Top Dishes of 2012

Each year, I do a blog anniversary post listing my top 5 meals of the previous 365 days. I wanted to create a post highlighting the individual dishes that made me smile and kept me coming back for more. I haven’t really ranked anything, nor created a limit for the number that can be shown here; these are the ones that really struck me this year.

Below are my favorite dishes in 2012, in alphabetical (by restaurant) order.

5×5 Chefs Collaborative Dinner @ Melisse (Santa Monica, CA)
Angelini’s Homemade Spaghetti Chitarra alla Norcina with Sausage, Spring Truffles, Parmigiano-Reggiano

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Perfect al dente pasta, a little bit of meaty sausage, cheese and truffles created a simple, well-balanced plate of flavors. So good!

Angelini Osteria (Los Angeles, CA)
Lasagna Verde “Omaggio Nonna Elvira” with Beef and Veal Ragu

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Hearty, rich and soul-satisfying. Is it the veal and beef ragu that elevates this dish so much, or is it the cheesy bechamel or the housemade pasta? Probably all three.

Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)
Fried Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

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The oysters were so delicately fried with a crispy outside and juicy inside. Shaved truffles and an addicting truffle sauce really took the dish to greater heights.

LudoBites Best of Foie Gras (Los Angeles, CA)
Foie Gras Black Croque-Monsieur

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One of Ludo Lefebvre’s most well-known dishes was the perfect send-off to the now-banned ingredient. Squid ink-dyed bread was toasted just right, with an oozing foie gras terrine on the inside.

Pierre Gagnaire (Tokyo, Japan)
Taraba Crab Meat, Wild Mushrooms Fricassee with Autumn Fruits, Bouillon of Sauternes

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This was an umami-packed broth that was just so delicious – earthy and slightly sweet. Topping it with lumps of sweet, fresh crab was a perfect touch.

RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan)
Premium Sea Urchin from Hokkaido in Lace Wrapping Deep Fried Rare with Edamame Beans Paste

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The textures in these bites were so memorable, with a light crispy batter and soft, silky uni. It tasted amazing too, with the clean sea urchin flavor coming through beautifully.

RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan)
Wagyu Beef Filet Grilled on Charcoal with Assortment of Vegetables

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My second trip to RyuGin delivered this highlight. Here, the over-the-top fattiness of Japanese wagyu was in the form of relatively lean filet mignon; the opposites created a fantastic middle-ground. The result was something that was extremely tender, yet also very juicy and succulent. Crisp veggies provided just a little bit of textural crunch to lighten things up a bit.

Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA)

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I’m not sure how many times I’ve had this bowl this year, which justified a cross-town trip multiple times (and even a trip to the main branch in Tokyo, which serves a very similar bowl). I still remember loving it from the first bite: the thick, al dente noodles and umami-packed soup. I just wish there was a way to keep the soup hot throughout.

Happy eating in 2013!

Christmas 2012

Dining date: 12/25/12

Christmas is perhaps the oldest family tradition I know of (well, maybe Chinese New Year). It’s a very similar setup to Thanksgiving, but we’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. Lunch is at my aunt’s with my mother’s side of the extended family, while dinner is with my dad’s side at my grandmother’s.

curried curry squash

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egg rolls

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sauteed green beans and carrots

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BBQ pork ribs

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chow mein

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fried wontons

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quinoa salad

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bacon zucchini muffins

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chicken pot pie pockets

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breakfast sliders

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hot dog buns

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beef sliders

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ice cream cake

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pumpkin bundt cake

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gingerbread house

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coffee crunch cake

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In the early evening, we make the trip across the bay into San Francisco for dinner, a more ‘carnivorous’ affair.

roasted quail

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roasted new york strip

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mashed potatoes

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squab lettuce cups

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chinese sticky rice

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dream cake

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chocolate fudge pie

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I was so stuffed by the end of this, seriously. Maybe moreso than in past years, from what I can remember. But with so much good food and family, it’s hard not to gorge a bit.

