Simply French: Bastide Is Back

Joe Pytka is different from you and me, a businessman whose name appears on more telephone poles than AT&T, a bon vivant who spends more on wine than Jay Leno spends on cars, and probably the only director to draw performances out of both Michael Jordan and John Lennon. During the Cannes Film Festival, his yacht is apparently where you want to be. And his original Bastide was the ultimate mogul's toy, an intimate, luxurious restaurant designed by Andre Putnam with a kitchen the size of a hockey rink and a roster of ex-chefs distinguished enough to constitute a restaurant scene unto itself. Pytka likes food and wine, and he has run Bastide the way other people subsidize art museums or opera seasons. So it was something of a surprise when Bastide closed 18 months ago, just when then-chef Paul Shoemaker was just getting into his groove. And it also surprised people when it opened just as suddenly several weeks ago as a lunchtime café sharing space with a store selling books from Assouline, a French publisher known for gorgeous volumes that don't have many words in them.

You walk through the gate at Bastide, you crunch across a gravel courtyard, and you enter a second, tented courtyard you may have never seen before by day. There is champagne, if you want it, burgundies and Austrian wines from a (for now) heavily discounted wine list, and a basket of flaky, hot rolls flavored with olive or hazelnut. The dining room is uncrowded, serene, drifting on show tunes. You are probably in a good mood.

If you have come to Bastide to experience the full afterburner thrust of advanced French cuisine you might have seen under its former chefs Ludovic Lefebvre or Walter Manzke, you may be a bit disappointed. Joseph Mahon is a fine technical chef, and may have ambitious plans for the restaurant when it reopens for dinner mid-February, but at the moment his cooking is simple, direct and French — a menu that wouldn't have seemed out of place during lunchtime at Citrus 20 years ago. (That kitchen was coincidentally run by Alain Giraud, Bastide's first chef.) Today, you will find a soup of tiny mussels in a broth enriched with pureed arugula, garnished with a single chickpea, a single coin of sliced chorizo and a bit of crème fraîche, or crunchy polenta cakes piled with peppers and feta, or a crumbly, savory tart with figs, a bit of blue cheese and a touch of truffled honey. Red-wine risotto is dyed the alarming color of a blood clot, but tastes like the warm, comforting essence of mushrooms and butter. It may be your 39th roast Jidori chicken of the winter, but the skin is crisp, the meat juicy, the marbles of pancetta-fried brussels sprouts underneath juicy and delicious.

Pytka is known for his whim of iron, and by the time you make it to Bastide it may have been transformed to a replica of a Strasbourg bistro, a burgundy farmhouse or a three-star restaurant in Annecy, but Mahon's version is worth a look — even if it isn't the grandest restaurant in town.

Bastide: 8475 Melrose Place, L.A. (323) 651-5950.

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