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Bravura new act propels Bastide


Joe Pytka has been tinkering with his West Hollywood restaurant -- again. Bastide not only has a new chef -- Paul Shoemaker, its fourth -- but also a different format. Giving up its tasting-menu-only dictate, the 6-year-old restaurant now offers an a la carte menu in addition to the chef's tasting menu. That means you can stop in at Bastide for dinner and a bottle of wine and choose exactly what and how much you want to eat. You no longer need sign up for a three- or four-hour tasting menu.

Also new is the small drop-in wine bar in one corner of the garden where you can get elegant nibbles or a dish of the day.

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.

The setting, unchanged, is undeniably magical: a small house behind a walled, lavender-scented garden -- both designed and curated by the high priestess of French design, Andree Putman. Oh, I could wax poetic about the delights of that garden (and have previously) with its Turkish marble tables set out under silvery olive trees, basin fountains gurgling softly and hushed voices of guests in the semidarkness. The three petite dining rooms inside seem like rooms in a private house decorated with the owner's own art collection.

When Pytka and his third chef, Walter Manzke, parted ways in May, Pytka chose Paul Shoemaker, who was chef de cuisine at Providence in Hollywood from its opening in 2005 until spring of this year, as his new in-house chef.

It's a plum job -- the restaurant is open just five nights a week (lunch was tried and then abandoned). The chef has the budget to work with the best possible ingredients in a small, intimate setting. He doesn't need to turn out dinners for 400 a night, as Spago's chef does. Or be ready to cook anything from a large and elaborate menu. Bastide is definitely couture as opposed to ready-to-wear. And Shoemaker is proving to be an astute choice.

He's not only technically skilled but also has an almost poetic sensibility. His food is both elegant and sensual -- and, very important, it plays well with wine, which is Bastide's ace in the hole.

For customers who want the full-on experience of Bastide, the tasting menu (just one now, instead of two) at $125 for eight courses is the way to go. An old-fashioned font on heavy cream paper lists the courses like acts in a play. There's very little detail, merely the name of the main ingredient, for example, "scallop," "unagi" (eel), "beef," "cheese" or "sweets." But if you're curious or don't like to be surprised, the waiter will elaborate on the chef's riff on that particular ingredient that night.

For just a taste

A tasting menu might begin with an amuse of beautiful slices of raw Japanese tai snapper with sudachi (Japanese citrus) scattered with ginkgo nuts and shaved matsutake mushrooms so delicate they are almost more a perfume than a taste. The subtle flavor of the sashimi is brilliant against a tiny quenelle made of umeboshi (pickled plums) shocked with shiso.

Spiny lobster just came into season, and Shoemaker serves it with a scattering of razor clams on a velvety fennel puree with sweet-tart kumquats and an intense saffron reduction. It's a fabulous dish, and wonderful with Hirtzberger's Gruner Veltliner from the famous Honivogl vineyard in Austria's Wachau region, poured by the glass that evening.

On a day when the chef has some wild French turbot, he cooks the Mediterranean fish with a perfectly crisp skin and moist, pearly flesh. I love the pairing of seafood with mushrooms, here quartered beige maitake mushrooms. The fish also comes with a bright-tasting spinach puree and adorable, miniature sweet-potato gnocchi lined up like beads in a horizontal row, interspersed with crisp cubes of bacon.

The meat course this night is either a tall medallion of marvelously tender veal or, for a $50 supplement, true Kobe beef seared slightly, ever so slightly. Both are served with a carrot-cardamom puree and baby carrots rolled in butter, cumin and mustard seeds. Wispy Japanese mustard greens are sharp and delicious against the sweetness of the carrots. The Kobe is the real thing, but you have to be a real aficionado to make it worth the price. I'm not. I prefer a steak that's not so soft.

Every course is surprising and interesting. Shoemaker loves to tuck little flavor bombs in somewhere so you're never bored before you get to the end of the dish. That umeboshi quenelle is just one example. It's impressive, delightful cooking.

The cheese course, so to speak, is a small, fragile panna cotta, cream barely held together with gelatin and laced with Epoisses. "Eat it all in one bite," the waiter urges. Despite the hint of orange and the candied pistachio at the bottom, the savory panna cotta doesn't quite work: The gloriously stinky cheese doesn't take well to anything sweet.

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