La Boutique de Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

La Boutique de Joel Robuchon
Marunouchi Brick Square 1F
2-6-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005
Dining date: multiple

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Perhaps the one category of food that struck me the most in terms of differences between Japan and America was the countless options of quality pastries, chocolates and all types of sweets. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but I felt like I did in Japan, wanting to try everything I saw. Not only did all of the goods look appetizing, there is a high standard for everything to look cute and be packaged just as so.

The places I returned to most often for sugar and pastries had to be convenience store Lawson’s (premium cream roll!), Laduree, and this place – Joel Robuchon’s patisserie. There are a handful of locations in Tokyo, most attached to his restaurants, but the one I went to most often was this standalone Marunouchi location walking distance from the apartment and just a block from the office.

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The options were seemingly endless, and while I was able to make a good dent during my multiple visits, there were so many more things I wanted to try. I swear the first time I walked in, I did a full 360 as my eyes wandered around the store.

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Classic French pastries were of course involved, both sweet and savory.

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An impressive array of macarons and dessert confections were also available.

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This location even had sweet and savory crepes made-to-order. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try one of these.

My favorites and standbys were actually pretty simple. I had the basic croissant over-and-over (many times for breakfast), and I felt like I could feel each layer of flaky, buttery dough. So good. Salted caramel and chocolate croissants were also mainstays in my breakfast rotation, and I really enjoyed the mushroom and vegetable tarts that they had. I would totally recommend a stop here, and it’s on my list on a return trip. There’s even pre-packaged cookies and basked goods which are perfect for gifts…something I made use of as gifts to bring back to the US.

Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon
Yebisu Garden Place 2F
1-13-1 Mita, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0062
Dining date: 11/18/12

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I wasn’t initially planning to dine here. I went to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the beginning of my stay and was content on trying more of the Japanese food that I couldn’t get in America. At some point during my trip my thinking shifted and this place shot up my list. Was it all the Japanese food? Not sure; I don’t think so since I never actually got sick of it.

With 7 Michelin stars across 3 of his restaurants, Joel Robuchon has the most stars of any chef in Tokyo. The out-of-place-looking Chateau in Yebisu Garden Place houses two of the restaurants, the 2-star La Table (ground floor) and 3-star Le Chateau de Joel Robuchon (second floor).

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The three-star restaurant is very similar to his eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas with some similar signature menu items, kind of gaudy interior, and ridiculous breadcart. Dinner is downright expensive with set menus going up to ¥40,000. Lunch seemed to be a relatively reasonable visit with menus ranging from a weekday-only 5-course menu at ¥6,000 going up to ¥15,000. We went with the ¥15,000 menu, offering 8 courses.

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We began with a little bubbly.

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Sea urchin with a delicate crustacean jelly and cauliflower cream

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The first thing out of the kitchen was this dish, complete with a special plate. This was very similar to something I’d had in Las Vegas. The jelly had a strong crustacean flavor though it was clean and crisp. A cauliflower cream was an excellent accompanying flavor profile, having a creamy sort of earthiness to go along. Bright, fresh uni pieces sat at the bottom yielding a little bit of sweetness with each bite.

Not unlike the Las Vegas restaurant, the Tokyo outpost has the most impressive breadcart I’ve ever seen. Selections were taken back into the kitchen to be warmed through. My first set was a mini ham and cheese croissant (delish!) and milk bread (one of my favorites from the past).

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Potato salad served with tomato confit, parmesan shavings and autumn truffle

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This really wasn’t like a typical potato salad; instead, warm soft potatoes were beautifully plated with sweet tomato confit, parmesan, bitter greens and truffles. It was exceedingly simple but well-executed, with a careful balance of flavors full of umami.

Sauteed duck liver served with a parmesan cheese risotto

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I loved this dish. Maybe it was because I’ve been somewhat foie gras-deprived in California, but I found the liver to be seared perfectly with a rich, silky interior. An equally rich parmesan risotto was delicious as well with its al dente grains of rice; a drizzle of olive oil to finish provided a little bit of a fruity note to each bite.

