By S. Irene Virbila, L.A. Times Restaurant Critic
8:36 PM CDT, March 31, 2010
I've never met the man. But by all accounts, commercial director Joe Pytka is talented, difficult, sophisticated, a wine connoisseur, a design savant, and an exacting taskmaster. He's also wealthy -- wealthy enough in the days before he opened his own restaurant to routinely drop thousands of dollars at a time on food and wine at L.A.'s best restaurants. Wealthy enough to keep Bastide closed for months after he tired of its last iteration (its fourth) and thought about what he wanted to do with the space next.
But now, more than seven years after he first flung open Bastide's pale blue (now tomato red) doors on a rigorous French restaurant helmed by Alain Giraud and curated by French design doyenne Andrée Putman, comes the new and much more casual Bastide. Gone are the expensive tasting menus (which, I should point out, were always a bargain compared with restaurants of the same quality in France) and the breathtaking wine prices.
Bastide is no longer one of the last bastions of fine dining in the city. But why should we care? Because this Bastide has a wider appeal while still retaining most of its charms, among them the iconic garden patio (the most beautiful in L.A.), the expansive wine list, and the excellent service, albeit with a much reduced staff. And while the menu is not as ambitious (or expensive) as it once was, chef Joseph Mahon turns out fresh and appealing California fare.
Why review the restaurant yet again? Because, despite the name, which has stayed constant, Bastide isn't the same restaurant at all. It's almost as if Pytka is trying out a series of high-end pop-up restaurants in the same place, in the same enviable place, that little house with an enchanting garden behind the high walls on Melrose Place.
Bastide has been, in this order, a serious French restaurant with exclusively French wines under Giraud, an ambitious cutting-edge restaurant under the mercurial Ludovic Lefebvre, a smart California-French boîte under Walter Manzke, and then a sensuous California restaurant under Paul Shoemaker (with a wildly eclectic and exciting wine list from Belgian sommelier Pieter Verheyde).
Pytka closed each Bastide chapter with a slam. Been there, done that. Between each iteration, he took his own sweet time to come up with the next concept and find the right chef. That's a deep pocket.
For this latest, he toyed with turning Bastide into a cafe for breakfast, lunch and dinner and renaming it Bookshop Bistro to reflect the fact that the space is also part bookshop selling the lavish design and art tomes of the French publisher Assouline.
But Bastide it stayed, opening with lunch only and, as chef, Mahon, who previously worked with Daniel Boulud and David Bouley in New York, as well as David Myers at Sona here. Dinner was added in early February, only when Pytka was good and ready.
Pytka seems to have ratcheted down his ambitions for the place, content to have a very good but not remarkable restaurant. I suspect the simpler, more casual menu is exactly the way Pytka wants to eat right now, since he's always used his restaurant more or less as his personal commissary.
This time around the food, wine, service and setting pull together to make something seamless, a restaurant where the separate elements retreat into the background, where the focus is on the conversation and the company and just maybe the terrific soundtrack playing lightly, almost unobtrusively in the background.
Unfortunately, they've tried to jazz up the decor with banana leaf wallpaper and hanging lights made of Campbell's soup cans. Quirky, but not an improvement to Putman's stunning original design work. At dinner, guests can opt for the chef's table, the dining room with its vertical garden, or the communal table in the bookshop.
Or you can sit at one of the marble tables under the olive trees in the garden, which has to be one of the primo dining spaces in L.A. The only one that ever came close to competing was the one at the now-shuttered Les Deux Cafes in Hollywood.
But even though the menu is stripped down and more easygoing, dispensing with tasting menus in favor of à la carte, it is well-executed and delicious.
Mahon does a beautiful yellowtail dish, barely poached in an apple soy dressing and served with shaved asparagus and radish, that's the essence of spring. Squid with earthy cranberry beans, cool cucumber and sweet fennel jazzed up with some spicy chorizo butter is another dish that really works. I liked the seared scallop sitting on a swatch of crab meat in a brilliant green basil broth too.
Pristine Kumamoto oysters on the half shell come with a splash of Banyuls-shallot mignonette. But the server says the chef suggests ketchup with them and proceeds to apply a dot of ordinary ketchup to each of the pearly gray oysters. Huh? For me, that dab of sweetness grates.
The menu never proposes more than half a dozen first courses, a handful of salads and six or so entrees, all à la carte, and priced relatively reasonably, especially compared with what they were before. Mahon is making all the right moves in terms of ingredients. You can taste the quality of each element.
It's a tradition at Bastide to list the dishes by main ingredient, so the main courses read halibut, salmon, chicken, steak frites, lamb. No purple prose here, just the facts, ma'am.
But if you read on: That Alaskan halibut, stark in its purity, is set off with potatoes crushed with whole grain mustard, crinkly morel mushrooms and pretty fiddlehead fern tips in a shellfish nage, which makes the prosaic fish a lot more interesting.
Chicken is impeccably cooked, the breast firm and moist, the leg and thigh full of flavor, a dish that could come from a French country kitchen with its classic accompaniments of spring peas, carrots, a good smoky bacon and a subtly rich brown butter jus. Steak is steak, except this one arrives with an anchovy butter (on the side, so you can dose it how you like) and slender matchstick frites.
Bastide has always been one of the few restaurants in L.A. to forbid wine buffs from bringing in outside bottles -- but this time around, the wine list is so engaging and well-priced, I can't imagine anyone would mind. Sommelier Dario Dell'Anno has expansive tastes and always has a few bottles that haven't made it onto the list yet. He has a easygoing tableside manner too.
For dessert, my first choice would be the puffy, warm beignets with three sauces for dipping: chocolate, strawberry and softly whipped cream. Then there's an elegant, updated pain perdu, or French toast, right now with puckery kumquats. Or one or more lovely ice creams and sorbets.
The new Bastide (version 5.0) still excels at luxury: the menu's typeface and paper, the worldly wine list, the heavy linen napkins, the dark honeyed glow of beeswax candles under glass and the perfume of potted lavender.
I've said it before. I'll say it now. Dining at Bastide is civilized in the best sense. At dinner, or at lunch when you can fully enjoy that enchanted garden, the restaurant is a rare and subtle joy.
I may miss the chefs and their cooking from previous versions of Bastide. But they had their moment and they're gone. Now, here's a new spirit -- more relaxed and less ambitious, yes, but nevertheless one to enjoy.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Location: 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, (323) 651-5950. http://www.bastidela.com
Price: Dinner appetizers, $10 to $15; salads, $11 to $16; main courses, $21 to $36; desserts, $9 to $14; lunch appetizers and main course salads, $9 to $21; tartines, $15 to $18; main courses, $19 to $28; desserts, $9 to $14.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday (until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Wine and beer. Valet parking, $5.