After my initial post a week ago today Bastide - Is It a Mistake? prompted so many comments and spin-off conversations covering everything from the proper way to celebrate an anniversary to the current state of culinary affairs in Los Angeles (lamentable or excellent, depending on your position), I now offer a our actual review of the dinner. For those of you who are tuning in late, my SO and I did decide to keep our reservation for 7pm last Friday 3/18/05 at Bastide, celebrating our 13th year together. (Thanks to all who contributed opinions, which helped us make our decision.) Now, since the meal itself took 3-1/2 hours, the review is correspondingly lengthy. So, proceed at your own risk.
The restaurant is tucked away on the north side of Melrose Place, just east of La Cienega, announced only by strategically placed stylized and illuminated Bs. Driving up to the complimentary valet station, we encountered a phalanx of men in suits who descended upon our hybrid, two of whom opened the driver- and passenger-side doors in expert harmony, with a third welcoming and escorting us from the car to the front gates. A fourth man appeared and with the other, opened the large seemingly Medieval doors to reveal a dark and secluded courtyard, with scattered empty tables and a line of extra-large patio umbrellas positioned to keep us dry (as a light rain was falling) along the short walkway and up the steps to the restaurant. By the time another set of doors were flung open just as we approached, it was beginning to feel a bit like the opening sequence of Get Smart. We pressed on.
More good evenings and welcomes from nicely-dressed men and we were led east through a room of soft fabrics, indirect lighting, one couple seated in the far corner, left through glass beads to a corner table in a smaller middle room. Through an archway was the third and last dining area, a semi-private room housing a chefs table set for four. At our table, I faced a wall of four framed glass doors, intentionally providing throughout the evening a backstage view of scurrying waiters staging plates and gathering silverware, the sommelier opening and decanting wines, and of course a continual procession of dishes emanating from the kitchen. Opposite this was a more peaceful view for the SO: from the Saltillo tiled floor to the heavy cotton duck covered ceiling, an entire wall spilling forth with live ferns and other foliage, large, leafy and lush and very, very green. The entire feeling was an outdoor room comfortably brought inside.
Aside from the couple in the first room, at this point we were the only guests in the restaurant, so the staff-to-customer ratio was temporarily skewed. Perhaps for that reason, within the next two minutes, servers demonstrating restrained enthusiasm offered us water (bottled, flat), drinks (Mai Tai and Grey Goose Martini with a twist), butter (sweet, in a covered silver dish) and quickly, before the water or drinks arrived, a series of amuse bouches: a jigger of bracing cauliflower and truffle puree with almond fizz, complete with boba straw to slurp up bottom-dwelling mango and caviar. (Note: Jonathan Gold more ably describes this and several other dishes in his LA Weekly review http://www.laweekly.com/ink/05/17/the...). Accompanying the soup was a rectangular plate of three small creations: 1) a lollipop of curried chicken mousse rolled in fresh breadcrumbs, looking like a miniature yet lighter version of the city chicken of my youth; 2) a novel stack of thick spaghetti, maybe an inch high and stood upright, thoroughly coated with a blonde and creamy Roquefort cheese sauce - a playful and effective take on mac-n-cheese; 3) a chunk of lobster coated in honey mustard sauce on a slice of Daikon radish, giving the appearancebut not the tasteof a mini eggs benedict. We took our time between each, in order to appreciate the subtle flavor mixes, and while I enjoyed the creativity of them all, only the cauliflower soup and mac-n-cheese stood out.
