Ludovic Lefebvre has left Bastide. Will Joe Pytka ever decide what he wants? The soap opera continues

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Get ready for Act 3 at Bastide, which not so long ago was the only four-star restaurant in Los Angeles. Last week, chef Ludovic Lefebvre resigned, and owner Joe Pytka will be picking a new chef to help realize his new concept (and color scheme) for the restaurant. He says to expect a short intermission -- but history tells us otherwise.

Lefebvre left the Melrose Place restaurant in frustration, he says, after spending eight months developing recipes that never added up to a menu Pytka would approve. Now TV-commercial director cum restaurant impresario Pytka is searching for a new kitchen maestro who can execute his latest concept: haute cuisine made simple and less expensive. Pytka calls it “egalitarian” food, perfect for a town that likes to wear jeans to dinner.

Oh, and it will be blue. Not the food, the restaurant -- which will be painted Yves Klein blue, a saturated aquamarine shade developed by the late French conceptual artist. Pytka liked the color when he saw it in Paris.

With plans to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, Pytka wants a place that feels inviting during the day as well as in the evening. “I’m trying to create high-end food that will be served in a casual place where people will be comfortable sharing plates,” Pytka says. That’s a tricky upstairs/downstairs affair, but he says he’s certain that, once accomplished, it will be all the rage.

Originally, he thought it might help to create a lounge atmosphere, serving guests seated in low chairs around coffee tables. He dropped that idea after L’Orangerie, the venerable French restaurant on La Cienega, announced it would be closing. Pytka reasons that the regulars at that gracious dining room will be looking for a new home and he wants them to be comfortable at Bastide.

If that’s what he calls his renovated restaurant. Nothing’s for certain, Pytka says. “You could even say that this restaurant may never happen.”

That is, of course, the first thought that comes to mind with news of Lefebvre’s departure, which is just the latest episode in the restaurant’s roller-coaster history.

Even before it opened, Bastide was a fraught affair. Pytka spent $3.5 million and three years worrying over every detail. The slice of Provence tucked away on a West Hollywood side street was founding chef Alain Giraud’s dream of the ultimate fine dining experience. No expense was spared when it came to Giraud’s sophisticated French cuisine, the restaurant’s all-French wine cellar and the garden setting with custom-designed table linens, fine china and Christofle flatware.

Bastide captured the hearts of critics and food lovers when it opened in October 2002. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila declared, “The atmosphere is ravishingly chic, the food contemporary yet soulful, the service pitch perfect and unintrusive.” Bon Appetit named Giraud its chef of the year in 2003.

Though Bastide was as much an expression of Pytka’s personality as it was Giraud’s, with the owner personally collecting the rare Bordeaux and Burgundy wines for the cellar, Pytka wanted a change. Before the restaurant reached its second birthday, he let Giraud, now a star chef, go and hired Lefebvre, a younger, more experimental chef with dishes such as truffle ice cream and popcorn chicken, a poularde coated in crunchy, sweet praline.

Lefebvre’s quirky food spun critics the wrong way and left customers confused. In January, a year and a half into Lefebvre’s tenure, Pytka closed Bastide to rethink his restaurant. Lefebvre was asked to help develop the new concept and was willing enough -- until last Wednesday.

“Ludo threw up his hands,” Pytka says. He admits that he was the source of Lefebvre’s frustration. As he traveled the world, Pytka would return to Los Angeles again and again with new ideas for Bastide. Each time, he’d send Lefebvre back to the drawing board to create another new menu. “Ludo would be excited about one idea, then he’d have to take a deep breath and start over again,” says Pytka.

Lefebvre attributes their parting to “creative differences.” He’s looking for backing for a restaurant of his own in Los Angeles. “I know what Los Angeles wants,” he says. “I want to cook for people, to express myself. It is my life.”

It would be nice, however, if his next restaurant were a more modest undertaking, says Lefebvre in a cellphone conversation from his car. As he parks in Malibu and heads for the beach to surf, he sums up his current philosophy on dining: Simple, well-made food is enough.

He sounds just like Pytka.