Monday, January 30, 2012

Drago (Santa Monica, CA)

Drago Ristorante
2628 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403
Mon 01/30/2012, 06:30p-09:35p

Drago Exterior

As of January 30th, the eponymous flagship of the Celestino Drago Restaurant Group is no more. When the ristorante opened over 20 years ago, it ushered in a new era of Italian dining in Southern California, making Celestino Drago and his three brothers fixtures on the Los Angeles dining scene for over two decades. The Dragos' success gave rise to a dozen new restaurants over the years, and the foursome has undeniably and indelibly shaped LA's culinary landscape. Drago Santa Monica, thus, launched a mini Italian empire in SoCal, and I was surprised to see it go after 21 years, the victim of an expiring lease. As such, it seemed fitting to enjoy one final meal here, on the restaurant's last day of service.

About Celestino Drago: Drago was born to a large family of six sons and two daughters in the commune of Galati Mamertino in the Messina province of Sicily. His mother was a homemaker and his father a farmer. The parents made olive oil, wine, cheese, bread, and pasta all from scratch, and instilled their children with an appreciation of fine Italian cuisine. It is perhaps no surprise, thus, that three of Drago's brothers--Giacomino, Tanino, and Calogero--decided to pursue careers in the restaurant industry as well (they run Celestino, Il Buco, Panzanella, Piccolo Paradiso, Sushi House Unico, Tanino, and Via Alloro, all here in the Southland). While in school for mechanical engineering, Drago worked at a restaurant called Pierino in Pisa, and it was here that he decided that he wanted to become a chef. He worked diligently for three years at Pierino, then finally took over the kitchens there.

In 1979, Drago moved to Los Angeles to work at Orlando Orsini, which, interestingly enough, was located at the current address of Picca and, fittingly, Sotto. He quickly imbued the food there with his Sicilian sensibilities, then became acquainted with restaurateurs Jerry Magnin and Larry Mindel, who headed up a number of eateries under their company Spectrum Foods (which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2003). In 1983, they handed Drago the keys to the longstanding Chianti/Cucina (in the current Village Idiot space on Melrose), and the Chef started garnering some attention for his dynamic, ingredient-focused menu. Drago stayed here for a couple years, then debuted Celestino in Beverly Hills in 1985. The success of Celestino allowed him to launch Drago Santa Monica in 1991, with the help of his three brothers. That restaurant was also a hit, and won Drago the title of one of "America's Best New Chefs" by Food & Wine magazine in 1993.

In 1994, Drago partnered with his brother Giacomino to open Il Pastaio on Beverly Hills' Canon Drive, a sort of neighborhood trattoria that became immensely popular. 2003 saw the arrival of Dolce Forno Bakery in Culver City, which specialized in providing Italian baked goods to the Drago family of restaurants, in addition to retail customers. The following year, Enoteca Drago, a wine bar concept, bowed just two doors down from Il Pastaio in the old La Scala space. In 2008, work began on Drago Centro in Downtown. Walter Manzke was reportedly on board to become head chef, but the opportunity ultimately fell through, with the restaurant opening in November with Ian Gresik at the helm. Most recently, Drago was planning to open Osteria Drago in Newport Beach's Fashion Island. The restaurant was supposed to come in spring 2010, but was eventually scrapped, replaced by another Italian joint from Chef Grant MacPherson called Rustica. Rustica, however, closed in August last year, replaced by middling American eatery Great Maple.

Currently, Drago Santa Monica is run by Executive Chef Evan Gotanda, a graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena (class of '01). Gotanda is a veteran of Bastide from the early days, working under Alain Giraud, Ludovic Lefebvre, Walter Manzke, and Paul Shoemaker. Following, he joined Theo Shoenegger at Patina, then transitioned to Paper Fish in Beverly Hills, cooking under Kevin Meehan (formerly of Cafe Pinot). From there, he became Sous Chef at Drago Centro, and in 2010, was promoted to Executive Chef here at Drago Ristorante. Gotanda is assisted by Sous Chef Matthew Haro, another graduate of the CSCA who spent time at Napa Rose, Bastide, and once again, Drago Centro.

Drago Menu Drago Menu Drago Menu
Drago's menu is divvied up into the expected sections of apps, salads, pasta, and mains. What was interesting was that, apparently, many of the dishes offered tonight were from the original menu, sort of a throwback to 1991. Click for larger versions.

