When I first visited Bastide I didn't know what to expect. I didn’t really know that much about the restaurant other than my dear friend Liz Haskell thought that Bastide’s chef, Ludovic Lefebvre, had great potential, that Lefebvre had published a cookbook called Crave that had been criticized by certain people in the world of fine dining, that Lefebvre served an aggressive cuisine, and that Irene Verbilia had trashed the place in the Los Angeles Times by reducing it to one star from four. But despite the gossip about the cookbook and Virbilia's poor review, I had faith in Liz's claim that there was a there there at Bastide. So when I had a business trip to San Francisco planned at the beginning of June, I took a few days afterwards and headed down to L.A so I could sample some of the local gastronomic treats, one of which was Bastide.
The restaurant is located on the very posh Melrose Place which forms a short two-block triangle with Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard. The gates where the restaurant's trademark B is inserted into the columns that frame the restaurant, gives the appearance that Bastide is going to be a formal restaurant. But any hint of formality disappears as soon as you cross the threshold when you find yourself in an outdoor dining area which feels relaxed while still retaining an ambiance that is appropriate for serious dining. To the rear of the patio is a small staircase and when you enter the house, to the right of the hosts's stand there are two small dining rooms where you can see into the kitchen through a small window. Unusual for a restaurant in California, they do not allow people to bring their own wine. But fortunately the wine list is bursting with great selections with a few stellar bottles that are well priced. Our captain presented the menu and I pored over it, but I had come armed with the knowledge that chef Lefebvre had worked in the kitchens of Alain Passard’s Arpege as well as at Pierre Gagnaire (I later on found out that he also spent some time with Marc Meneau) and that made me feel comfortable enough to hand the menus back to the captain and tell him we would like the kitchen to cook for us.
A series of amuse were placed at the table. A shooter of strawberry juice, sake, basil olive oil, quaill egg, sea urchin and Selemi pepper, a glass of passion fruit juice with mint and mint foam (no photo), a foie gras lollipop with crushed almonds and balsamic vinegar, maccaronni Bolognese with shaved parmesan, and chicken cromesqui with curried apple. The shooter was a bit weird, and I thought it was going to be indicative of the rest of the meal. But it was the only really challenging thing that was served all evening. The passion fruit juice with mint was delicious and something I can drink on a regular basis. And the foie gras lollipop was delicious and a better amuse I don’t think you will find anywhere. An excellent start to the meal.
My first three dishes were simply fabulous. The first two were amazingly Arpege-like. First a deconstructed Bloody Mary amdewith celery mousse, tomato sorbet and vodka gelee. What an amazing dish and it rivaled the Passard gaspacho with mustard ice cream in terms of the intensity of the flavors. The celery mousse was so well spiced, it literally had all of the non-tomato flavors of a Bloody Mary packed into it. The taste lingered on like a great glass of wine. Then the "Caeser Salad" Bastide, Caesar salad sorbet topped with shaved parmesan was almost as good as the deconstructed Bloody Mary. Unusual that a kitchen can maintain couldn't imagine that level of intensity of flavor for more than one dish but they pulled it off completely. The shaved parmesan somehow stabilized the entire dish and made it more than just eating savoury ice cream. Then the template switched from Passard to Gagnaire-like inventiveness with a risotto of Serrano ham, Parmesan, Parmesan foam, coffee gelee and a quail egg. It was so good, so thick and luscious, so unctuous, filled with smoky tasting ham and a coffee gelee that exploded with flavor. Bravo to Lefebvre for this trio of dishes. As delicious as delicious can get in this country and on par with what three star restaurants in France serve.
The main courses while fine did not reach the same level of greatness as the appetizers. A seared foie gras with a maple syrup reduction sauce, rum aspic, coconut sorbet and pineapple foam was good but sort of expected and it didn't burst with the same type of flavor as the first three dishes. For some reason, I didn’t take a photo of it. Then Alaskan halibut, Sevruga caviar, German white asparagus on a deconstructed mayonaisse. This was a good dish but the components didn't blend as well as I would have liked them to. The fish and asparagus were sitting on top of the deconstructed mayonaisse which made it difficult to get all of the flavors onto a single fork of food. I think the dish would have worked better if the individual parts of the mayo were drizzled over the fish. Then beef tenderloin with carrots, shallots, red wine reduction, bacon and bacon flavored ice milk served with a small pot of aligot. Nice beef but not amazing quality which is what was needed to make this dish sing. But the dish seemed to suffer from the same problem as the fish course in that the flavors seemed a bit disparate and didn't blend perfectly. The ice milk was great though with an intense bacon flavor although the aligot didn't do very much for me.
Cheeses were ordinary, but desserts were very good. "Donut soup" tasted like a jelly sonut, cucumber granite with avocado, riccota and olive oil ice cream was less successful, and a white hot chocolate soup with orange sorbet was superb. We drank a 1973 Trimbach Clos St. Hune which was fabulous.
