At one time, French restaurants were the epitome of fine dining in L.A. It's no secret, though, that Angelenos have pretty much abandoned French food and with it, formal dining, for the relaxed pleasures of Spago and the California idiom or for Italian restaurants where maitre d's pass out kisses like bonbons and everybody who walks in the door feels as if they've just landed a plum role in "La Dolce Vita."
The French have been angling for a comeback, though, with a wave of bistros, brasseries and cafes. And now they have a splendid champion in the new Bastide on Melrose Place. If anything can seduce diners back to the French side, it will surely be this breathtakingly sophisticated contemporary French restaurant. Stuffy and fluffy it is not. The atmosphere is ravishingly chic, the food contemporary yet soulful, the service pitch perfect and unintrusive.
Though it's just over 3 months old, Bastide has been more than two years in the making. When Alain Giraud, who had worked side by side with Michel Richard at Citrus, first left Lavande, he envisioned opening a modest restaurant of his own, where he could revel in the French-Provencal food he grew up on. Then Joe Pytka entered the picture. Known for spending thousands of dollars a night in restaurants around town, mostly on old Bordeaux and Burgundies, Pytka didn't blink at writing the check to create one of his own.
He had the chef. Next he launched an all-out campaign to convince his friend, the great Paris interior designer Andree Putman, to sign on to the project. She's not exactly known for working on a modest scale (her most renowned projects have been hotels). Nevertheless, Putman came up with an ingenious and understated design for the small house set back from the street on Melrose Place. Three dining rooms in a row are divided by shimmering crystal beaded curtains. The first, and largest, features a leaded-glass window in pale grays. The middle room is open to the sky and has a living tapestry of plants cascading down one wall, in which a hummingbird has taken up residence. The smallest dining room looks into the kitchen and a wine vault stocked with oversized bottles of fabled wines.
Putman has put her stamp on every detail, from the linens and tableware to the sleek candleholders and silver serving pieces. She's picked a muted palette of pastels so ethereal they barely register as color at night. The walls are unadorned except for two small, very good paintings. Bastide is restaurant as haute couture. Intellectual and sensual, her brilliant, understated design is the essence of Parisian chic softened with a touch of Provence.
L.A. has never seen anything like it. For one thing, as opposed to the French-Californian cuisine of Patina or Melisse, Bastide is French through and through. That conviction extends to the wine list, which is entirely French and does not offer the option of corkage for any diners intent on sneaking in a California Pinot Noir. To soften the blow, sommelier Christophe Rolland has put together a list with more than 700 labels, heavy on big ticket Bordeaux and Burgundies. Though his list doesn't neglect other regions, you have to be some kind of wine savant to pick out the dozen bargains on the list.
Everything works together so seamlessly, Bastide begins to feel more like an art installation than a commercial enterprise. When the valet parkers take your car out front, they wish you a wonderful evening (the parking, by the way, is complimentary). The only sign is a softly illuminated "B" spelled out in crystal beads on the garden wall. In the garden courtyard, candles flicker in the darkness. A pair of bewitching olive trees cast shadows of their silvery leaves on the wall. And waiters in well-cut suits come forward out of the darkness to welcome you.
The menu, of course, is French with references to Giraud's native Provence. Ordering is painless: Choose from three prix fixe menus -- a traditional five-course menu for $60, a seven-course menu created around a single ingredient such as figs at $70, and an eight-course Bastide menu at $90. For those who indulge in the Bastide menu, there is the perfect lobster salade with lovely little vegetables or the plump cushion of sauteed foie gras in a syrupy fig sauce spiked with Banyuls, a southern French dessert wine. Provence means lamb and here it's a diminutive rack of baby lamb in a dusky black olive sauce.
Each menu has its cheese course, and, at Bastide, the selection of a point -- ripe -- cheeses is marvelous. Whoever is serving them knows them well. From a raw milk Camembert and a creamy Fourme d'Ambert, they're all a delight -- to be followed by Bastide's signature dessert, lavender ice cream enrobed in meringue, softly whipped cream and slivers of strawberry.
The menu has changed very little since Bastide opened. And while every dish has the grace and clarity that's the hallmark of Giraud's cooking, I can't help feeling he's boxed in by the format. It's as if the sublime British painter and colorist Howard Hodgkin were being admonished to keep his brush within the lines. Giraud is one chef who does not need to be restrained.
Lunch is a wonderful indulgence. In late January, the garden is warmer than Provence. Tables are spangled with sunlight and umbrellas are shifted to follow the sun. In the daylight, I'm fascinated by details that go unnoticed in the dark -- the subtle weave of browns in the custom-designed linen tablecloth, the golds and umbers of the dry stone wall, the pots of lavender, the pebbles set into the burnt sienna pavement.
