Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bastide - comfortable luxury

The latest incarnation of Bastide opened in December for lunch and in February for dinner. Bastide has been a revolving door of chefs and concepts since it opened to the public in 2002. Owner Joe Pytka has been described as very demanding but someone who gets results, which is why he has been a go-to director for difficult and creative comemrcial shoots for years. The 4 previous incarnations of Bastide have all been different, ambitious, expensive and formal.

Joseph Mahon is the 5th chef to helm the jewel box of a ship and he occupies the captian's chair with self assurance and confidence. He has evolved his menu over the past 3 months, with a strong emphasis on the seasonal and fresh. The plates are beautifully arranged but not overwrought, no Sona daintiness here. He has supplemented the printed menu with a series of specials reflecting ideas he is working on or great meat/produce he got his hands on in limited quantities.

Mahon most recently worked at the undistinguished 208 Rodeo, but previously worked at Sona in Los Angeles and Cafe Boulud and Bouley in New York, an impressive resume. David Bouley is a great chef but is also notoriously difficult to work for, so Ptyka is not the first tough boss that Mahon has had in his culinary career.

Over the course of eight meals in the past three months I have had the opportunity to sample many dishes on Manhon's menus. I have been there more often than not for lunch on Tuesdays since the new year. The service started out fine and has improved over time. Sommelier/manager Dario Dell'Anno is an excellent host and knows his list inside and out. He is often looking to introduce his customers to wines they haven't had before or wines from unusual regions, whether a white wine from Croatia or a smooth Zweigelt from Austria. The price point on the wines is also very approachable - unlike many of its peers, you will not struggle to find a wine for less than $50 at Bastide. There is not a wine by the glass list but Dario is always eager to find a glass of something that will work with what I have ordered when we are not up to a whole bottle.

Hands down my favorite dish on the menu is the Yellowtail, simply described on the menu as yellowtail, shaved vegetables. I have had this dish perhaps four times as I find it hard to resist. The vegetables usually include radish, green string beans, and asparagus and some individual green beans, with some diced nuts on top. The presentation is beautiful and the barely seared hamachi is just beautiful; something a sushi restaurant would be proud to serve. At $14 this dish is a great value and one of the chef's signatures.

Risotto is a tough dish to get right as it is so easy for it to become gloppy. The red wine risotto with mushrooms is a rich and hearty dish. I have had it several times as it is one of my favorites on the menu. I believe it has recently been cycled off in favor of the more seasonal Champagne Artichoke risotto, which if it is in the same league as the red wine risotto, I recommend.

Soups have also been a strong point. The winter onion soup with beef shank has been cycled off in favor of a potato soup. Recently a special of corn soup was on offer. The soup was sweet but not cloyingly so and had little bits of orange in it as well as a small amount of basil. It had a thinner consistency than I was expecting and hinted at the bounty of summer to come.

Hiding amongst the composed salads section of the menu is a Frisee salad with bacon, poached egg, crispy chicken thighs, shallot vinaigrette. I had this dish without the bacon. The poached egg sits atop the frisee salad with the fried chicken thighs to the side on the rectangular plate. The poached egg yolk gooily coats the salad once the egg white is pierced. Unlike Jonathan Gold who recently mentioned in an NPR interview that the only thing he does not eat is eggs, I love them, especially runny yolks. The fried chicken is crispy but not too salty. My only fault with the dish is that it feels like two pieces rather than one unified whole.

The baby lamb dish is very good. It includes loin cooked medium rare into slices, a large raviolo with forcemeat, ground shank and shoulder, peeled baby tomatoes, sliced cucumber, cooked greens and fried polenta. I was told that the raviolo component of the dish may be shrunk, to greater emphasize the lamb itself. The meat had a lot of "lamby" flavor, just a hint of gaminess. The polenta was the only part of the dish I did not care for. It was just an odd consistency.

Another favorite is the beef tenderloin tartare tartine (now thats an alliterative mouthful). The beef tartare is served on a flatbread open faced sandwich. The beef flavor comes through and the other components play a supporting role. (N.B. the beef tartare at the Tar Pit on La Brea is ill conceived as the Worcestershire sauce is all you can taste, so avoid that dish and get your tartare fix at Bastide, or the excellent version at Church & State). I have also tried the Smoked Salmon tartine, but it is rather boring and seems designed for those looking for something light and inoffensive, a sop to the ladies who lunch.

The only dish I have not enjoyed at all is the burger, which was just too rich and didn't really taste like a burger should. I have seen people at other tables order it and devour them, but it is not a dish I can recommend.

One last dish to think about is the foie gras special, which is almost always available off menu. He sources his foie from Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, which is run by the Gonzalezes, a couple from El Salvador. Outstanding. After the hamachi, this is among the best dishes. You can see it pictured here.

Chef Mahon has a blog at which he updates his weekly specials. Check it out here to find out what tricks Joseph has up his sleeve this week.

Bastide is located on Melrose Place, just off La Cienega. It is only 2 blocks long and is quiet, a retreat from the hustle and bustle just around the corner. When it is warm enough, you can't beat the seating in the patio, which is right off the street. The main dining room only has 6 or so tables, so it has an intimate feeling, like you are at a dinner party at the home of a wealthy friend.

Pictures are top to bottom: Bastide exterior, the housemade butter served with radish, the yellowtail appetizer, corn soup, baby lamb entree, beet salad, lemon custard dessert.

Bastide is located at 8475 Melrose Place @ La Cienega. Phone: (323) 651-5950. Website:

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