moment struck by a fear that this was the clip that they’d choose to use of me. Me, fumbling for words, stumbling like a drunk through his vocabulary. Great.

Perhaps I should just stick to the pictures. After all, that’s what they’re calling us, right? Food paparazzi?

Photo courtesy of Food She Thought

Let me backtrack.

Some of you may have seen this article in last Monday’s LA Times. Titled “Dinner is the theater as food paparazzi converge”, it brought the term “food paparazzi” into the public consciousness. And not in the most flattering light. Nevertheless, I was quoted and devoted four paragraphs and, all in all, treated gently. More importantly, the LA Times ran three of my photos with the article. Just click through to pictures 5 to 7. See my real name there? Okay, so no more anonymity but this was the LA Times. A byline in the LA TIMES, people!

The story also generated two calls from the ABC7 newsroom. They wanted to do their own story on the food paparazzi. Would I be interested? I tossed around the notion in my head. Would this be a puff piece? Or a negative piece about smug, self-appointed, camera-toting, foodie know-it-alls?

Of course the answer was always going to be “Yes”. I just wanted to stack the odds in my favor. So, just like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels, I gathered three of the smartest, most TV-friendly food writers and photographers I know – Liz of Food She Thought, Felicia of The Food Ledger and Amy, my partner in life and dining – for an impromptu dinner that the ABC7 news crew would cover. And I took them to one of the most blogger-friendly restaurants in town, Petrossian, headed up by one of the most blogger-friendly chefs I know, Chef Ben Bailly. This interview was going down on home turf, whether ABC7 knew it or not. Besides, I love the food at Petrossian, reviewed previously here. It also plates beautifully for camera and the light there lends itself to gorgeous photos, which I knew they’d run.

And so I found myself, somewhere between the Caviar Surprise and the Salmon Tartare, unable to pronounce “reciprocity”.

Truth be told, by that stage we just wanted the camera crew to wrap up and leave us to enjoy what would be a six course tasting from Chef Bailly, mainly of off-menu specials. The only other table dining at Petrossian that night was Chef Walter Manzke’s, recently of Church & State, and Chef Bailly was also preparing a tasting menu for him, so the kitchen had free reign that night.

Besides, the harsh light from the news camera’s on-board light was killing our photos! We’d let them shoot B-roll of us taking photos, then wait for them to turn off the light and shoot our photos again.

The night started off with hibiscus champagne as is customary at Petrossian. After all, what is caviar without champagne? Or vice versa?

Luckily, this wasn’t a question we needed to answer as the first course to arrive was the much talked about “Caviar Surprise”. King crab and apple cider gelée, topped with a layer of creme fraiche, and topped again with a generous layer of caviar, all served in the distinctive blue Petrossian caviar tin with blinis and toast points. A decadent beginning to the meal, I almost felt bad eating this on camera. The equivalent of an edible “Fuck you” to the recession. The sweetness of the apple cider gelée complemented the brininess of the caviar and the crab, the creme fraiche softening the punch of the dish like a velvet and butterfat glove.

After a brief interlude for interviews, we returned invigorated to the salmon tartare topped with more caviar and a sunny side up quail egg. Simple, well seasoned and balanced, this was a salmon tartare elevated by the addition of caviar. Break the yolk and let it permeate the caviar, combine with salmon and eat in one bite. Delicious.

Staying in the egg theme, next up was the Crispy Egg. In fact, this was egg on egg as it too was topped with a healthy dollop of caviar. Coated in bread crumbs and precisely cooked, the egg sat in a onion and potato soubise, essentially a purée. The crispy exterior played nicely with the silky smooth onion soubise, the caviar adding brine and the runny egg yolk coating it all in a rich smoothness. While the crispy egg was ostensibly the star of this dish, the onion purée was where I found warmth and comfort in this dish.

This was followed by the skate wing topped with a brown butter foam atop a bed of crushed potatoes. Around the plate were caper berries, cubes of an extremely tart sherry vinegar gelée, and croutons. I can’t fault the skate or crushed potatoes but my memory goes back most vividly to the mouth puckering cubes of sherry vinegar gelée.

