"oh. my. god. there he is. he is so. cute."
i peer over my companion's shoulder into the restaurant. whowha? him? the scruffy guy? that's the chef? er. okay.
i met some of my favourite bloggers, susan and bramble, along with some friends at breadbar on third street last week; breadbar is one of my favourite bakeries, and when i heard that it was hosting an ongoing event called ludobites prepared by chef ludovic lefebvre--he of the bare-chested fishing and orange nehi-spritzing--i thought, well alrighty then. i wasn't exactly sure it was my thing as it was a small plates menu with heavy emphasis on cheese (the venture is sponsored by the cheese store of beverly hills); i'm not completely stupid about cheese, but my comprehension of it only extends from knowing that in 1847 the uruguayan navy won a battle by using balls of edam as cannonballs, to thinking that cheddar is probably *not* what you want to use for a cheesecake. oh well. despite my wariness, i knew it would be a good event for a group of people to attend, and if anything, there was always the fantastic breadbar bread to fall back upon. everything about the venture sort of spelled disaster, though, as indecision and tepid reception sort of reigned, right up until we sat down; things only really sort of got going when susan took charge and decided that we were to sit front and center, smack up against the glass separating our table from Himself. (this was, in fact, the first night that they had placed the tables right up against the prep area; if the idea was to get maximum interaction with the chef, well....)
it still took a while for things to go smoothly: as breadbar does not have a liquor license, it was a BYOB event (graciously without a corkage fee)--i'm worse with wine than i am with cheese, so we sent the men in our party down to the neighbourhood liquor store, which is decent enough. after a noticeable wait, they returned empty-handed, as the shop had been busted for selling liquor to a minor. nice! there was so much activity going on at the prep area, that immediately susan and i had become transfixed, almost completely ignoring the rest of our party. the chef hand-carved all the cheeses in front of us, as his sous-chef worked on salads, terrines, cured meats. susan looked at me. "i could watch him carve cheese all night," she declared. i nodded. the rest of the world started falling away. the menu, with 50 items listed--from one daily entrée to the staggering cheese and tantalizing condiments sections--wasn't ignored but found to be a little mind-boggling. almost everything was too, too appealing. our server introduced himself as marshall, and kindly let us fumble through for far too long, until he could take it no longer and basically told us (kindly) he would bring our drinks and some bread baskets. the bite-sized chunks of bread arrived with hand-hewn shingles of beurre echire, a french butter so rich it could have been one of the cheeses on offer. (funnily enough, i had spent the afternoon with tiana, another companion, at surfas, which is our equivalent of the pleasure chest; we had just been drooling over the refrigerated butter case hours earlier and dreaming of this very scenario.) marshall™ was instantly recognized as a star, and became the evening's liaison between our party and the refills station.
i wanted everything--then and there--but we started with what seemed wise: an order of the intriguingly trademarked brocamole™, heirloom tomatoes with a feta mousse, and the large cheese platter with condiments and bread. the brocamole™ --a sort of guacamole made with finely chopped broccoli, red onion, tomatoes, and herbs--was crisp, clean, with an interesting sharp edge to it, and reminiscent of a pico de gallo. tasty, but ultimately the trademark was the most remarkable thing about it. the heirloom tomatoes were gorgeous--so gargantuan, and at the absolute peak of ripeness: sweet, only mildly acidic, and juicy, dressed for the ball with tiny, jewel-like black olives (niçoise? nyon?), and translucent ribbons of red onion. the mousse was cloud-like and surprisingly delicate, discernibly feta in flavour, yet without any of the mustiness i associate with it.
if there was any doubt that cheese was the predominant element of the menu, the specially branded cheeseboards would put that to rest. (i would really like the story behind them. actually, i would really just like one.) there was a small stack of them, ready for chef to fill with the selection of his choosing: reblochon-cow's milk cheese from the alps region of savoie, moliterno-an aged sheep's milk pecorino infused with fresh truffles, fromage d'affinois-a cow's milk double crème for which the word 'unctuous' was surely made, epoisse-a strong runny thing washed in brandy....bramble has the low-down on the complete contents of the board, which was also dotted with a number of the housemade or hand-selected condiments: honeycomb with white honey (possibly hawaiian?), sweet ginger, carrot jam with orange, a lush date purée with fleur de sel, lemon purée, a tomato jam.
