A bastide is a traditional walled-in country house in the South of France. Here in L.A., at what was formerly (and now unimaginably) the Manhattan Wonton Company, architect and designer Andree Putman has re-created that Cote Sud elegant rusticity in a walled patio with pebbled masonry and olive trees, and a series of small dining rooms.
When I phoned Bastide to make reservations for Saturday night, the host told me, “I‘m sorry, we’re only open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner.”
“Bravo!” I thought of the chef-director, Alain Giraud, whose career I have followed since he was at Citrus on Melrose, then Lavande in Santa Monica. He must be the only chef in Los Angeles with Saturday nights free. Leave it to the French to insist on a civilized life.
Bastide is a chef‘s dream in other ways as well. I’ve heard many of them speak yearningly of just such a small jewel box with limited seating and prix fixe menus, where a person could seriously cook, without having to churn out volume. Indeed, Giraud offers only three fixed menus at dinner, and there‘s no corkage, which is a polite way of saying you may not bring your own wine. The wine list itself features only French wines, but there are 700 labels and almost 30 wines by the glass to choose from — which is a good thing, because Giraud’s cooking is designed to be paired with wine.
Inside, the restaurant is houselike in scale and sparely done up, each wall painted a cool, calming pastel — lavender, celadon, talc blue. The details are perfect without being fussy: the thick linen napkins, the fine china with its taupe pattern of chicken wire, the thin B logo, the glass-bead curtain glittering between rooms. Lest this sound overly formal, let me assure you this is one of the easiest, most gracious fine-dining establishments I‘ve ever visited. The staff is calm, friendly and numerous. Guests are welcomed and pampered in a most pleasant and unobtrusive manner.
At lunch, it’s possible to order a la carte or choose the seasonal menu. I‘m still thinking about the latter, a diced-beet-and-Bucheret-goat-cheese salad, followed by an absolutely beautiful, juicy pale-pink slab of Atlantic char.
Dinner, however, is a choice of three prix fixe menus: There’s an eight-course seasonal menu (presently based on pears) and a six-course traditional menu, with a choice of starter and entree. For the “true Bastide experience,” however, we‘re advised to order the nine-course Bastide menu, a veritable roll call of protein beginning with a tiny mouthful of cured salmon, then heading right into a divinely soft, coral-pink slice of foie gras on a rectangular plate with a silver tablespoon of champagne “gelee” (gelatin chopped in tiny cubes), a slice of brioche and three black grape halves. It’s edible artwork, such fun to deconstruct. Next, with a flourish of lifted silver lids comes a turbot fillet in a foamy white cauliflower cream, with a sunken reef of potato puree, and a spoonful of black sevruga caviar on top, all of it rich yet mild — and requiring wine, I think, for full appreciation. After this, a half tail of sweet lobster, prettily served in its own shell, has a nutty sweetness that‘s matched with buttery cabbage and a reduction of Juracon wine. Another subtle, gentle dish.
The halftime palate cleanser is pink grapefruit sorbet, whose icy bittersweet citrus tang is amplified by a dousing of brain-chilling Noilly Pratt vermouth.
Then, meat — a rack of lamb sans rack, an upright cylinder of tender rareness in a puddle of black-olive sauce with a scattering of roasted garlic cloves and panisse (chickpea fritters shaped exactly like fat, perfect French fries). Highlights on the cheese plate are a melting, frilly Tete de Moin and an herb-encrusted sheep’s-milk Brin d‘amor from Corsica. I wish we could’ve selected our own desserts; while I was delighted to meet up again with Giraud‘s vacherin, lavender ice cream spiked with tufts of frozen meringue, neither one of us wanted chocolate at night, so the lush four-way chocolate dessert (sorbet, tart, crunch and tuile) was merely sampled.
Coffees, a few madeleines, a long lingering, and the evening dwindles to a close, all of it amounting to a sustained, calm pleasure.
Thinking back, however, not one dish — except perhaps the foie gras terrine — made me sit up and take notice. Nothing trumpeted its own virtues or noisily called attention to Giraud’s cleverness or brilliance. His is refined, egoless, mature cooking, which instead of fireworks offers a quiet, blissful stretch of calibrated perfection — with all the delights and control that perfection implies. If this meal were a novel, it would be By the Lake by John McGahern rather than Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. And if I personally like a higher level of flavor and contrast than Giraud generally delivers, it may well be that I lack his subtlety of taste. So I marvel at his fluid ability in the kitchen, and at the seamless pleasures at Bastide — the flawless service, the elegant food, the restful beauty of the rooms. Here, the chef‘s dream turns out to be the diner’s dream as well.
8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles; (323) 651-5950. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.–Fri. noon–2 p.m. and 6–9 p.m. Full bar. Complimentary valet. Prix fixe menus $60–$90. AE, DC, MC, V.