I was so blown away by aspects of Lefebvre's cooking that I returned to the restaurant in September when my wife and I took a long weekend in L.A. We started with a series of amuse that were similar to what I had back in June. After the Bloody Mary spoon, we moved on to more serious fare that I hadn't sampled on my first visit to the restaurant. I started with a slab of Blue Fin tuna sashimi with a scoop of sushi rice flavored ice cream on top, flavored with olis and spices. A beautiful dish and the first interesting raw tuna dish that I have had in a very long time. Tuna tartar or sashimi with a dipping sauce is so clichéd by now. Finally someone figured out a different approach that works. Then a slow cooked egg with truffles and four spices. Egg dishes are in vogue these days and most chefs use an ethereal approach. But Ludo's egg was meaty and more in line with Thomas Keller’s egg custard with truffle debris. Then sautéed foie gras on top of an Onion Compote which was good but I enjoyed my wife’s foie gras dish more than mine. The sauce which was flecked with tobiko was reminiscent of the sauce Nobu makes in his Creamy Spicy Crab dish. I thought this was a fairly unique dish and you don’t get to see many foie gras dishes that are spicy.
The next dish nearly defies description. Our captain appeared at the table with a lobster that looked as if it has been roasted. Except the lobster had a paper cone inserted into its back. Soon Ludo appeared at our table and as he started to remove the meat from the shell he explained that the dish, which he called Lobster Cheminee, or lobster with a chiminy, was a variation on a dish he used to make at Arpege when he worked there in the early 1990's. If I heard him correctly, you take a lobster and you puncture a hole in its back into which you insert a rolled up piece of paper to approximate a chimney flue. While the lobster is being cooked, every 30 seconds or so, sweet butter is spooned into the chimney. The result is sweet and tender lobster meat which not surprisingly is very buttery. The lobster meat is then removed from its shell and plated in a bowl,with thick noodles, a citrus sauce and vadouvin which is a specially prepared spice mix that includes curry leaves, fenegeek, mustard seeds and garlic. I thought I heard Ludo say that the spice blend is sourced from a shop in Paris where many of the three star chefs buy their spices. that this is his exlusive blend, and it costs $150 a pound. It is a masterpiece of a dish where the acidity of the citrus challenges the buttery lobster in a way that results in culinary ecstasy. I don't think I've had a dish in the U.S. that better exemplifies the French three star dining experience.
Hailbut was steamed and served in a sauce of Vanilla with nice garlicky spinach. Good dish although the quality of the halibut wasn't perfect. Also the flavors didn't quite mesh together the way they did with the lobster. Maybe the lobster was just too difficult to top. Then oxtail parmentier with espresso and pommes puree. This was the most traditional dish of the evening and as a result my least favorite. I think it needed a stronger espresso component, and a bit of sweetness in order to seem as modern as the rest of the cuisine. Our last course was what Ludo has titled, Veal Chop with "Choucroute Imaginaire" and let me tell you, this type of dish is exactly my idea of what the fine dining experience should be about. It started with a gorgeous cote de veau that Ludo sliced at the table placing one half on each plate, topped with a mustard cream sauce laced with cumin, and then the adorned with a slab of cole slaw gelee, braised cabbage with lard, a small piece of a sauscisson de Francfort (or hot dog as I corrected the captain,) braised bok choy and fingerling potatoes. A fabulous dish. I could have made a meal out of the cole slaw gelee and the saucisson alone but the truth is it made me pine for the quality veal you can find in France .
Desserts were a Fennel Soup with Melon Cubes and while neither of us are in love with fennel this was sweet and mild. Then a completely over the top creme fraiche panna cotta topped with Sevruga caviar and served in a pool of caramel. What a super dish. The panna cotta surpressed the fishiness of the caviar, but the saltiness worked perfectly with the caramel. Along with Jacque Decoret's Potato Dynamite, this was the best dessert I had this year. Then a delicious sweet polenta cake with figs, strawberries, brie ice cream and a black olive lollipop. We drank a superb bottle of 1997 Raveneau Chablis Chapelots and a glass of 2002 Pierre Gaillard St. Pierre with the veal.
If you like the French three star dining experience, there is no better restaurant in the U.S. than Bastide. And before making that statement, I have considered restaurants that range from Jean George to the French Laundry. Of course the restaurant has its weaknesses. First of all, both of my meals have been uneven despite inlcuding some terrific dishes. The weakest courses seem to be foie gras and fish, and even my experience with the meat dishes has been uneven. The reality is that Ludo is still young and hasn't fully developed his own cuisine. But I worry that in a town like Los Angeles where the local clientele is known for not valuing cuisine the way it is valued among people who live in New York, Ludo will not be able to perfect his craft. But even after highlighting these weaknesses (to be fair I am describing dishes that don't rise to the level of being fabulous, but which are still pretty damn good,) the strengths of his cuisine are so compelling that I am coming very close to calling Bastide the best restaurant in the U.S. Yes it is that good and I can't wait to go back. A