i had a question about an onyx-black cube that stood menacingly in the middle of the board; marshall referred us to the maître d'? manager? of the breadbar, who deferred to chef lefebvre himself. he hovered over us, animated, focused, describing everything, despite the surrounding chaos--bramble had a camera on a tripod zoomed in on butter in front of her with the maître d' giving photography tips at her side, marshall was bustling to keep everyone and everything filled and fulfilled, and the rest of us were trying to rapidly comprehend and absorb chef's quick, heavily accented recitation of the dizzying array. (the black block was eventually identified as a preserved beet--fresher and tastier than it sounds, and flavoured more like sweet molasses than a root vegetable.) we dove in.
the cheese board was like an artist's palette (or, given the demographic of the table, a chemistry lab) for mixing and matching ingredients. opinions and suggestions flew around the table; only one of us with a large brain remembered the names of everything, so the comments were largely "omigod, that one!" "try this one!" and a lot of grunting and mmfph-ing from the sheer luxury of texture and flavours. the general consensus was that there was only one real dud on the board (b. identified it as saint-nectaire) which was bitter and ashy. amid the dissent, i heard a voice to my right; it was chef lefebvre, behind the prep area. we let him know of the offender. he checked the wheel in the display, already with a large wedge cut out, and nodded once, knowing instantly what we meant. he held it up, like a pac-man about to devour his head. "i am very disappointed by this one," he said, gravely. the pac-man wobbled in fear. we're very disappointed *for* you, chef! i silently thanked susan again for picking this table. this was fun. this guy's fun.
by way of compensation, he handed us a small board with a generous amount of fourme d'ambert, a cow's milk blue cheese from auvergne, which he was certain we would like. we did. a little while later, another small board came over the glass, garnished with a mango-lime chutney with pine nuts, and a pink grapefruit confit. the confit was a hit. "i don't even like grapefruit!" was uttered 'round, even as people reached for another little candied nugget of peel that held all the essence of the fruit, without the bitterness. i told chef of its popularity. he shrugged offhandedly--yes, certainly!--as he continued to chop whatever he was chopping. "i think it's in my cookbook," he mused. i had never decided to spend $50 so quickly in my life. "do you want more?" i was still in the clouds, wondering if book soup would still be open when we left, so i automatically declined. "wait!" there was a tug at my sleeve. tiana wanted to know what i just said 'no' to. i snapped to, and asked chef. "um, what? grapefruit?" chef waved his magic knife, and the table erupted in a resounding "YES!" he chuckled, and more arrived over the glass.
at this point, we were fully saturated with bread and cheese. dithering over other items still occurred--the skirt steak marinated in cola and espresso looked particularly interesting--but the scallop tartare with exotic fruit salsa was not available, and i think we forgot about the daily dish. everyone seemed mostly satisfied. i was too, but i really wanted to try something other than the condiments that the chef had made, something that perhaps showed off more of his culinary skills. again, that voice over the glass. "for dessert, you must get the LUDO mousse." from his mouth to marshall's ears; two plates of chocolate mousse appeared, along with a handful of spoons. we all took a greedy bit from the perfect quenelle. susan looked thoughtful. "there's chili in there." i took a bite. the chocolate was hawaiian--dark, deep and velvety. in the back of my throat, i felt the small sparks of capsaicin, crystalline and clear. she asks what pepper was used, and chef smiled a little; ah, red jalapeño. yes, certainly! too clean to be cayenne, not spicy enough to be habañero. beyond ignition, no real heat to speak of--just something to vitalize the senses, to counteract the soporific effect of the sultry chocolate. a sparkler lit on an autumn night.