Our final savory course was sweetbreads with baby spinach and maitake mushrooms. A relatively light course as the size of Chef Bailly’s servings were taking their toll. The sweetbreads were lightly coated and tender, always reminding me of the most delicate chicken nuggets.

Thankfully the trio of desserts was brought out to share. An extremely rich gianduja chocolate parfait with hazelnut biscuit and vanilla mascarpone, the delicious pistachio creme brulée with strawberries I had on my previous visit, and the most playful way to end the meal, the vanilla panna cotta topped with a mango marmalade and pop rocks! I love my dessert with a serving of whimsy and this has to go down as one of my favorite panna cottas of recent memory.

The meal over, the only thing left to do now was to wait for the story to air. I was out when it did the following evening on the 11pm news but my cell phone lit up with tweets and Facebook comments. I’ve since watched it more times than I care to admit and, I have to say, it was positive and presented with minimal spin. Of course we’re still referred to as food paparazzi but we got some important points across. No flash. Shoot the food, not the guests. Shoot when dining with other bloggers and not in mixed company.

Most gratifying to me, though, was the quote “but his food photos are simply mouthwatering”. That and the photos I shot that they ran with the quote.

Perhaps I should just stick to the pictures.

Oh, and to any producers at the Food Network or Bravo who are reading this, I was absolutely serious about wanting that guest judge spot on Iron Chef or Top Chef. In return, I’ll pretend to laugh at Toby Young’s jokes and even say I’m a long lost cousin of The Chairman.

How’s that for reciprocity?

Petrossian West Hollywood
321 North Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90048
(310) 271-6300

Petrossian Boutique and Cafe in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Petrossian Boutique & Cafe on Urbanspoon

A First Look at LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s

April 9, 2010
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As surely as another season of Top Chef Masters premieres, Chef Ludo Lefebvre returns again with his new incarnation of LudoBites, his acclaimed pop-up restaurant, this time in Downtown LA at Gram & Papa’s.

And seemingly embracing the “crazy French chef” persona that Top Chef Masters has crafted around him, he brings his menu back to France, but with a twist. Gone are the Asian and Mexican fusion experiments of LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T. LudoBites 4.0 is a return to similar territory as 2.0 at Breadbar, the season that made him the darling of the blogger set.

And he brings back an old classic too. The famed foie gras croque monsieur, the dish that almost singlehandedly defined him as much as his Ludo Fried Chicken. It seems Chef Ludo is in a giving mood and is bringing his favorites back in recent months to his legion of fans. Either that or Krissy, his wife and business partner, got tired of hearing the repeated pleas for its return and finally convinced him. Either way, the blogosphere rejoices!

Perhaps Chef Ludo’s recent LA Marathon training regimen has also influenced his current menu. Gone is the deep fryer (sorry kids, no LFC!) and in its place are gatrovac’d vegetables and perfectly poached eggs, salmon, and jidori chicken.

Well, and lavender lard. So there’s that.

Last night’s preview dinner was hosted by FoodDigger for a dozen lucky bloggers, with wine pairings provided by DomaineLA. We tried nine of the 13 dishes that will be on the starting menu although Chef Ludo did indicate that, after a couple of weeks once the kitchen settles in and he gets bored, the menu will change and become more experimental.

The space itself is an interesting choice. Gram & Papa’s operates at lunchtime primarily as a takeout restaurant so seating space is limited. Really just a handful of round tables at the front of the restaurant and a long space next to the open kitchen. In fact, next to Royal/T, the kitchen space is almost luxurious. Certainly it’s almost as large, if not larger, than the actual restaurant space and separated from diners only by chest high glass, giving every table an up close and personal view of the open kitchen.

After all, this is chef as rock star. Why hide behind a kitchen door? You’ll certainly hear every curse that Chef Ludo utters, even if you may not understand it.

You’ll have to pardon his French.