In the midst of this, water arrived, as did the drinks, and soon thereafter, the bread man (olive, multi-grain, house-made sourdough, applewood bacon, Gorgonzola and raisin), and then the waiter with menus. Unusual is not the most apt word for the offerings, which were notable for the pairings (Chicken with Pepsi-Cola imported from Mexico) and 50-franc French terms (Paillard). Adventurous covers it better, but even a lifetime of taking chances from cheap Peruvian seafood dives to Michelin two-stars doesnt prepare one to commit to just one appetizer and main course from a list containing $90 entrées. No, at Bastide we had to try the tasting menu. The waiter explained that the $135 per person prix fixe meal changed every nightno printed version existedand featured nothing found on the original menu. The SO asked to exclude any oyster dishes, and to ensure the dessert course included a bittersweet chocolate soufflé mentioned in Jonathan Golds review. No problem. Lets go.
First up was a Blood Mary palate cleanser: a biting blob of tomato sorbet, vegetable puree and vodka ice crystals on a chilled tablespoon. We were instructed to take it all at once, and it was fabulous. A fizzy, hip and terrific blend of spicy-coolness, kind of a sophisticated take on the upside-down margarita of my dorm days. Very cool. We were on our way.
The sommelier dropped by. He was quite young but I assume knowledgeable. The SO doesnt do wine and I decided to forego the $80 wine pairings, instead seeking his assistance to choose two glasses: a dry French sauvignon blanc ($9) for the first few courses, and a robust Cabernet blend ($22) for the last. The former worked better than the latter for me, and were I to do it over again, Id choose the lighter and cheaper red he had also suggested.
Next came a shallow bowl of warm and opulent Roquefort cheese soup surrounding a small frozen block of bright red gazpacho, so solid it was impenetrable. I slurped some of the cheese, whirling the cube around, hoping it would gradually melt into the dish. It didnt. I paused for some bread, had a sip of wine, a little conversation. Wouldnt budge. Tried to cut it; nope. A little more bread, some soup, some water. Still no melting; I guess the soup was too tepid. I decided to consume it whole, a la the Bloody Mary above, and scooping the icy nugget up with a little warm temp soup, plunged it into my mouth. It was a flavor explosion: chilly splinters of green pepper, onion, tomato cut into the smooth and pungent cheese. Worked for me.
We were having fun. While the tables began to fill up around us, we were still somewhat secluded (which was nice). We noticed most of our neighbors were selecting the tasting menu, but we were a few courses ahead of everyone, so we couldnt even unintentionally spoil our next surprise by seeing what was arriving at other tables. Not knowing whats coming next was part of it. The only clue provided was the seemingly endless array of heavy silver artfully placed around the table before each course, the ritual of which evoked memories of the long-gone Rex Il Ristorante downtown. Funny how the mere placement of fine table- and stemware casts a feeling of comfort and security; these folks know what theyre doing.
The next course showed up: two langoustines and some Manila clams on a bed of vermicelli with a deep brown cinnamon sauce, heavy with a grittiness like that of Mexican chocolate (Uruapan), but less chocolate, more cinnamon and very intense. I cant say it was fabulous to either of usthere would be no way I could endure an entrée of thisbut it was all of 4-5 bites, and with the proper pacing and slosh of wine, I enjoyed the cheekiness of it all. Cinnamon is probably the SOs least favorite spice but the langoustines saved the dish.
Another palate cleanser on chilled tablespoon, this time some type of frozen vegetable emulsion, all frozen green fizz, sparkling across the tongue. A little water and the cinnamon was gone for good. A fish course arrived, a wedge of something called Bar fish from the Normandie coast (?). Sitting idly across the plate was a ball of crunchy risotto with almonds, like a lonely aroncini without the breadcrumbs. Separating the two was a smear of mayonnaise, allegedly spiced with jalapeno, yet neither of us could find the heat, try as we might. It would have been a welcome addition; the fish was strong, and not to my taste, even a little briny. The rice ball was nutty but lacked a suitable accompaniment in the fish.
