Protip: You can tell a lot about a dude from the way he eats buckwheat "popcorn," the crunchy fried grain that tends to show up before the meal at Trois Mec, the new restaurant from Ludovic Lefebvre. The more primitive members of the species worm their fingers into the tiny cup like apes hunting for grubs in a rotten log, scooping out a grain or two and licking them off of their salty fingertips. More advanced specimens pick up the vessel and tap out a few at a time to chew in contemplation. The most impulsive pour them all into their palms and shotgun them in a buttery, vinegary, ultra-crunchy mouthful, intense enough to overpower the dribble of delicately fig-scented Lillet that has been set down as an aperitif.
Trois Mec, which translates roughly as Three Guys, may have as its auteur a chef with more experience in Michelin three-stars than every other chef in Los Angeles put together, but it is not the kind of place to have a dainty, custom-designed implement to retrieve the buckwheat. It occupies a repurposed Raffallo's Pizza in a worn media district mini-mall, and the pizza parlor's signs have been left intact in the parking lot and over the entrance. The interior has been refinished in a vaguely chic neutral palette, but half the diners eat at a counter facing the open kitchen rather too intimately, and if you are in the second seating, you will be spending a lot of time studying the takeout menu of the Thai place next door. I almost hope you don't speak French, because the vulgarity of the French hip-hop usually on the sound system is pretty overwhelming.
In the year leading up to the restaurant, half of Los Angeles was rooting for Lefebvre to return to the haute cuisine of Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, in which he was trained, and the other half wanted a bricks-and-mortar version of LudoBites, the long-running pop-up restaurant that maintained residence at art galleries and diners deep downtown. Trois Mec, opened in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, is some combination of the two, a mainstream restaurant that feels like a closely held secret; a funky dining room with distinctly unfunky food and with what in a certain light could be considered almost reasonable prices: $75 for a multi-course tasting menu, which is about half what you'd pay for a comparable experience in Paris or New York.
You do not reserve a table: You buy tickets online, as if for a Lakers game or a Daft Punk show. And if you don't manage to sign into troismec.com within a few minutes of 8 a.m. on the alternating Fridays when the restaurant releases its tables for the next two weeks, you'll miss the time you want or possibly be shut out from dining at all. There is one set menu per night, although vegetarians (but not vegans) can be accommodated. If something comes up or you think braised lamb breast sounds boring, you can give your tickets away, but you can't return them: You're stuck.
The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs, and you understand why they do it — Lefebvre is a TV-famous chef, the restaurant has only 24 seats and LudoBites once famously crashed the Open Table system. Still, there is not a less convenient way to dine.
But once you've planned ahead, paid ahead and herded your party into the pizza parlor, you sense it may be worth the trouble. There are snacks: those buckwheat nuggets, a chile-infused madeleine, a single boneless chicken wing with sesame, and a tiny tart — eat it in one bite, you are advised — filled with a wee salad of herbs and flowers. A few people still poke their heads through the door every night looking for pizza, and in honor of the location, Lefebvre bakes squares of crackly pizza-scented flatbread. Perhaps you'll be served a bit of tempura in a puddle of vegetable broth or a few fresh peas tossed with fat salmon roe. You don't come to eat anything specific here. You come to eat Lefebvre's food.
So one night there will be peeled spears of asparagus served with fresh herbs, buttered brioche crumbs and a sous-vide thickened egg yolk as the sauce; two weeks later, a sort of take on Japanese chirashi, with ripe avocado layered over a silky salt-cod-infused cream, which in turn is layered over sushi rice — it's a dish you could equally imagine at Shunji or a restaurant like Berasategui in Spain. (Its vegetarian equivalent, with whipped tofu in place of the cod, was really almost as good.)
The star dish in the restaurant's first weeks was a plate of long-cooked then flash-grilled "BBQ" carrots slicked in a sweet, umami-rich sauce and flanked by hillocks of yogurt — at the Le Fooding festival at the Geffen Contemporary, the line to get those carrots snaked far into the courtyard. The last time I was in, there were English peas with a kind of bone-marrow flan instead.
"I worked almost a year for Joel Robuchon," I once heard Lefebvre moan, "and that potato purée! So good, but so many hours rubbing those potatoes first through one tamis [horsehair sieve], then through another, then through another. My arms still ache."
Lefebvre has taken revenge of sorts on his mentor with his own potato purée: slightly undercooked Weiser Family Farms potatoes passed through a ricer directly onto a plate of brown butter, onion soubise and Salers cheese from the Auvergne, then sprinkled with dried Japanese bonito flakes. The texture is not cloudlike but substantial, not just grainy but super-grainy — the onion sweetness, the funk of the cheese and the smokiness of the bonito not overpowering but enhancing the mildly acerbic sharpness of real potato flavor. If ever there was an anti-Robuchon potato dish, it is this one, constructed by a chef who knows the rules all too well … a potato actually served by itself as a main dish.
The meaty part of the dinner, whether a deconstructed choucroûte with blood-rare Iberico pork and a smear of blood sausage purée, braised lamb belly with a Tunisian-style harissa or a chunk of grilled rib-eye cap served in a puddle of shallot broth, almost seems like an afterthought.
Dessert will probably revolve around homemade ice cream of one sort or another, perhaps almond ice cream with rhubarb and rose ice or exotically scented tonka bean ice cream with tart sorrel ice and fresh peaches.
Three top chefs, 24 seats and you've got to get lucky to buy a ticket.
716 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, troismec.com
$75 for a multi-course tasting menu.