Bread, Breadsticks, Butter
Bread, ostensibly from Dolce Forno, was rather tasty. I especially enjoyed the crisp grissini, and found the butter rather endearing as well.

Drago's signature amuse bouche, cone-shaped arancini, were soon brought before us. The rice balls were surprisingly satisfying, with hearty, heavy consistencies and rich, cheesy interiors accented by a touch of tomato tartness.

Ferrari, Perle, Trento, 2002
To drink, the Ferrari, Perle, Trento, 2002 [$68], a lovely sparkler with some great toasty notes to go along with an apple-y sweetness.

tramezzino di polenta
tramezzino di polenta [$13.00] | polenta sandwich, wild mushrooms, fontina cheese, truffle fondue
Here, Drago riffs on the classic triangular sandwich known as the tramezzino. As expected, the mushrooms showed off plenty of salty, savory, earthy flair, augmented by the luxuriousness of the Fontina and fondue. The slices of polenta, thus, were absolutely key in balancing out the dish, both in terms of taste, and in texture.

carpaccio di capriolo
carpaccio di capriolo [$14.00] | venison carpaccio, madeira, grapes, parmesan, spicy greens
A carpaccio of venison was nice, with the character of the meat playing well off the combined, juicy sweetness of the Madeira and grapes, while the Parm added salt and gravity to the mix. Finishing things off was the pleasant, vegetal tang of the shrubbery involved.

pancetta [$14.00] | pork belly, fennel, orange, frisee, apple cider vinegar
Pork belly, meanwhile, was tremendous, some of the best I'd had in a long while in fact. The meat, impeccably tender and succulent, showed off a perfect porcine relish that went superbly with the belly's crunchy, salty skin. Delicious alone, but I also appreciated the countervailing lightness imparted by the salad of frisée and citrus supremes.

tagliolini bianchi e neri con capesante
tagliolini bianchi e neri con capesante [$18.00] | black and white tagliolini, bay scallops sauce
And into the pasta we go. Tagliolini showed off a slightly peppery bite at first, which then transitioned into the saccharine, saline smack of scallop. A simple, straightforward flavor profile, deftly tied together by the dish's creamy sauce.

spaghetti con bottarga
spaghetti con bottarga [$18.00] | spaghetti with pressed dried tuna roe, olive oil garlic sauce and breadcrumbs
Up next was spaghetti, which conveyed a surprisingly heady aroma, courtesy of the bottarga. The roe lent an overarching brine to the dish that mixed in with the sweet, tart nature of the pasta, accenting and augmenting the dish's inherent flavors admirably.

risotto nero
risotto nero [$17.00] | squid, bay scallops, shrimp, squid ink
Given my penchant for risotto, this next dish was no surprise. The Vialone Nano rice arrived expertly cooked, with a proper al dente bite that I rather enjoyed. Breaking up the monotony of the risotto were lovely bits of squid, shrimp, and scallop, adroitly prepared and distinct in character.

fettuccine al sugo di carne
fettuccine al sugo di carne [$15.00] | ground veal, demi, tomato sauce, parmesan
No surprises here with the next course: a classic interplay of rich veal, tart tomato, and salty Parmesan flavors, bound together by textbook ribbons of fettuccine.

pappardelle al fagiano
pappardelle al fagiano [$18.00] | roasted pheasant, morel mushroom, parmesan
We ended the pasta gauntlet with my favorite of the fivesome. I thoroughly enjoyed the deep, dark flavors of the pheasant here, and how the bird combined so flawlessly with the earthy essence of the morels, amped up another notch by the inclusion of cheese. The wide swaths of pappardelle were great here too, moderating the otherwise hefty tastes at play beautifully.

petto di pollo
petto di pollo [$27.00] | porcini prosciutto crust, potato pancake, king trumpet mushroom, pearl onion, prosciutto parmesan cream sauce
We tend to stay away from chicken at restaurants, but it proved just too intriguing for us tonight. The bird was perfectly cooked, stupendously tender, moist, and flavorful, perked up a bit by its crisp, salty crust that one of my dining companions likened to Shake 'n Bake! I also enjoyed the stout cylinders of potato here, as well as the umami-rich savors imparted by the mushrooms.

agnello all'agrodolce tortino di patate e funghi alla griglia
agnello all'agrodolce tortino di patate e funghi alla griglia [$32.00] | pan roasted lamb loin, potato tart, grilled mushroom, sweet and sour
Our final savory course of the night dealt us some gorgeous lamb chops, perfectly cooked to a medium-rare temperature. It was actually some of the tastiest lamb that I'd had in a while: supple, succulent, brimming with flavor and finished with a slight gaminess. The meat was delectable alone, though its accompaniments were certainly nothing to sneeze at either. I found the sweet 'n' sour kick of the agrodolce especially fitting.