At this point, things were seeming a bit uneven. Both seafood courses had fine elements and intriguing ingredients but were not stellar. However, we were beginning to realize the interplay of opposites was what was currently intriguing the chef, at least for a majority of the dishes. My red wine arrived, as did another little dish. It was a piece of seared foie gras in a light fruity (raspberry?) sauce, sort of like the famed deep-fried foie gras with orange marmalade that I had years earlier at LOrangerie, but more cognac, less truffle. The incredibly smooth texture lured my tongue into the delicate dance between sweet and savory, dense and light. Even the SO liked it. Back on track, or so it seemed.
By now the restaurant was full, the staff was in high gear, and the pace for us had slowed. It took some time, probably close to 10 minutes before our next course arrived. The couple next to us were pretentious semi-Industry folks, he flinging cheap and stupid jokes to every member of the waitstaff (often in Spanish), she talking too loud about her latest role in a commercial. One table over, the guy who just flew in from Australias cell phone rang. The wait was undoubtedly good for our digestion, but as we unavoidably suffered through the poor conduct of our neighbors, time did seem to drag a bit.
Finally, the meat course arrived: a nice portion of beef tenderloin, a piece of bacon tempura (yes, bacon dipped in batter and deep-fried), a chunk of Portuguese sausage, and a wedge of braised beef chuck, all over lentils with a slight drizzling of pistachio foam. The consistency of the tenderloin was close to foie gras it actually melted in the mouth. Conversely, the braised beef was completely flavorless and quite tough. And while the other two pieces of meat did not stand out in the least, the lentils were delicious, though neither of us could distinguish any element of pistachio in the foam.
Just as we were beginning to feel sated, a cheese cart arrived. The waiter described the dozen offerings and we chose a selection of creamy, semi-soft and firm cheeses, one similar to manchego, a couple of chevre (one with ash), another not unlike a mozzarella and a firm chunk of something with hints of rosemary. These were served with paper-thin slices of date-and-pistachio bread and tiny cubes of a sweet and chewy fig concoction, both of which brought out the flavor of the cheeses in a delightful way as we nibbled and talked.
Soon after I declined a dessert wine, we were brought a dish of ripe strawberry halves doppled with a sweetened foam of something white and light. A refreshing little palate cleanser after the heavy cheese. Within minutes, individual bittersweet chocolate soufflés showed up, each a healthy size. The server broke them open in turn and spooned in melted semi-sweet chocolate and crème fraiche. While Im not a huge chocolate fan, I adore the play between heat and cold, sweet and bitter, and the soufflé itself was perfectly done. The SO was in heaven. I was hanging on a star somewhere, feeling mighty full.
Then, clearly in an attempt to put us over the top, three more dishes arrived in unison: small cookies lightly flavored with peanut,s and little cups of warm milk with vanilla foam; tiny marshmallow cubes, two pink and flavored with rose petal and two a celadon color and infused with mint; finally, scooping from a cache of three silver bowls, the waiter ceremoniously dropped into a tulip-shaped dish, a spoonful of honey-coated chocolate-covered Spanish peanuts, a few candied almonds, and a couple of chocolate-covered almonds. I was close to bursting at this point, but I had to try everything and while candied almonds always spell wedding to me, the peanuts were terrific.
Winding down, we discussed the highlights of the meal. As if on cue, the chef, Ludovic Lefebvre came out and stopped first at a table of four, then ours. We paid our compliments, and he politely asked if we had dined at Bastide before. First time, we said, and we made our reservations before the LA Weekly article. He smiled at that and asked if we enjoyed ourselves. I pondered the question a moment. We covered a lot of ground in the last few hours, probably more than we ever did with tasting menus at Charlie Trotter or Gordon Ramsay combined. What we had here wasnt a bouchon in Nice, or a quiet restaurant on the beach in Santorini or even craft in NYC; it was something very different but thats what we love about LA. The wild flavors and combinations, the ethnic eccentricities, the tempting, teasing and testing of boundaries. Did we enjoy the evening, our own private celebration, right here in our own backyard? You betcha.
Tab: $438 for two, including two drinks, two glasses of wine, two bottles of water, tax and tip
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