The dinner started with a few glasses of champagne, baguettes and “Three Fat Textures”. Those being lavender lard, clarified butter and whipped brown butter. Although not as sweet as Chef Ludo’s lavender butter at LB 2.0, the lavender lard was the pick of the bunch.

Following the bread course was a Carrot Salad, Saffron Anglaise Cream, Pearl Onions, Citrus, and Mustard Powder. Essentially carrots two ways, they were served gatrovac’d with orange water and caramelized with a blowtorch. These techniques allowed the carrots to retain some of their crunch, with the gastrovac’d carrots holding a hint of orange.

Next was what I predict will be the most talked about dish of LB 4.0. The Egg, Potato Mousseline, Lobster, and Borage Flower. Lobster sashimi topped with a perfectly poached egg, topped again with a silky potato mousse. The lobster tail plays beautifully against the potato mousse, its springiness contrasting the potato’s smoothness, with the runny egg yolk tying it all together. Like buried treasure, remember to dig right to the bottom for the lobster.

From the squeals of joy emanating from my fellow diners, the next course had to be the return of the Foie Gras Croque Monsieur with Lemon Turnip Chutney. A generous slice of foie gras terrine sandwiched between toasted slices of black squid ink dyed bread, ham and melted cheese. Cherries were out of season so no cherry amaretto this time around but in its place was a sweet and tart lemon turnip chutney. Honestly, I missed the sweet stickiness of the cherry amaretto sauce but that was really only the (yes, wait for it) cherry on top. The foie gras was and still is the star here.

Next was the vibrant Burgundy Escargot, Garlic Flan, Green Jus and Yellow Flowers. A riff on the classic escargot with garlic and parsley butter, here the garlic was in the form of a flan, the parsley a vibrant green jus, and topped with the escargot. I loved the garlic flan but, then again, I’m a fan of garlic. I think the reception was more mixed elsewhere. Eat all three components in one bite for full effect.

The first of the main courses was the Columbian River King Salmon Confit, Spring Cabbage, Orange Skin and Juniper Berries. Delicately poached with a firm, crispy skin, the salmon when paired with the juniper berry sauce was very good. The agar agar strip and the spring cabbage salad were extraneous but nonetheless a point of interest. I remarked to Chef Ludo that the juniper berry sauce could easily substitute for the missing cherry amaretto in the foie gras croque. I wonder if he’ll try my suggestion.

The next main was the Poached Jidori Chicken, Crispy Skin with Hazelnuts, Garden Vegetables and Bacon Royalé. Think of this as a deconstructed roast chicken dinner. The Jidori chicken has been rolled into a cylinder and poached, the skin fried crispy with hazelnuts and placed atop it, served with a bacon royalé (think bacon pudding) and leeks and peas, tied together with a swirl of gravy.

Cheese course was a Brie Chantilly Napoleon, Honey Comb, Balsamic and Frisée Salad. The brie had been hand whipped for two hours until almost the taste and consistency of butter, topped with a frisée salad and sandwiched between two pieces of crusty bread. On its own, it tastes almost like a butter sandwich. Add the honeycomb, however, and the flavors come alive.

We ended the meal with a Dark Chocolate Soufflé, with Black Pepper Milk Chocolate Ice Cream, and Chocolate Cream. Crack open the top of your soufflé, spoon in the very peppery black pepper ice cream, top with some chocolate cream, and try to finish the whole thing. I dare you.

After dinner, Chef Ludo came out and talked to the group about the meal. He rallied against the cult of bacon and fat in LA dining, he voiced his apathy for critics, and admitted he would probably be bored within two weeks and that the menu would become more adventurous.

He then signed menus and posed for pictures with the adoring blogger sisterhood, and Krissy and the staff began the job of transforming LudoBites back into Gram & Papa’s for their lunch service today.

Such is the life of a pop-up restaurant.

Still, how can you argue with a business model that sells out a two month season in just 18 hours?

LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s
227 E 9th St

Los Angeles, CA 90015

(213) 624-7272

Ludo Bites 4.0 at Gram and Papa's in Los Angeles

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