Ludovic Lefebvre may be the perfect chef for the media-saturated world of Los Angeles kitchens, a young, great-looking Burgundian guy with a classical background, avant-garde inclinations and a serious ingredient fetish, as comfortable on a surfboard as he is behind a stove. He admires Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines almost as much as he does the cooking of France. His first cookbook, Crave, due out later this month, includes perfectly workable formulas for things like verbena-glazed peach tarts and bay-leaf scented sea bass with roasted figs, but the recipes are organized by the senses they most appeal to rather than by such old-fashioned criteria as whether they happen to fall under the categories of appetizers or desserts, and its illustrations include large photographs of his muscled, tattooed torso wrestling fish out of the sea. (It is published under the imprint of Judith Regan, who is more famous for publishing books by the likes of Amber Frey and Jenna Jameson.) His culinary mentors include Marc Meneau, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, who are three of the four or five most influential chefs in France at the moment, the guys who invent the dishes the rest of the world’s kitchens end up copying. Lefebvre established himself as the chef at West Hollywood’s L’Orangerie, which has a habit of recruiting from France’s most important restaurants. And when Joe Pytka, the mercurial owner of Bastide, dismissed his chef Alain Giraud, who had run what had been the best-regarded (and by far the most expensive) French restaurant in town, to install Lefebvre at his wildest instead, it seemed like a sea change, or at least a sign that the experimental wing of the city’s food culture was in the ascendant.
To some of us at least, it felt a bit like the moment when Wolfgang Puck left Ma Maison for Spago. But this is Los Angeles, the birthplace of the New American Cuisine, where casual, streamlined Asian-Mediterranean cooking is at least as ingrained as fancy French food used to be in New York, where even the most accomplished chefs from Paris or Frankfurt end up looking for inventive ways to dress up pasta, grilled swordfish and salad. Giraud’s cuisine was delicious and innovative, but it was rooted in the Mediterranean flavors of Provence — the region where Puck first became a serious chef — and operated wholly within the context of Los Angeles. Lefebvre’s cuisine, which owes a lot more to the historically aware, playful, yet focused experimentation of Gagnaire and Passard than it does to any kind of traditional cooking, is something we’ve never seen around here.
Bastide has all the bells and whistles you’d expect in a Michelin-starred French restaurant, and then some: a subdued Andree Putnam–designed interior; a leafy patio; palate-cleansers; absurdly heavy silver; a selection of perfectly ripened cheeses; a massive list of legendary French vintages (and a sommelier who will point you toward the Rhones and Languedoc wines he’d rather drink himself). When you eat Lefebvre’s food, stirring frothy almond fizz into a truffled cauliflower soup, for example, or digging into a yolk-yellow risotto through a sprinkling of freeze-dried coffee, you are forced to consider each flavor as an individual entity — the sizzle of licorice root, for example, or the powerful funkiness of puréed broccoli — rather than just another bit of sauce to scoop up with the fish. Ingredients that you normally experience as solids may be transformed into liquids, gels or foams. And you are almost subliminally guided into combining the flavors yourself, collapsing the elaborate structures of the dishes so that the broccoli meets the licorice, sharpnesses caroming off the soft succulence of poached turbot, the richness of butter, the luxurious texture of whipped cream into an improbably delicious whole.
Like Gagnaire, Lefebvre likes to begin meals with a barrage of small, improbable tastes, and he generally announces his intentions early on with a pre-appetizer of a deconstructed Bloody Mary: frozen crystals of vodka, a tiny scoop of tomato sorbet and blob of pale-green vegetable foam, lined up like tiny snowballs on a tablespoon. It is hard to resist nibbling on each constituent, tasting the spiciness in the tomato, the chilly bitterness of the alcohol . . . and then you take it in all at once, the constituents melt in the heat of your mouth and ooze across your tongue, becoming — not quite a Bloody Mary, but a sort of 3-D image of a Bloody Mary, like one of those blurry photographs that come into exaggerated focus when you slide a pair of cardboard spectacles onto your nose. It is a spectacular effect.
If you have ordered the tasting menu, there will be more pre-appetizers, perhaps curried chicken mousse molded on a stick, a chunk of poached lobster meat with turnip, or what looks like a single rigatoni noodle standing upright on a plate and turns out to be straight tube pasta, regimented like soldiers around a brightly flavored emulsion of Parmigiano-Reggiano; the cheese for once flavoring the pasta instead of the other way around. Cream-textured cauliflower purée, a trick of Marc Meneau that has become a trademark of the modern French kitchen is given a nudge here, served in a jigger with one of those wide straws you see at boba parlors on Sawtelle. When you suck up the froth — the jigger empties in a flash — the mouthful of cool, sulfurous fluid comes alive with the sweetness of diced mango and the salt from a bit of caviar hidden at the bottom, which resolve themselves into a fourth, nuanced taste that belongs to none of the ingredients alone.
The last time I was in for a tasting menu, the chef was in the first stages of infatuation with a canister of liquid nitrogen, which expressed itself in things like frozen, egg-shaped capsules constructed from the foamed fat of a Jabugo ham, served with a single, gooey egg yolk and a scarlet curl of the ham, made from a special breed of acorn-fed Andalusian pigs — the ultimate ham and eggs. (I have never tasted the porky sweetness of great ham as intensely as I did in Lefebvre’s snowball.) A tiny, frozen cube of gazpacho was vivid enough to stand up to the pungent Roquefort-cheese broth glazing the bottom of a broad plate, a reversal of the traditional roles of soup and garnish. There was a course of chopped tuna belly seasoned with the Japanese seven-spice mixture shichimi, mounded on a sweet jelly tinted red with cabbage, and served with a melting, perfectly turned scoop of mustard ice cream, a sort of Asian twist on a dish made famous by Lefebvre’s Parisian mentor Passard.
When I had been eating for about an hour and a half, and it occurred to me that I had not seen a single plate of food that was warm, French langoustines appeared, coated with fine, fried bread crumbs, on top of an orange-flavored risotto — a waiter came over with a silver spray bottle and misted what he claimed was Nehi orange soda over the dish. “All natural,” he said. “From North Carolina. Just orange peel and sugar.” After that came a slab of French sea bass poached in olive oil, sprinkled with tiny slivers of lemon flesh, and sauced with what tasted like a warm emulsion of mayonnaise and honey, then a beautifully poached fillet of rare beef with vanilla-laced mashed potatoes, a small bacon flan, a dusting of powdered green tea and a tiny lozenge of jellied ketchup, like all the flavors of a great American diner meal combined in one dish — strange, but compelling.
Sitting down to dinner at the revamped Bastide when you are expecting luxury-French cooking may be a little like thinking you have paid to see a Clint Eastwood movie and instead getting the new one from Tarantino. In the case of this restaurant, where the tasting menus run $135 a pop and it is really difficult to get out of the restaurant for much less than $300 a couple (with tax and tip) even if you take it easy with the wine, you are paying an awful lot for Lefebvre’s art. Your grandparents probably won’t like it. But brave new cuisine or no, carrot-litchi sorbets aside, there is the matter of the bitter-chocolate souffle, which is only perfect. Because when it comes to chocolate, even revolutionaries don’t want to mess around.
Bastide, 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, (323) 651-0426. Open Tues.–Sat. 6–10 p.m. All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $124–$222; chef’s menu $135.
Crave | By LUDOVIC LEFEBVRE and MARTIN BOOE | Regan Books | 268 pages | $50, hardcover
UPDATE: Lefebvre has moved on and Bastide itself is currently closed.