you know, there is something about a good quenelle that gets us girls going. (or at least susan and me. maybe we need to get out more.) chef was again behind the counter, taking something out of a plastic container. ooh. it was an apple tart of sorts, but it looked like paper-thin leaves of apple had been cooked down to form a solid cake (i had later read that it just might be that). however, that was immediately overshadowed when the ice cream container came out; chef took out a spoon and deftly scooped out a perfect quenelle in a single stroke. a sound that encompassed sheer admiration, wonder and envy escaped us. "we might have to order one of those to see him do that again," i muttered. he did it again. this time, he was no longer speaking to us, just handing us the plate over the glass. this one was ours. the apples were cool, melting in their own juice and the slightest of caramels. it was pudding-soft, sweet as honey. the ice cream was flavoured with mastic, a resin from an evergreen shrub, that is used in turkish ice cream and gives it its unusually white appearance and elastic texture. chef lefebvre's version was not particularly gummy, but the flavour was distinct--green, like the sap running through a young tree, or the newest leaves shooting off its branches. there was something quite thoughtful about the whole thing--the ripened fruit and green sapling, a scattering of finely crushed spanish almonds like a crumble of bark, the coolness of the cream like a breeze rustling though the leaves. a nina simone song, translated.
i realized we were all very happy; the chef was busy attending to other patrons so we broke of the spell, and the table was lively with conversation and good-natured teasing about the sheer amount of fermented dairy ingested. i heard someone threatening to hide a piece of the sanitaire in a companion's shoe, just to drive him crazy. chef walked by quickly, with a finger of warning, "don't leave," he barked, as he hustled to the kitchen. we all looked at each other. whether by osmosis or by theory you are what you eat, we had all learned some form of the gallic shrug. chef tells you not to leave, you don't leave. after awhile, he walked up with two black bowls filled with a pale green liquid. an avocado soup, he said, something he was working on. avocado, almonds, grilled bananas, and a drizzle of citrusy olive oil. he was trying to make it more avocado-ey. the shrug, again. opinions around the table, again. chef looked at me; i had nothing to say as i am allergic to avocados. upon learning this, there was a glint in his eye that made me think he enjoys films of the 28 days/weeks later variety, but i spared him the gory details of my ailment. i think he's disappointed as he moved on to other things. i instead regale the table with some hideous highlights. moments later, that hand again, over the glass. a coconut panna cotta, adorned with passion fruit pulp and basil seeds, mercifully avocado-free. the gesture was sweet, but the panna cotta was nothing short of dangerous: sultry, slippery, exotic, slightly unfamiliar, but intoxicating enough to want more, despite it all. someone at the table cryptically remarked that the avocado soup was like married sex, and the panna cotta just pure, utter sex. um. make of that as you will.
we were sated, saturated, and there really was nowhere to go from there. thank yous to the chef and staff seemed inadequate, so marshall reaped the monetary rewards of a generous tip. i think we were all slightly disappointed it had to end, but there was great elation from knowing that we had just had a most memorable meal. i hope to have many meals with the friends and family that were there that night, and hope to have the privilege of chef lefebvre cook for us again, but i think for some of us (certainly, me) this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. our big night.
as we walked out of the restaurant, i realized for the first time in my culinary experiences, i had regrets other than the i-shouldn't-have-eaten-that kind. i regret not trying more of dishes, for not asking more questions, for not asking chef lefebvre for his recommendation, for not taking photos that did his work justice. for spending $200 on a pair of shoes and not on a meal at bastide or l'orangerie (no. wait. let's not go that far. still love my shoes).
what made it so memorable? certainly good company. definitely the casual and convivial atmosphere of breadbar. and of course, chef lefebvre's menu, which was difficult only in choosing; the food itself was not. i have been so disappointed by meals at restaurants with "celebrity" chefs that i've shyed away from any place that issues a press release, or haven't had access to deserving fare for one reason or another. this was a learning experience--not only one for french cheeses, but also one for flavour pairings and impact, a reawakening of the senses, and renewal of enthusiasm for food.
i can't guarantee you'll have the same revelation, but you might have a very nice meal. things i would do, should i be so lucky to return: bring wine! i know insanely little about it--everything i know about good wine i've learned from lou--but whatever you bring, i'm sure someone can help with menu pairings. bring friends! the dishes are really meant to be shared and paired--not just in portion, but flavourwise. the more, the merrier. bring an open mind! i did, and i am grateful. (oh, and go on thursdays. chef's recommendation.)
ludobites@breadbar (from now through december '007)
8718 w 3rd street
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