As we step into the garden from the street, I hear the soft, barely audible pop of a Champagne cork. Silvery laughter bubbles up from the table.
The maitre d' greets us, leads us to a corner table in one of three lovely, diminutive dining rooms. As the woman at the next table shrugs off her mink, some serious jewelry flames in the candlelight. The porcelain is very thin, and French. The silver has real heft.
The wine list is presented, followed by menus. And as we sip a golden Savennieres from the Loire Valley, we soak up the luxury and serenity of the setting and look forward to this evening together.
We order. The parade of dishes commences. As soon as a waiter sets a fragile porcelain bowl in front of me, the maitre d' steps forward to introduce it, murmuring, "A soup of chanterelle mushrooms with licorice and coffee essence." The presentation is breathtakingly elegant. Ah, the French just know how to do things.
I dip my spoon into the soup and taste.
It is tongue-numbingly bitter, its intensity punishing, the gastronomic equivalent of body piercing. First the licorice kicks in, then -- whomp! -- lashes of coffee essence so vicious my tongue wants to curl up and hide somewhere. I feel as if I've been mugged. And that feeling doesn't let up for much of the rest of the meal.
We're reeling. This is Bastide, after all, the best restaurant in Los Angeles, an absolute jewel for classic French cuisine and the only restaurant to have garnered four stars from The Times. And this is my first visit under the new chef. Not a thing has changed -- except the chef.
The next day, one of my fellow diners called me to ask, almost hopefully, if that meal had been a bad dream. Unfortunately, that was no dream. Still, we were both dumbfounded by things like popcorn chicken -- poularde, really, coated in crunchy, achingly sweet praline. The idea is whimsical, but nobody wanted a second bite. And what about the prawn carpaccio with candied ginger and osetra caviar?
But the chef just arrived, after all, I reminded my friend. Let's wait and see what happens. He hasn't even finalized his menu yet. But my friend would have none of it: He wasn't going back under any circumstances.
I did. Three times.
When owner Joe Pytka summarily dismissed his chef Alain Giraud this spring, the decision seemed as capricious as the croquet-playing Queen of Heart's "Off with their heads!" Why dismantle the restaurant he'd spent years meticulously planning? It was unfathomable to anyone who loved Bastide and Giraud's graceful Provencal-accented cooking.
The new face
His replacement is 33-year-old Ludovic Lefebvre, who left L'Orangerie several years ago to open his own restaurant. It never happened. After being away from the stoves for two years, he was just about to launch two restaurants in the W Hotel in Westwood when Pytka made him an irresistible offer: carte blanche at Bastide.
On the day Lefebvre severed ties with the W, he insisted all he really wanted to do was be free to cook -- not what everyone else was doing, no tuna tartare for him, but something different. "I'm an artist and I'm going to do what I feel in my stomach. Just give me a kitchen and I'll cook."
Well, now he's got it. Possibly the best situation for a French chef in all of L.A., with a state-of-the-art kitchen and a crack staff to back him up. Pytka's legendarily deep pockets mean the chef can buy the best of everything. But what is he doing with it all?
Extreme cuisine. It's no secret that Ferran Adria of El Bulli burns in the minds of young chefs all over the world. His feats of alchemy delight and amaze. I'm all for the unexpected, and the brilliant flash-forward cuisine of chefs like him -- and Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, both of whom Lefebvre worked with as a very young chef. But Lefebvre's cooking has none of that depth; it makes none of his mentors' surprising leaps. Nor does he have Adria's 30 acolytes in the kitchen helping him perform his magic tricks.
A river of sweet runs through most dishes, often laced with something acidic. Your palate is shocked with bitter cocoa one moment, caressed with maple syrup the next. At the core, this is classic French technique, ornamented with spices and essences and "found" flavors picked up in Lefebvre's travels. I admire his enthusiasm and energy. But it's as if he's intent on scribbling over everything with a whole fistful of crayons, blurring the outlines and muddying the flavors.
Taste the elements in a squid dish I had recently, and each is quite good on its own -- the tender grilled squid body, the delicate stuffing of toro tartare, the duxelles of chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms beneath. Clearly, technique isn't a problem for Lefebvre. And the raw materials are first-rate. On the same plate with the squid, white truffles are shaved over truffle ice cream. But together they're like strangers who have just been introduced. They have nothing to say to each other.
And the truffle ice cream is sweet -- yikes! When Adria proposes a Parmesan ice cream, the magic is in the texture: It's ice cream, but tastes remarkably like a slice of great Reggiano. Nor is it sweet. But almost every dish at Bastide is, and the sweetness is unrelenting. In the end, everything begins to taste the same: veal with pistachios and pineapple coulis equals roasted wild turbot on the bone in gingerbread sauce. It's fatiguing.