Pan fried amadai cooked with its scales and served with a lily bulb yuzu scented broth

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Amadai was cooked with its scales intact, providing a natural texture, almost as if it had been breaded and fried. I really liked the crunch that each bite had, while the moist fish sat in a nice broth with floral and citrus accents.

This red wine seemed like an appropriate pairing for the next course.

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Grilled beef served with seasonal vegetables and a natural gravy

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I was eagerly anticipating this dish to see what the kitchen would do with some Japanese beef. I was slightly disappointed to see they used the relatively lean filet mignon; it was a very good piece of tenderloin but I thought another cut would stand out more. The vegetables were cooked until tender, each having its own disparate flavor. To pair with the course, I requested some of Robuchon’s signature mashed potatoes; the server said that they typically only serve them for dinner, but since I came all the way from America they obliged. Score! Reliably as ever, they were rich, buttery and delicious.

Pistachio mousse with pear sherbet and pistachio tuile

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The pre-dessert was in the form of this refreshing and cool pear sorbet. A pistachio mousse and crisp tuile provided nuttiness and contrasting textures, while diced pears brought fresh flavors and sweetness to each bite.

Praline mousse with a pistachio filling and an apricot compote, almond ice cream

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The last course was this pretty strong dessert. The apricot itself was delicious and sweet, and I thought the almond ice cream really went well with it. The duo of praline and pistachio on the left provided more earthy, nutty bites that also paired well with the fresh apricot.

Coffee or tea served with petit fours

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Lastly, coffee (or tea) service came along with a cassis macaron, chocolate truffle, and panna cotta with raspberry and chocolate sauces.

There was a fun take-home gift of a large loaf of bread; not unlike the Las Vegas restaurant, it’s only for female guests. No fair.

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Overall I thought the meal was excellent and the service even better. As expected, execution was on point and I found everything to pretty much be delicious. The cooking wasn’t particularly innovative I suppose, but for some reason I wasn’t looking for that at this point in the trip. Robuchon’s cooking around the world has a lot of Japanese accents, and it was fun to see much of the Japanese influences and ingredients incorporated here. I’d have to say this was easily the best Western meal of the trip.

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Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825
Dining date: 11/15/12

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Kohaku is the younger sibling restaurant to three-star kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa. Chef Koji Koizumi worked under Ishikawa for years, becoming his right-hand man. When Ishikawa decided to move his restaurant, it was time for Koizumi to take over the old space to create something of his own. Compared to Ishikawa, Kohaku is known for incorporating more modern Western ingredients into his dinners, something that has helped him garner two Michelin stars of his own.

The restaurant is located in the Kagurazaka part of Tokyo, a neighborhood filled with hilly streets, winding roads and dark alleys. The charming entrance of Kohaku was in one of these dark alleys; we actually had to backtrack a few times to find it.

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Three fixed menus were available at ¥15,000, ¥17,000 and ¥20,000. The middle tier introduced fugu/blowfish into the mix, something I really wanted to try on this trip, so we went with that one.

As with all of the other kaiseki restaurants I’d been to, great care is demonstrated in sake service.

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Chawanmushi with Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake Mushroom and Lotus Root

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The meal began with a warm, comforting light custard, perfumed with earthy notes from the nuts and mushrooms. The lotus root provided a little bit of textural contrast to the smooth custard.

Monkfish Liver and Eggplant with White Miso Sauce

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I loved this ankimo, cool creamy and delicious. Lightly smoked eggplant and a subtly sweet miso complemented the liver nicely.

Steamed Rice topped with Scallop and Seaweed Sauce

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The rice, called ‘mochi rice,’ was very glutinous, topped with a pretty delicious seaweed sauce. The scallop was seared on one side, still mostly raw, and its sweetness really went well with the seaweed sauce.

Snow Crab Dumpling and Turnip

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As this was brought to the table, the server said the dumpling was made with very little binder, maximizing the crab flavor. I enjoyed the sweet chunks of crab, which sat in a lightly smoky dashi. The turnips were also pretty sweet and tender.

