Bastide, the West Hollywood bastion of fine French fare, has taken a tumble.
Having earned a rare four-star rating from the Los Angeles Times last year, what was arguably the best restaurant in the region came down several notches last week when Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila panned the work of new chef Ludovic Lefebvre and dropped Bastide to a single star (the same rating as Morton’s, The Steakhouse).
Virbila’s lengthy review described less a dining experience than an assault on her palate. A soup with chanterelle mushrooms was “tongue-numbingly bitter, its intensity punishing, the gastronomic equivalent of body piercing,” with licorice and coffee flavors so overpowering she felt as if she’d “been mugged.”
A foie gras dish fared no better. Served on a brioche, the appetizer’s accompaniments “were so sweet, it made me want to scrub off my piece of foie gras like a raccoon before eating it,” she wrote.
In fact, much of Virbila’s criticism centered on a “sweetness that is unrelenting” in nearly every dish.
While it is not unusual for restaurant ratings to fluctuate, such a drastic demotion is practically unheard of.
“You hear about a restaurant whose glory fades and they lose a star here or there, but to lose three out of four is fairly substantial,” said Randall Hiatt, president of Fessel International, a restaurant consultancy in Costa Mesa.
What impact the review will have on Bastide’s business, where a couple can easily spend upwards of $400 on a meal and wine, remains to be seen, but Hiatt and others point out that the well-heeled restaurant-goers patronizing Bastide are also likely to be reading Virbila’s reviews.
“With restaurants like that, probably 80 percent of the people go for the food and those are the people who are going to be swayed negatively by the review,” Hiatt said. “The L.A. Times is a pretty powerful voice in this market.”
Several restaurants panned by Virbila over the years still manage to score well in the Zagat Survey (where customers get to vote), including Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Bistro 45 and the Parkway Grill, both in Pasadena.
But the critic’s comments might have ushered the end of at least one establishment. Virbila’s 1995 pan of La Veranda in Beverly Hills kept diners away in droves, and less than a year later owner David Slay sold it.
Slay, who still lives in L.A. but spends a good deal of time on restaurant projects in his native Missouri, was unequivocal in blaming Virbila for the restaurant closing. The review came out on a Sunday morning, he said, and by the time he got into work that day, the calls were already coming in from people canceling dinner reservations.
“It was devastating,” said Slay. “Business literally dropped every day. I thought we had a good, loyal clientele, but it was over with quickly.”
Business declined by more than 50 percent and within five months he had closed the restaurant.
Bastide is owned by commercial director Joe Pytka, who declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. The restaurant earned its four-star rating in February 2003 under renowned Chef Alain Giraud.
Giraud spent more than a decade as chef de cuisine at the now-shuttered Citrus before becoming chef at Lavande in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. After meeting the deep-pocketed Pytka, he left Lavande in 2000 and spent three years developing Bastide.
Despite the restaurant’s four-star rating, Pytka decided that the elegant cuisine needed some livening up and, to the shock of many foodies, he dismissed Giraud in the spring. He snatched Lefebvre from what would have been Ludo at Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ W Hotel in Westwood. (A restaurant called 9 Thirty is opening in Ludo’s place.)
The 33-year-old Lefebvre, who joined Bastide in July, did not return calls, but Donato Poto, Bastide’s general manager, said of the review: “Everyone is doing their job. She is doing hers and we’re doing ours.” He declined further comment.
Restaurant owners sometimes go to extremes in response to reviews. Earlier this year, Texas restaurateur Phil Romano sued the Dallas Morning News after a positive review of his Il Mulino New York. Romano alleged that the reviewer made errors such as claiming that a dish “whispered of gorgonzola” when none was used. The suit is still pending.
After the Mobil Travel Guide dropped Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin to four from five stars in 2000, chef/owner Georges Perrier invested $500,000 on renovations and went through several chef changes before regaining the fifth star two years later. (Pytka has just lured Le Bec-Fin’s sommelier to oversee his vaunted cellar of French wines.)
If anyone is breathing a sign of relief as a result of the dustup, it may be Innovative Dining Group, which was set to install Lefebvre at the W. But IDG partner Lee Maen said he didn’t feel like he dodged a bullet.
Bastide’s French cuisine differs from the concept IDG was developing, Maen said. “We’re not chef-driven. We, as owners, have a lot to say about what’s on our plates, and what’s on our plates are things we like. No one goes off in a strange direction not that he did.”