Drago Dessert Menu Drago Dessert Wine List
Dessert, naturally, was a must. Click for larger versions.

Panna cotta di Zuccca
Panna cotta di Zucca [$9.00] | red kuri squash panna cotta, candied seeds, cardamom cream
A panna cotta of squash was rather interesting. It had the sweetness that I was looking for, but also showed off a fantastic nuttiness and spice that made this far from typical.

Celestino Drago
The Chef checks in with us toward the end of the meal.

Semifreddo al Limone
Semifreddo al Limone [$9.00] | sponge cake, mascarpone gelato, grapes
The semifreddo, meanwhile, paired the sourness of lemon with the sugary smack of the accompanying fruit, while also doing a nice job balancing the light, airy sponge cake with dense, creamy gelato.

Mele Carammelate
Mele Carammelate [$9.00] | cinnamon pastry cream, apple, caramel, brown sugar gelato
Finally, here was what one dining companion compared to a deconstructed apple tart. The crisp, bright flavors of the apple really went superbly here with the spiciness of the cinnamon cream, as well as the unabashedly sugary smack of the caramel. Just a lovely mélange of contrasting textures, too.

I was actually quite pleased with this meal. Execution was pretty much spot on, and Drago delivered some great flavors on the plate tonight. There wasn't anything too novel, too dramatic, but just some solid, honest, satisfying cooking--I can see why this place has lasted so long. It is a shame, thus, that the restaurant is closing. As for what's next for the Chef, he's going to focus on running the rest of eateries, as well as the catering business. He did admit, however, that he'd love to reopen Drago sometime, if the location and economics work out that is.

Drago Interior

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Spice Table (Los Angeles, CA)

Spice Table Restaurant
114 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Fri 01/27/2012, 07:10p-11:00p

The Spice Table Exterior

I'm surprised that it took me so long to get here. The Spice Table was opened up way back in March last year by Chef Bryant Ng and wife Kim Luu-Ng (an attorney). Housed in an unassuming, 100-year-old, 2,000-square-foot Downtown building that once was home to the mediocre Cuba Central, the restaurant serves up Southeastern Asian fare inspired by the culinary heritages of its proprietors: Singapore and Vietnam.

About the Chef: Bryant Ng was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, the scion of a Singaporean family that ran a Chinese eatery called, cleverly, Wok This Way. Being a proper Asian boy, he attended UCLA, where he majored in molecular biology and business administration. Then, following graduation, Ng worked in pharma and biotech consulting in the Bay Area before being lured back into the kitchen. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and after his studies there, returned to San Francisco to cook at Roland Passot's longstanding La Folie. From there, Ng moved to New York, cheffing under Daniel Boulud at his eponymous Daniel before returning back to LA, landing at Mark Peel's Campanile.

That gig, with its Nancy Silverton connection, set him up for becoming the opening Chef de Cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza, working with Executive Chef Matt Molina. Ng, however, was out the door by 2009, and ended up consulting for Pizza East in London in the latter part of that year. By July 2010, word had spread about Ng's plans to open up shop in Little Tokyo. The Spice Table was supposed to debut that fall, but delays in the Weiland's Brewery-adjacent eatery pushed the opening until the following year. The restaurant finally bowed in March 2011, with Ng joined by Sous Chef Bonnie Jiang (Lucques, AOC) and Erik Black (Campanile, Osteria Mozza), and font-of-the-house coordinated by former Mozza alums Sharon Aronson and Ralph Waxman.

The Spice Table Menu The Spice Table Menu
The Spice Table's dinner menu is dominated by smaller sized plates, intended for sharing and grazing, with special attention being paid to satays and other dishes grilled on Ng's wood-burning hearth. There's also a lunch menu focused on banh mi and other, more casual fare. Click for larger versions.