Spanish Mackerel Sashimi

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For the next course, the server explained that this sawara, a type of Spanish Mackerel, is a very fatty fish in the winter. It was served with bright shiso, a classic combination.

Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

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I love fried oysters so I was very excited for this one, especially since shaved truffles were on top. The oysters were perfect, with a delectable crunch and burst of juicy meat on the inside. The truffle sauce, made with grated truffle, dashi, and milk was exceptional having a great umami burst and truffle essence. So good.

Blowfish, Chinese Cabbage and Leek with Chili Sauce

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This would be my first time ever having the potentially dangerous blowfish, or fugu. A mix of various parts of the fish, including the skin, was served with a citrusy ponzu and green onions. I found the fish itself to be rather light and mild in flavor, though with interesting textures, taking on the flavors of its accompaniments.

Kinme Snapper, Leek, Turnip and Garland Chrysanthemum

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A light dashi soup filled with snapper, baby leeks and turnip was next. Warm and comforting, the soup had a subtle floral flavor and the fish was juicy and moist.

For the next course, two options were available for the rice bowl. We ordered one of each, both coming with red miso and Japanese pickles.

Steamed Rice topped with Fresh Salmon Roe

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Steamed Rice topped with Broiled Duck

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Both of these were executed well, though nothing special. Simply prepared, I thought the duck didn’t have quite as much flavor as there could’ve been, and I found it underseasoned as well.

Black Sugar Jelly, Black Soybean, Cream Cheese, and Rum Sherbet with Soup

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Lastly, we were served this interesting dessert; looking at the ingredients, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I actually really enjoyed it between the creamy sweetness of the cheese and sugar jelly and slight bite of the rum sherbet. Creamy, sweet soybeans were a nice touch too.

I really enjoyed this meal at Kohaku. Some of the dishes were excellent (the fried oyster was outstanding) and the service was impeccable. While the meal had some modern/Western touches, it seemed to still be very steeped in traditional kaiseki dining. I easily enjoyed this meal more than other two-star kaiseki options like Ginza Okuda and Ginza Toyoda, but RyuGin is still the standard-bearer for me.

LudoBites 10 @ Gram & Papa’s (Los Angeles, CA)

LudoBites 10
Gram & Papa’s
227 E 9th St
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Dining date: 12/10/12

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Last week LudoBites returned in its 10th incarnation, dubbed a sort of “Best Of” celebration bringing back many dishes from previous iterations of the pop-up. Adding to the hype, it was also announced that this would be the last LudoBites pop-up given that Ludo will be opening a permanent restaurant (with the Animal guys) in the new year. Not surprisingly, reservations were again scarce for the 3-week run, with reservation requests taken through an UrbanSpoon lottery. I’ve heard that approximately 5% of reservation requests were granted, a rate similar to LudoBites 8.0 (the last LA version).

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Downtown’s Gram & Papa’s is a usual suspect in terms of LudoBites locations, and I was happy to see it used again for this one (it’s by far the most convenient for me!). The ever-changing menu on this night had a mix of classic dishes from the past and some new ones. As much as I love trying Ludo’s new creations, I was probably more excited to try some old favorites again. I could seriously think up a dream team of past dishes to craft up the perfect meal.

As with all LudoBites, Ludo can be found in the kitchen every single night. In my experience, there really hasn’t been as much chaos and yelling as their Sundance Channel show would suggest…

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Hamachi, Vietnamese Salad

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We started down memory lane with this dish from 6.0, a cool hamachi fish complemented by refreshing and crispy slivers of green papaya and fried lotus root. Definitely a hit.

Prawns, Avocado, Pineapple, Shrimp Oil

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The seafood continued with these prawns, served with an added sweetness of pineapple and an interesting shrimp oil, providing some additional depth of flavor.

Oysters, Gray Shallots, Blanco Grapefruit, Kombu

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I found the oysters to be good, but the bite was overpowered by a strong bitterness from, presumably, the grapefruit.

