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Tables turn for city's top toques

Four-star Bastide changes chefs; Cimarusti leaves Water Grill; Opaline's partners part ways.

June 09, 2004|Russ Parsons and Corie Brown | Times Staff Writers

A magnitude 10 earthquake shook Southern California this week, and the epicenter was the kitchens of three of the area's top restaurants.

* Alain Giraud, founding chef at Bastide, the Los Angeles Times' only four-star restaurant, and Bon Appetit magazine's chef of the year in 2003, was replaced by Ludovic Lefebvre, a former chef at L'Orangerie.

* Michael Cimarusti, chef at downtown's 3 1/2-star Water Grill, announced that he is leaving the restaurant to open his own place.

* And David Rosoff and Jason Travi, the team at Opaline, which is best known for Rosoff's highly regarded wine program, are leaving as part of a general restaurant makeover.

Though they all share great reputations, the reasons for the restaurants' changes are as varied as their individual styles, which range from cool elegance to friendly informality.

The most surprising of the three exits was that of Giraud, who had racked up rave reviews since Bastide opened a year and a half ago. Still, restaurant owner Joe Pytka says, there is room for improvement, and he thinks Lefebvre is the guy to do it. He says that he and Giraud are in the process of hammering out the details for another smaller, more casual restaurant to open at a site and date still to be determined.

"I've been wanting to crank Bastide up one more notch to the higher end, and Alain was kind of thinking that might not be the best thing to do," says Pytka, a noted director of television commercials. "Ludovic was ready to commit on another deal, so I had to make a move right away or lose him."

Differences at Bastide

For his part, Giraud had long been reported to have been frustrated with some of Pytka's unusual dictates -- even before the restaurant opened. First, Bastide was only open on weekdays. Then Pytka changed his mind, opening on Saturday, but closing for lunches. Only French wines were served, and diners were not allowed to bring their own bottles, no matter how special the wine or the occasion.

Giraud was clearly shocked by Lefebvre's hiring, but remained diplomatic. In a prepared statement he said: "In the past few months I have had creative differences with Joe about the present and the future of Bastide. The plan now is for me to go back to my initial concept for the restaurant, which was more casual, and to be able to keep my cooking style. I will meet with Joe in the very near future to determine our involvement in the next project. I cannot comment on the future of Bastide because I haven't been involved in the process."

Pytka says Giraud's new restaurant will be more along the lines of L.A. Italian places like Il Pastaio and Angelini Osteria: "Someplace with simple service but really good food, only in a more casual way. I want it to be a hangout with really good food. The Italians have done those places beautifully."

Scouting for a location hasn't begun yet, but Pytka says he'd like the restaurant to be in Venice, because that's where his production office is, "but I'm not sure that is the right place."

Giraud, who came to Los Angeles to help Michel Richard open Citrus in 1988 and then headed Lavande in the Loews hotel in Santa Monica, had earned rave reviews for his work at Bastide.

There is "perhaps no finer dining experience in America than under the olive trees at Bastide," wrote Bon Appetit magazine when naming Giraud chef of the year in October. "While the decor, service, and wine are outstanding, it is Giraud's clean, subtle style of haute cuisine that is receiving the most notice."

Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila wrote: "Bastide has it all -- graceful French cooking from a mature chef, a chic and sophisticated setting, seriously good service and the indefinable magic that makes you want to go back to a restaurant again and again. It also happens to be lively and fun in an understated, grown-up way. It's a pleasure to see a chef of such obvious abilities finally reach for the stars."

Lefebvre had spent the last couple of years since leaving L'Orangerie trying to raise money for his own restaurant. Last October he changed plans and agreed to become chef at a new restaurant to be called Ludo in the W hotel in Westwood. But then he talked to Pytka, whom he had sought as an investor for his own restaurant.

"I won't get a second opportunity like this in my life," Lefebvre says, explaining why he jumped at the chance to take over Bastide even though he regards Giraud as a friend. "It's a lot of pressure for me. It's the only four-star restaurant in Los Angeles. But I believe in myself. I know what [Pytka] wants. We are on the same page."

One person close to the restaurant says Pytka was looking for cooking that was more "fun" than the elegant cuisine for which the restaurant has become known. If so, Lefebvre is ready to deliver -- in spades.

"I want to do surprising food," he says. "I want to create new tastes. My recipes one day will be pieces of art."

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