The bread is warm and delicious. The butter is sweet. And a bottle of Huet Vouvray sec tastes cool as a mountain stream with the amuse-bouche. It's a miniature socca, Nice's beloved chickpea flour crepe, and a golden custardy square of panisse, deep-fried chickpea batter. The menu at lunch is a la carte, and an easier-on-the-pocketbook introduction to the restaurant. On that unseasonably warm day the chilled oysters are a dream: three different oysters, arranged from small to large, each with a different garnish. Melon cannelloni are literally just that: a supple slice of orange melon rolled around a delicate chilled crab stuffing and sitting side by side in a jelled lake of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, an extravagantly perfumed dessert wine from Provence. An otherwise perfect herb salad of snippets of this and that seems just a bit pedestrian in comparison.
But then there's the Provencal fish soup of my dreams, a burnt orange in color suffused with the taste of the sea and crowned with a Parmesan tuile and a good dollop of garlicky rouille. Veal daube wears a few jaunty baby carrots on top. Underneath the velvety braised veal and its marvelous, nuanced red wine sauce are pitch perfect. Lunch is like taking the Concorde to Nice.
A couture experience
There's also another option. At dinner one night a waiter sailed into the room with an oval copper pot that he presented to the couple at the corner table. We were all curious -- and envious: Pheasant wasn't on the menu. The couple, it turned out, had called Giraud the week before to ask for a special pheasant menu.
We made a note. A designated friend called a few weeks later and requested a special menu for four focusing on black truffles and game birds. Giraud offered to find a canette, a wild female duck, or possibly a wild hare, depending on what he could get from his suppliers. We assured him everybody ate everything and left it to him.
When we arrived on the night in question, the garden looked so lovely we almost asked if we could possibly sit out there -- until we were shown the table prepared for us in the small room looking onto the gleaming kitchen. How could we not want to watch the show? Young cooks in tall toques stand at the stoves. Bourgeat copper pots give the room a warm glow, but they're not just for show: They're used every night. The chef is here, there, everywhere urging his young crew on, tasting a sauce, checking a temperature. This night he's almost dancing around the kitchen, sniffing a lumpy black truffle, cutting it into neat, precise slices.
A sip of Champagne and a bite of sublime foie gras au torchon brought us fully to our senses. The round slice of foie gras is all velvet, rosy pink and strewn with a few crystals of fleur de sel, and it meshes beautifully with the tender buttery crumb of house-made brioche. Next came a country-style terrine, a mosaic of duck and foie gras, served with grilled country white bread and a finely shredded celery root salad freckled with black truffle.
Giraud turned up the truffle volume with a clear golden pheasant consomme poured over pheasant mousse quenelles and julienned black truffles scattered like Pick Up sticks in the bottom of a bowl. We all leaned forward, the better to drink in the dank earthy aroma of the truffle. Other highlights included line-caught loup de mer with slices of black truffle tucked underneath, the pheasant itself, and for the piece de resistance, grouse. The Scottish bird, roasted rare, is gamy and complex, served in a sauce that's almost black it's so intense (a bit of chocolate is the secret). It's a fabulous dish with a bottle of Chateau de Fonsalette Syrah.
Then came cheese and dessert. That lavender ice cream, of course, but also a marvelous trio of serious chocolate confections including the world's best chocolate tart. Meals at Bastide wind down slowly, as they do in France, so, after dessert, there's coffee, and perfect petits fours. I can never resist the soft nougats perfumed with honey and pistachios or the molded dark chocolates, not to mention the dessert wines the sommelier might pour. One night he was offering the entire restaurant a taste of 1986 D'Yquem from a handsome jeroboam.
Bastide has it all -- graceful French cooking from a mature chef, a chic and sophisticated setting, seriously good service and the indefinable magic that makes you want to go back to a restaurant again and again. It also happens to be lively and fun in an understated, grown-up way. It's a pleasure to see a chef of such obvious abilities finally reach for the stars.
It's definitely been worth the wait.
Location: 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles; (323) 651-5950.
Ambience: Chic restaurant, designed by Andree Putman, with three small dining rooms that seat 35 and an enchanting courtyard garden that seats 30 more.
Service: Highly professional, yet unintrusive. The best.
Price: At dinner, a five-course "traditional" prix fixe menu, $60 per person; a seven-course "seasonal" menu based on a single ingredient such as figs or pears, $70; and a grand eight-course Bastide menu, $90. Lunch is a la carte.
Best dishes: Lobster salad, sauteed foie gras with fig Banyuls sauce, line-caught loup de mer, rack of lamb with black olive sauce, Provencal fish soup, veal daube with carrots and olives, crab and melon cannelloni, lavender ice cream, dark chocolate tart.
Wine list: Beautiful all-French list, with extremely high markups and the occasional moderately priced bottle.
Best table: The chef's table with a view of the goings-on in the kitchen.
Special features: Romantic garden.
Details: Open Monday through Friday only. Dinner, 6 to 9 p.m.; lunch, noon to 2 p.m.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.