Celery Root Risotto, Creamy Mustard Emulsion, Red Walnuts

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This was something new; small diced celery root was smothered in a mustard emulsion sauce. This one didn’t work for me (and perhaps the rest of the table as we didn’t finish either of the two orders), with the creamy sauce being overly rich and sort of monotone in flavor.

Ham Soup, Radish, Pickles

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We rebounded with this nice bowl of ham (and, I think, cheese) soup, with a warm comforting porky flavor. Slivers of radish and pickles provided a slight crunch and acidity to cut trough the rich soup. Add a warm baguette and this would be a great meal.

Tandoori Octopus, Beets, Pink Onions, Yogurt, Fennel

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Tender braised octopus was paired with crisp beets and a tart yogurt, in one of the seemingly simpler dishes of the evening.

Squid Pad Thai Butter, Grapes, Tofu, Lime Oil, Chili Oil

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I enjoyed this 6.0 throwback, a “squid pad Thai” with squid, crispy bean sprouts, and well-balanced lime and chili oils. Thin slices of sweet grape really made a difference too.

Escargot, Fine Brick Tart, Garlic Mousse, Spinach, Parsley, Curry

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The escargot was tender and chewy, and I enjoyed the textural contrast with the ‘brick tart.’ A warm garlicky curry sauce brought everything together.

Poached Egg, Potato Mousseline, Chorizo

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This 5.0 dish is one of my favorites in LudoBites history so I was very excited to have this again. It really seems so simple – a velvety smooth mashed potato with a perfectly poached egg and just a little bit of chorizo makes a fantastic combination.

Chicken, Mushrooms, Parmesan, Pears, Brioche

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Ludo always seems to cook chicken well and this was no exception. The chicken was moist, and I really liked the texture that the brioche breadcrumbs provided. Great bites, particularly with the crisp, fresh slices of pear to offset the richness.

Veal, Carrots, Udon, Caramelized Onions, White Miso

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I found the chunks of veal to be a bit chewy and kind of flavorless. The udon and comforting miso were both good, but couldn’t make up for the disappointing crux of the dish.

Flat Iron Steak, Treviso, Smoked Anchovy Cream, Pepper Oil

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These were yummy chunks of medium-rare steak; the pepper oil and smoked anchovy cream were difference-makers, adding a lot of flavor and depth to the meat.

Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta, Caramel, Caviar

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This was another favorite of mine; I first had it at 6.0 (though it made its first appearance at 2.0). Salty caviar and sweet caramel came together with a great panna cotta at the center. The separate flavors really came together so well to make some delicious bites.

Lemon Meringue Tart

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Dollops of tart lemon curd, sweet whipped cream and crumbled “pie crust” made up this deconstructed lemon meringue tart. Similar to when I had it at 8.0, I liked the ability to make each bite different, experimenting with more cream or more curd to find the right balance.

Chocolate Fondant, Mint Pesto, Habanero Gelee

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A little bit of heat and a little bit of fresh herb flavor complemented this rich chocolate cake. Simple and executed well.

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I have no explanation.

Guests who paid with a MasterCard were treated to a signed cookbook – a cool promotion! While I do have some bias, I’ve found this cookbook to be one of the best reads, chronicling the story of the whole LudoBites pop-up concept. I have yet to experiment with any of the recipes, but that’s only a matter of time…

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Having been to LudoBites 1.0 I was happy to be able to come full-circle at this last one. Food-wise, I thought there were some highs and lows, but it was some of the more interesting things I’ve eaten in LA recently. The ‘highs’ were quite high though; I will always remember the poached egg/potato mousseline and the panna cotta with caramel and caviar. Who knows, maybe some of these favorites (or a variation) can find a recurring role at the permanent restaurant.

Previous LudoBites posts:
LudoBites 4.0 (2) | LudoBites 5.0 (2) | LudoBites 6.0 (2) (3) | LudoBites 7.0 (2) | LudoBites 8.0 (2)LudoBites America | LudoBites Best of Foie Gras