Order Champagne and the sommelier waltzes over with a double magnum of vintage Champagne one night, pours an unusual Sacy rosé another time. You might be served breadsticks with transparent gold potato chips and spiced nuts or slender, cheese-laced churros that taste like New World gougères. The effect is somehow so civilized, you find yourself relaxing into another rhythm.
Bastide is back. This time around, the West Hollywood restaurant feels less formal and a lot more fun. It's Bastide, unbuttoned. Instead of a focus on strictly French cuisine and wines, the menu, which consists exclusively of two prix fixe tasting menus, presents chef Walter Manzke's polished contemporary French cuisine spiced with subtle Asian accents. The wine list from sommelier Pieter Verheyde is phenomenally deep but also includes some wonderful bottles at moderate prices.
Service is as good as it gets in Los Angeles: From amuses to chocolates, the experience at Bastide is seamless. It's also lengthy, and so, just as in Europe, your table -- with its heavy silver, crystal wineglasses and embroidered linens -- is yours for the evening. All this at a price that's a bargain by European standards.
The result is a restaurant unlike any other, certainly in L.A., and probably anywhere else in the country.
This is restaurant as art form, from an inspired amateur. Owner Joe Pytka's day job is directing commercials. Famously uncompromising as a director, he's just as much a perfectionist when it comes to his restaurant. His pockets are deep enough to get whatever he wants, and it's always the very best -- an accomplished chef, splendid wines, the best ingredients available.
Polished, subtle cooking
MANZKE, the new chef, is a Patina alum who garnered attention with his custom-tailored tasting menus as chef of L'Auberge in Carmel. Here, his cooking is polished and understated. It's very good. It's very correct, but, at this point, missing the strong personal stamp that makes magic on the plate.
Sommelier Pieter Verheyde is a Belgian who came up in Alain Ducasse's temples of cuisines in Monaco and New York. Andrée Putman, the revered Paris-based designer who gave Bastide its previous elegant and original look, has freshened up the 5-year-old restaurant with a new checkerboard carpet in one room, tree trunks crowned with sculptures in another room, and a wall of Mao portraits in the hallway. Bastide seats only 32 guests inside (an additional 30 or so can fit in the garden, which includes a 10-person chef's table, weather permitting) in three diminutive rooms of a small house at the back of the garden.
The menu, which consists of single words such as Tidbits, Ceviche, Thai and Fish, with no descriptions of particular dishes, is written up every day. The price -- $80 for a four-course menu, $100 for the seven-course one, with wine pairings for an additional $60 or $100 per person-- is astonishing for this level of food and wine and service.
Yet Pytka spares no expense. He once paid $35,000 at a charity auction for a 2.2 pound truffle, which he shaved, lavishly, over dishes at Bastide. His cellar holds remarkable wines, including a fabulous collection of older vintages of Burgundy and Bordeaux at equally fabulous prices (but nothing over $90,000 for those on a budget). What other restaurateur could afford to keep the doors closed while he pondered the next move? Or not fill the entire restaurant as he did in the initial weeks?
One night a friend and I sit at a corner table (one of four) in the serenely elegant front dining room with its striking checkerboard carpet and fireplace. A waiter who wouldn't have looked out of place in an 18th century French palace brings us the chef's signature amuse, a delicious -- and amusing -- deconstructed taco. On the right of the rectangular dish is a crystal clear salsa shooter that tastes exactly like tomatoes and chiles with a sliver of fried tortilla laid across the top. A spoon holds an exquisite bite of lobster snuggled up to a dab of guacamole, and the last item is a scoop of sweet-tart lime sorbet drenched in premium tequila.
A second lovely amuse is octopus ceviche crowned with a savory gazpacho sorbet; No. 3 is a crudo trio that includes a crisp, briny oyster sitting on a gossamer green apple gelée -- fabulous! -- and diced hamachi in a light, complex soy sauce.
A server offers dinner rolls, each delightful: a miniature French baguette, a tall, tender bacon brioche (or a Gruyère version), potato-fennel bread, and a pale green focaccia flavored with basil.
For anyone who dined here under opening chef Alain Giraud's tenure or that of his successor, Ludovic Lefebvre, the ghosts of meals past are ever present. I can see Giraud bent over the stove, his silver mane flopping, or Lefebvre experimenting with his arsenal of exotic spices and ingredients.
Bastide's Act 1 was classic French, and when Pytka got bored, he fixated on the fashionable and the cutting edge for Act 2. This third act is tame contemporary French cooking with global accents, a more relaxed attitude and a wine list that outshines the kitchen in its bold expeditions to far-flung regions and cellars.
Adventures in wine
VERHEYDE is one of the best sommeliers I've ever encountered. Comfortable with people, he wears his knowledge lightly and, with that twinkle in his eye, manages to convey a sense of fun and adventure. He likes to play, and turn guests onto wines they wouldn't normally consider trying, or may not even know exist. He has wines on the ever-expanding list that would stump the most knowledgeable wine geek. And if you let him, he'll take you on a wild ride through Slovenian or Languedoc cellars, the Mosel or Santa Ynez.
The beautiful thing is that wines on the list are not all priced in the stratosphere. The humblest bottle is just $26, but it's something you might want to drink. The most expensive costs in the tens of thousands. One of the oldest is an 1847 Château d'Yquem that Pytka may or may not be inclined to sell.