The Spice Table Wine List The Spice Table Beer List
To drink, we're talking about a smart, focused selection of wines available by the 250mL carafe or bottle, as well as a small list of California-centric craft beers on tap. Click for larger versions.

Allagash Brewing Company, Allagash White, Belgian Style Wheat / North Coast Brewing Company, La Merle Saison
Beers here are available in 4-, 12-, or 16-oz sizes, with the smallest pour allowing you to sample a wider variety of beers; I wish more restaurants would follow in this model. In any case, we began with the Allagash Brewing Company, Allagash White, Belgian Style Wheat [$2.50], a wonderful witbier, in addition to the North Coast Brewing Company, La Merle Saison [$3].

Fried cauliflower
Fried cauliflower [$8.00] | fish sauce
I'm somewhat of a cauliflower fiend, so this would've been a must-order even had it not been recommended by pretty much everybody. I loved the florets' light, crisp batter, contrasted against their supple, soft centers, relatively mild in essence but dutifully accented by what I believe was a lacing of turmeric powder. The cauliflower was certainly delicious alone, but what took this over the top was that fish sauce, which added a heady, piquant pungency to things that just wrapped all the flavors up so perfectly. Simply put, this was quite possibly the best cauliflower dish that I'd ever had.

Lamb belly
Lamb belly [$10.00] | cumin, galangal, turmeric
Given that Ng specializes in satay--grilled, marinated meat on a stick basically--we had to give one of his skewers a shot. We chose the lamb belly, which came enthusiastically recommended by our server. Flavor-wise, it was pretty spot on, bursting with succulent, ovine goodness and punctuated by a smoky, bitter char. I also enjoyed the accompanying peanut sauce, which I found rather spicy, and much more subtle, much more appealing that the cloyingly sugary versions that typically come with satay. However, I would've liked to have seen more substantial pieces of lamb here, because, as the dish stands, the skewers weren't particularly satisfying in terms of texture.

Grilled bone marrow
Grilled bone marrow [$10.00] | prawn sambal
Bone marrow was tremendous, coming straight off the wood-burning grill and then topped with a layer of spicy prawn sambal (a paste of chile and fermented shrimp), then served with small mound of sea salt and a miniature salad of rau ram and red onion. I proceeded to assemble the various ingredients on the sliced baguette, and the resulting bite was genius, with the incomparable gravity of the slippery, gelatinous marrow playing perfect against the heat and umami-tinged relish of the sambal, all while the veggies added sharp pricks of piquancy to the fray. Just a marvelous mélange of disparate flavors, making for the strongest bone marrow dish that I'd ever experienced.

Kaya Toast slow cooked egg Kaya Toast
Kaya Toast [$8.00] | coconut jam on buttered toast, slow cooked egg, soy sauce, white pepper
Another oft recommended dish is Spice Table's kaya (coconut jam) toast. It arrived at our table along with a perfectly poached egg, pepper, and soy sauce, ingredients which we were instructed to mix together into a thick liquid, and then dunk the rectangles of toast in. I was a bit skeptical, but the course really did wow me. The interaction between the sweetness of the jam and the savory character of the soy, all moderated by the lush, runny egg, was a taste to behold, a faultless balance of flavors that was simultaneous simple, yet stupefying.

Pig's tail lettuce, herbs
Pig's tail [$13.00] | lettuce, herbs
At this point, the kitchen sent out an unexpected plate of pig tail (no, it's not nearly as curly as you'd think) for us to try. Tail is still a rarity in restaurants, but I'd thoroughly enjoyed Kris Yenbamroong's version at Night+Market, so I had some high expectations here. Think oxtail, but better: an amalgam of tender, falling-apart flesh and fat, wrapped around bone, teeming with porcine richness and swank. It was a dish of almost unimaginable heft, so the paired plate of lettuce, mint, perilla, and daun laksa was absolutely crucial in providing balance and levity to the course. A mound of pork, mixed in with the greenery, wrapped in lettuce, and bathed in fish sauce--talk about an enchanting eating experience!

