But I still feel uncomfortable in any environment that requires a certain standard of dress, or puts on fancy formal airs, even if there's no posted, official dress code. So the infamous topsy-turvy story of Bastide on Melrose Place is an excellent case study of weighing feelings and attitudes towards Los Angeles's attempts at "white tablecloth" dining.
Back during the Alain Giraud era of Bastide version 1.0, I picked Bastide for my Fancy Birthday Dinner in 2003. It was a major special treat for us that required saving pennies, and my unreliable memory romanticizes the experience as The Time When More Fine Dining Existed.
Thanks to the miracle of the googling, I found a query and subsequent report I posted on Chowhound (written under a stupid handle I used for a pair of seconds). Even if I cringe reading my ignorant Chowhounding and writing from way back then, it's a reality check about why maybe it's a GOOD thing that yet another Big Fucking Deal Fancy Place changed with the times.
And yet, when we went to Bastide for our anniversary last Friday, I felt a slight tinge of sadness that Andrée Putman's cool, exacting, maximally conceived minimal décor had given way to scarlet accent walls, beaded curtains (eek!), banana leaf wallpaper (although I'm always down with an ode to the Paul Williams period at the Beverly Hills Hotel), Campbell soup can pendant light fixtures, and even an Assouline bookstore. At least the patio hasn't changed much. But when I re-read my 2003 account of our meal, it's no wonder that as the night wore on during this last time around, we were so comfortable in the space that feels charmingly intimate and unlike any other restaurant in Los Angeles. And it's not because Bastide is the city's most expensive or most precious place.
Even if the menu reads like a straightforward modern French and Cali market-driven roster, and is worlds away from Giraud's approach. Not to mention Ludovic Lefebvre's tenure at Bastide, and LudoBites, where we'd ironically enough, just been for a phenomenal meal the night before. Executive Chef Joseph Mahon's focused cooking delivers. From the platter of Kumamotos topped with Banyuls vinegar shallot mignonette and simply arranged in a row, to the velvety sweet corn soup with its bit of porky and curried bite, to the slices of yielding yellowtail with shaved asparagus and apple soy dressing that mellows and accents the fish, to the buttery medium rare steak slices with peas (not totally in season but I'll forgive that), this was all careful but not fussy. In short, satisfying and classy. I couldn't get through the version of mac n' cheese made with orzo, fontina and beloved Époisses -- but high falutin, stunt interpretations don't do much for me. Where there once was strained delicate tomato water soup, there's a full-bodied but smooth, tangy gazpacho studded with mild shrimp. Not as technically "impressive," but hits the seasonal spot. Desserts are lovely. The buttermilk panna cotta's raspberry consome dazzles under that Campbell's soup can light. The subtle bottle of '96 La Gomerie from the wine list of special and low-inventory bottles priced at or below retail had something to do with the warm happy feeling, but I would've been won over anyway.
Bastide's prices aren't at the upper range of L.A. restaurants, but the service sure is. Wine is properly decanted, water is continually refilled, butter is house-made, the table perfectly set, seat cushions are regularly fluffed, and attention is paid. Given that we're talking about $10-15 apps and salads, and $20-36 main courses, Bastide has become something of -- dare I say? -- a relative bargain. To think dinner at Café Stella or any other not-cheap neighborhood bistro costs the same is a head-scratcher. This obviously has to do with the fact that Bastide has its Daddy Warbucks.
Apologies for the lack of images, but I've never been an Everything I Ate kind of blogger anyway. Recent Bastide pics are available at other blogs, should you need better visuals.
So the take-away is that I'm at peace with L.A. remaining in essence a casual town, which is further mandated by the times we live in. I just have to be OK with showing up over-dressed.
Disclosure: we were not hosted, but received several dishes compliments of the chef.
Bastide: 8475 Melrose Place, West Hollywood; (323) 651-5950.