Foie gras is usually a safe bet at a French restaurant. Here it's beautifully seared, the duck liver rosy at the center, exquisite. Except for the fact that the dish is a foie gras pina colada, scented with rum and garnished with pineapple foam. The flavor cocktail doesn't stop there. Lefebvre adds in a little sherry wine and some maple syrup too. And oh, a coconut sorbet, which would have been enchanting come dessert. But as a first course, with foie gras?
Another evening, as part of the chef's tasting menu, the duck liver was served on a piece of sweet brioche, more like cake than bread, with spoonfuls of strawberry and raspberry confit more suited to pain perdu or French toast. The accompaniments were so sweet, it made me want to scrub off my piece of foie gras like a raccoon before eating it.
At L'Orangerie, Lefebvre was into spices and found ingredients, but the effect was more restrained. At Bastide recently, I found everything about a lobster dish pleasant: the poached medallions of spiny lobster, the fat squiggly udon noodles, the subtle sherry wine broth and the slivers of bok choy. Until I got a taste of the inky-black mayonnaise on top. Bling! It's olive oil based and shocked with bitter cocoa powder so intense everything else on the plate is instantly obliterated.
If you set out purposely to devise a cuisine that would be more unfriendly to wine, I don't think you could do better. This is especially curious given Pytka's penchant for drinking fabulous old Bordeaux and Burgundies from his stupendous, all-French cellar. What is he thinking?
One night, the phrase "floating island" in the description of a cauliflower soup catches me off guard. It sounds so gentle. But it's bacon foam, bitter almonds and poached oysters (the one delicious element), with a big pinch of sambar powder, a pungent spice blend from southern India. My poor white Burgundy fades away as the flavors in this soup clash and bang.
In the end, I have to ask, where's the pleasure? Certainly it's there in the serenely beautiful dining rooms, in the heavy custom linens, fine porcelain and glasses. It's in the carefully calibrated service, in choosing a wine from the wide-ranging list with the help of the knowledgeable and passionate sommelier, Christophe Rolland (who left his position last week but will be replaced by Gregory Castells from Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia). It's in the enclosed garden with the scent of lavender and the knotted shadow of the olive trees. It is most definitely not on the plate.
By the time the cheese course rolls around, we're relieved: Finally, something that's a little salty. The selection is superb, each cheese a point, room temperature, blooming with complex flavors.
A bright spot
Fortunately, the pastry chef, Koa Duncan, understands how flavors work together and play off one another -- and that less is more. A lovely, cloud-like caramel souffle is presented with two small bowls, one with a refreshing Valencia orange salad, the other a lush orange granite suffused with the taste of vanilla. It also comes with a wafer-thin tuile cookie sprinkled with fleur de sel. That same fluffy sea salt makes the molten warm chocolate tart sing. The dark chocolate is heavenly against a buttermilk cardamom sorbet.
The wine list -- still all French -- includes unexpected choices from obscure appellations or regions, and bottles from a number of young, interesting producers as well as the very best of the old guard. It's a pleasure, though as expensive as ever. Finding something you'd like to drink for under $60 is a challenge. If you can spend $5,000, now we're talking.
Prices for the new menu are enough to make the pulse race. Dinner can easily run $220 a person, with a couple of modestly priced wines. The chef's menu is $135 per person, before tax, tip and any beverages -- by far the most expensive of any French restaurant in town. And some of the main courses are in the $40 range. At least the valet parking is complimentary.
Pytka has delivered his luxury yacht -- this incredibly beautiful and beloved restaurant, its well-honed staff and extraordinary cellar -- into the hands of a chef who is hellbent on sailing it from the becalmed waters of the Cote d'Azur straight into unpredictable storms of the high seas.
Location: 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles; (323) 651-5950
Ambience: Small, luxuriously chic restaurant with three intimate dining rooms, one with a view into the kitchen, and a romantic courtyard with olive trees and lavender.
Service: Exemplary, when it's not overzealous.
Price: Appetizers, $18 to $26; main courses, $33 to $49; desserts, $11 to $14; chef's menu, $135 per person, not including wines, tax or tip.
Best dishes: Seared toro, poached spiny lobster, wild turbot on the bone, roasted milk fed veal chop, selection of French cheeses, caramel souffle, chocolate tart with fleur de sel and cardamom sorbet.
Wine list: Stupendous collection of French wines, many of the older bottles from owner Joe Pytka's personal cellar. No corkage, because the restaurant does not allow patrons to bring their own bottles.
Best table: Any of the courtyard tables out front.
Special features: Chef's table with view of the kitchen. Seats up to eight.
Details: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Full bar. Valet parking complimentary.
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.