2009 Hondarrabi Zuri, Finca Jakue, Getariako Txakolina / 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Educated Guess, Napa Valley
With our beers gone, we moved on to wine, and our server recommended one white and one red carafe to go with the remainder of our meal. The white was the 2009 Hondarrabi Zuri, Finca Jakue, Getariako Txakolina [$15], a delightfully light, refreshing txakoli with great acidity. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Educated Guess, Napa Valley [$15], on the other hand, was sort of the complete opposite, with straightforward Cab notes of dark berry accented by a touch of smoke and spice--quite nice.

Black pepper crab toast
Black pepper crab toast [$17.00] | black pepper, crab tomalley, oyster sauce, butter
Up next was my most anticipated dish of the night, Ng's signature black pepper crab. A great heap of crab meat came in substantial chunks, better for me to enjoy the crustacean's texture and chew. There was loads of peppery spice up front, intertwined with the slightly saccharine character of the oyster sauce, further accented by pinpoints of sourness from a squeeze of lime. Despite all the strong flavors at play though, the crab remained the hero of the dish, its inherent sweetness and brine still at the forefront of each bite, underscored by a delightfully lingering, creeping heat.

Beef Rendang
Beef Rendang [$16.00] | short rib curry served with rice, sambal, kaffir lime, peanuts
In our final savory course of the evening, Chef Ng riffs on the classic Indonesian dish of rendang, which is basically a dry curry of sorts. Niman Ranch short ribs show off their dark, deep flavors, joined on the palate by countervailing notes of ginger, lemongrass, peanut, and anchovy, with the coconut and jasmine rice serving to temper the dish. Overall, a great showcase of contrasting salty, sweet, spicy, and sour flavors; I just wish that the beef was a touch more tender.

Spiced cognac
Spiced cognac [$6.50] | soft-serve ice cream
Moving on to desserts, we began with easily the most intriguing soft serve that I'd ever had. The flavors at first were a hair disconcerting actually, but the more I ate, the more I grew to like the dish. Its enticing, slightly perplexing, yet fantastic interplay between brandy, spice, and sugary ice cream make this a must-try.

Kaffir lime custard
Kaffir lime custard [$5.00] | lychee cream
The lime custard, meanwhile, wasn't quite as successful. I appreciated the pointed tartness of the light, airy custard, as well as the tempering effect of the lychee cream, but I wanted more to balance out the dessert, both in terms of flavor, and texture, perhaps the inclusion of something like a graham cracker crumble.

'Milk & Cookies'
"Milk & Cookies" [$7.00] | warm ginger & palm sugar "panna cotta," spiced coconut sugar cookies
We ended with Ng's take on the traditional treat of milk and cookies. The milk was a porridge-like liquid brimming with warm, spicy, sugary, and even savory flavors, a hearty, satisfying soup in which to dunk my cookies. Nice.

Given the mixed reviews that The Spice Table has garnered over the past year, I came into the restaurant with some trepidation. I left, however, suitably impressed. I think Ng's cooking really captures the culinary climate here in LA at the moment, a multicultural affair that offers up flavors that are robust, confident, polished, yet rustic, all at the same time. It's this perfect blend of the Chef's heritage, unflappable Continental training, and unwavering Angeleno panache that give The Spice Table its magic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

LudoBites 8.0 at Lemon Moon (Los Angeles, CA)

LudoBites 8 at Lemon Moon
12200 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064
Wed 01/18/2012, 06:00p-09:40p

Lemon Moon Exterior

I think they finally got it right.

Indeed, rather than enduring an hour long exercise in "F5" futility in front of the computer, praying to god that Opentable doesn't crash, hopeful diners were instead treated to a leisurely lottery for this eighth iteration of Ludovic Lefebvre's seminal, ephemeral, pop-up, touring restaurant, held this time around at Lemon Moon, the breakfast-lunch place of Melisse's Josiah Citrin and Jiraffe's Rafael Lunetta. We could enter the Urbanspoon drawing any time during a 24-hour period starting on the 11th, with winners selected (pseudo) randomly by computer the following Friday, for sporadic seatings from the 18th to February 22nd.

That being said, I still failed to get a reservation, for the second LudoBites in a row (according to Krissy, there was about a 5% chance of getting in). Fortunately, six seats are held nightly for walk-in diners, and we earnestly took advantage of those spots. Surprisingly, they were ridiculously easy to obtain: you could've come in at 7:00 and have been accommodated at the bar.

