Bastide has been shuttered again by its mercurial owner, commercial director Joe Pytka, who reportedly will give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the future of his lauded West Hollywood restaurant to his staff today after returning from a trip to Scotland.
At his whim, Pytka has hired and fired chefs, who have trailed behind them both bad and great reviews. On Monday, Bastide's crew arrived to find the monogrammed blue doors closed, the restaurant inexplicably shuttered just weeks after a 3 1/2 -star review in the Los Angeles Times.
"We were called into [Pytka's production] office and told that the restaurant's closed, that Joe wants to reconceive," said sommelier Pieter Verheyde, who has been at Bastide since 2007. "We were kind of surprised."
The staff was told that Pytka would give them details upon his return.
Neither Pytka nor executive chef Paul Shoemaker could be reached for comment.
There was mixed reaction to the news Tuesday. Some were as surprised as Verheyde, while others saw several recent changes at the restaurant as foretelling. Shoemaker took the helm this summer and added a la carte dishes (previously only tasting menus were offered); the restaurant opened for lunch, but that lasted for only a little more than a month; design changes were ongoing. Last month, a new wine bar was installed in a corner of the restaurant's garden.
Longtime sous chef Sydney C. Hunter III, who had worked at the restaurant since 2002, left shortly after Shoemaker was installed and is now sous chef at recently opened Riva in Santa Monica.
"I've been through all the chefs there," Hunter said. "I was surprised that [Pytka] would do something like that. He seemed really happy to have Paul [Shoemaker] there."
Whether Shoemaker stays on as chef remains to be seen.
"It is what it is," Verheyde said. "I have no regrets, because we've been able -- with Joe's means -- to create something original."
As for now, "the door is locked," confirmed Pytka's publicist Joan Luther, who repeated the term Verheyde had used: "[Pytka] has an idea to reconceive," Luther said. Calls to Pytka's office referred the matter to Luther.
Bastide has a well-documented history of chef-shuffling, of sudden turns and shifts in direction, and of abrupt closings. It is on its fourth head chef in less than six years, including the year and a half when it was closed.
Pytka spent a reported $3.5 million to open Bastide at the end of 2002, with chef Alain Giraud at the helm. Under Giraud, Bastide earned an unprecedented four stars from Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.
But less than two years later, Pytka let Giraud go, replacing the Paris-born chef (now chef-owner of the Santa Monica brasserie Anisette) with Ludovic Lefebvre, formerly of L'Orangerie.
Lefebvre didn't make it to the two-year mark either. After unfavorable reviews for his avant-garde cuisine (one star from Virbila), Pytka and Lefebvre parted ways.
Pytka then shut down his restaurant -- designers and chefs came and went presenting their ideas while Pytka searched for the magic formula for the restaurant, but the dining public was not invited.
For a year and a half, Angelenos waited.
Then in July of last year, Bastide finally reopened, with a new design, a new menu and a new chef. Walter Manzke, who came down from Carmel with his wife, Marge, Bastide's new pastry chef, drew an appreciative audience and three stars -- before he quit this last May.
To fill Manzke's place, Pytka tapped Shoemaker, previously chef de cuisine at Providence. It seemed a good fit, and Bastide ascended to 3 1/2 stars on his watch. Four chefs, and it looked like a return to the realm of four stars, or at least pretty close.
Wrote Virbila in her review: "As Pytka conceives it, Bastide is not simply a place to eat; it's an ongoing experiment in the restaurant as performance art. It's also possibly the most civilized place to dine in Los Angeles."
That was less than a month ago. Now the staff is cooling its heels, waiting until Pytka gets off a plane to learn if this is to be a short hiatus -- or a very long Thanksgiving vacation.
"Reconception," especially as employed by a man such as Joe Pytka, is a very relative term.