LudoBites 8.0 Menu
The LudoBites menu definitely has a more luxurious, seafood-centric focus this time around, and the prices reflect it. Click for a larger version.

LudoBites 8.0 Wine List LudoBites 8.0 Wine List
To drink, Jill Bernheimer of Domaine LA has selected a small list of reasonably-priced wines (and a smattering of beers) to pair with the food. Corkage, meanwhile, is set at $18 per bottle. Click for larger versions.

NV Cambremer Cidre, Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil, Pays d'Auge, France
We began with the superb NV Cambremer Cidre, Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil, Pays d'Auge, France [$18]. This was an apple cider from Normandy, and showed off a lip-smacking sweetness initially, followed by a countervailing tartness and finished with a marked barnyard character that I really enjoyed. Sommelier Whitney Adams of Brunellos Have More Fun, described it as "Martinelli's with funk." Or, just think of it as adult apple juice.

Chicken Tandoori Crackling
Chicken Tandoori Crackling [$6.00]
When I read the menu description for this, I was thinking that we'd be getting a bowl of chicken skin chicharrones. What we actually got, however, was even better. I loved the intense, heady relish of the chicken liver mousse, accented beautifully by a sprinkle of sea salt. It was delicious alone, but the key here was that crisp skin, with its fantastic savoriness that augmented the mousse perfectly. An explosion of concentrated chicken-y goodness on the palate.

Crab Meat, Shrimp, Avocado Guacamole, Pomelos
Crab Meat, Shrimp, Avocado Guacamole, Pomelos [$25.00]
A mound of hairy crab was the hero in this dish, with a lovely, sweet brine that formed a really neat interaction with the sugary, banana-infused guacamole. The sweet shrimp, meanwhile, added further salinity, as well as a textural contrast, and I greatly appreciated the accompanying umami-laden broth as well. I could've done without the pomelo, though, which added a citric bitterness to the fray that I didn't think was necessary.

Scallop, Leek, Potato, Black Truffle
Scallop, Leek, Potato, Black Truffle [$29.00]
One of our favorites was Ludo's deconstructed take on vichyssoise, which is basically a hearty soup of potato and leek. I loved the wonderfully rare slices of scallop here, and how they worked with the crispy, savory bits of leek and potato, with the whole amalgam tied together by that creamy, luscious sauce. Interestingly however, I didn't even think that truffle was needed here, given the strength of the other flavors at play.

2010 Savary Vieilles Vignes Chablis, Chardonnay, Burgundy, France
With our cider dispensed with, we moved on to the 2010 Savary Vieilles Vignes Chablis, Chardonnay, Burgundy, France [$48]. This was rather nice as well, with a tasty, citrus-y acidity and slight grassy character backed by a subtly savory base of minerality.

Ludo Lefebvre
Ludo torching our next course.

Uni Crème Brûlée
Uni Crème Brûlée [$18.00]
Our sea urchin crème brûlée conveyed a smart interplay of saccharine and saline flavors, with the essence of uni forming a light veil of brine over a sweet custard base, all perked up by pricks of salt from the dish's topping of salmon roe. I especially appreciated the sugary, caramelized crust on the course, and how the sweetness here lingered long on the palate.

Raw Beef, Radish, Beets, Eel
Raw Beef, Radish, Beets, Eel [$19.00]
Next up was easily one of the most interesting tartars that I've had. Raw beef was spot on by itself, but deftly augmented by a touch of fishiness from the smoky bit of eel mixed in. At the same time, I adored the countering piquancy from the horseradish mayo, as well as the crunchiness imparted by the bread crumbles. Finishing things off was the light, bright astringency of the radish, which worked wonders in cutting the heft of the dish. My only concern was the beet-balsamic coulis, which I found gratuitous.

Foie Gras, Tamarind, Turnips, Daikon
Foie Gras, Tamarind, Turnips, Daikon [$22.00]
Ludo's known for his facility with foie, and here again, he demonstrated as much. The liver itself was cooked to a marvelously supple, silky consistency, actually reminding me of the transcendent foie gras shabu-shabu at Urasawa. Its taste was so subtle, so refined, yet remarkably profound at the same time, forming a perfect foil to the broth. And what a broth! It arguably outshined the foie, with its delicious mix of sweet, sour, and herbaceous flavors, amped up by the fattiness of the liver. My favorite course of the evening.

Steamed Black Seabass, Fennel, Lettuce, Bernaise Vinaigrette
Steamed Black Seabass, Fennel, Lettuce, Bernaise Vinaigrette [$22.00]
Sea bass made for a surprisingly strong dish as well, with the fish showing off a tender, yet flaky consistency and a tasty relish that paired swimmingly with the tart, tangy smack of the accompanying vinaigrette. Meanwhile, I also appreciated the licorice-tinged kick of the fennel fronds, as well as the crisp, light flavors of the Girovac'd lettuce.

Monkfish Liver, Cucumber, Cornichons, Mustard Seeds
Monkfish Liver, Cucumber, Cornichons, Mustard Seeds [$20.00]
Here was without a doubt one of the most creative preparations of ankimo that I've ever seen. A large lobe was presented in glorious form, displaying a wonderfully cooked consistency that I found rather endearing, and delicious, with smoky, slightly astringent flavors playing off the richness of the liver wonderfully. It easily stood on its own merits, but I enjoyed the tempering tanginess imparted by the pickles and mustard seeds as well.

From the Tank Red, Grenache/Syrah/Carignan, Rhone, France
At this point, it was time to move on to a red, and we went with a carafe of the From the Tank Red, Grenache/Syrah/Carignan, Rhone, France [$14]. This was a pretty straightforward, easy-drinking wine, surprisingly smooth, with a good mix of dark fruit, smoky, and spicy flavors.

Jidori Chicken, Parmesan Soubise, Broccoli, Walnuts, Eggs
Jidori Chicken, Parmesan Soubise, Broccoli, Walnuts, Eggs [$22.00]
Our first real meat course of the evening brought roast chicken, and certainly, Ludo knows his way around coq. The meat was just stupendously tender, moist, and tasty, with a wonderfully crisp, salty skin to boot. I also appreciated the additional weight and complexity imparted by the cheesy, slightly sweet soubise, as well as the vegetal crunch of the broccolini. My only complaint was the walnut, which seemed distracting and superfluous.

Duck, Orange, Olives, Carrots
Duck, Orange, Olives, Carrots [$25.00]
Here, Ludo paid homage to the classic French dish of canard à l'orange. The bird itself was nicely cooked, supple, and juicy, with a lovely duck-y savor and delightfully crisp skin. I actually enjoyed the sweet, tangy flavors contributed by the orange here, and even the olive worked in moderation. Carrots, meanwhile, served to brighten and lighten the dish.

Ludovic Lefebvre
Looking pensive.

Goat Cheese Profiteroles, Pistachio, Crispy Leaves
Goat Cheese Profiteroles, Pistachio, Crispy Leaves [$15.00]
Our cheese course consisted of a chèvre cream puff basically. The profiterole conveyed a great bit of lactic tanginess, which actually paired amazingly well with the saltiness imparted by the pistachio, while the greenery added a surprising, yet somehow fitting vegetal character.

Lemon Meringue Tart
Lemon Meringue Tart [$13.00]
A lemon meringue tart was much better than I expected, showing off a perfect blend of sugary and sour flavors, all beautifully integrated by the fantastically buttery pie crust crumbles.

Chocolate Napoleon, Orange Creamsicle
Chocolate Napoleon, Orange Creamsicle [$13.00]
We ended the dinner with a dish apparently inspired by a catering gig Ludo did for Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Think classic flavors here of not-too-sweet, slightly bitter chocolate and tart, creamy orange. It worked.

The kitchen did a bang-up job tonight, serving course after course of some of the best, most consistent food Ludo's ever put out. As we all know, meals at LudoBites can have definite highs and lows, so I was pleasantly surprised and how strong each dish was. The cooking just seemed more confident, more refined, more robust than I was expecting, which was absolutely great. Meanwhile, service, coordinated by Michael Nemcik, was on point as well, which is commendable for opening night. All in all, I do no hesitate in calling this the best LudoBites ever.

Lemon Moon Interior

Previous LudoBites posts: v7.0 at Gram & Papas, LudoBites America, v6.0 at Max [1], v5.0 at Gram & Papas [1], v4.0 at Gram & Papas [1], v3.0 at Royal/T [2] [1], v2.0 at Breadbar [1].