Church & State. Where’s Walter?
I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state.
But sometimes, when your church is arguably LA’s best French bistro, the state intervenes.
Such as today.
Because today, the day I had planned on a long and leisurely lunch at Church & State, was the day the Department of Public Health chose to inspect the restaurant. On top of that, Chef Walter Manzke was not in the kitchen and, from what I gathered from a subsequent tweet, neither was his sous chef. Evidently the kitchen was a little flustered.
To be fair, I’d eaten at Church & State a couple of months earlier on a night that Chef Manzke was again not in the kitchen and the meal was spot on. One of my top 7 or 8 meals of 2009.
But today things were just a bit off. A couple of dishes came out under seasoned. Not a fatal flaw but a lack of quality control in the kitchen. I put it down to a bad day, knowing the high standards this kitchen can deliver.
I’ve loved the decor, atmosphere and attitude of Church & State ever since I first visited the restaurant. Built in a converted warehouse loading dock, it’s all exposed brick, red painted walls, worn black columns, and subway tile, criss crossed by low hanging strings of Edison bulbs. It’s at once unpretentiously welcoming, magically romantic and of its location in the loft district in Downtown LA. It evokes a time and place I only dream I’ve visited and a menu that brings comfort to the imagined Francophile in me.
As does a cold Affligem Blond.
We started with the steak tartare with mesclun salad and pommes frites. The steak was well prepared, hand cut leaving a pleasantly solid texture. But this was one of the dishes that could have done with more seasoning. I remember reading an interview recently with Chef Walter Manzke where he said his favorite ingredient to cook with was sea salt. Perhaps his kitchen could have been more liberal with it in this dish.
The pommes frites were, however, very good.
We moved on to the terrine de foie gras with port wine gelée and toasted brioche. Here was a dish I’d eat everyday for breakfast if I could. The foie gras terrine was soft and buttery, the port wine gelée pleasantly sweet. Spread on toasted brioche, it was like an adult PB&J. But make that a FG&J.
Next up was an off-menu dish, the sea urchin with olive oil and paprika on baguette. I love sea urchin, usually in the form of uni sushi. I love the sweetness of it. Unfortunately this was masked by the taste of the olive oil in this dish with the delicate sea urchin being an afterthought. I didn’t really think this dish worked. But we ordered it more out of curiosity (being off-menu) than anything else and there was much more deliciousness to come.
Next came the escargots de bourgogne (snails baked in garlic and parsley butter) I had longed for since missing out on them on my first visit to Church & State. I love their presentation in individual ramekins topped with puff pastry. I love the anticipation of pulling the top off and letting the steam escape. Like a little Christmas present of escargot. But, like with so many Christmas presents, I was disappointed. I had hoped for Ferragamos but instead got Steve Maddens. These could have again used more seasoning and more garlic.
The moules mariniere (mussels in white wine) that followed were, however, pretty good. The broth was flavorful, the mussels plentiful and fairly plump. Mollusc to mollusc, I definitely preferred these over the snails. More pommes frites and aioli accompanied.
We also ordered the tarte de saumon fumé (smoked salmon tarte) with leeks and lemon creme fraiche. Not a dish I would have usually ordered but that’s the beauty of dining with others. I loved the simplicity of this dish. Good quality smoked salmon, a good crispy base, seasoned well with herbs and a drizzle of creme fraiche. A lighter counterpoint to some of our other dishes.
Next was one of the must have dishes at Church & State. The moelle de boeuf (roasted bone marrow). I’ve had the bone marrow at Animal, at The Gorbals, and at numerous other restaurants around town. Church & State’s are very good. But what sets them apart is the tart chimichurri sauce they serve with it. Bone marrow is all about texture and fat but top it with the chimichurri and the acid cuts right through it. Spread on toasted brioche, it’s a dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
And lastly, we came to the dish that people can’t get enough of. The oreilles de cochon, or crispy pig’s ears served with a bearnaise dipping sauce. Not usually on the lunch menu because they can’t keep up with the demand, ask and you shall receive. What I like about Church & State’s pig’s ears is that they are not cut into thin strips but left as large triangles. Cooked to a tender gelatinousness, coated and deep fried, you can see and taste the actual pig’s ear. This is a dish for people who want to know they’re eating pig’s ears and not disguise it. Dipped into the bearnaise, it’s a dish you pair with beer, not wine.
We had decided to pass on dessert but the kitchen, perhaps sensing that some of the dishes were not quite up to par, sent out a dessert sampler of every dessert on their menu. The cherry and nut tart, the apricot tart, the pot de creme au chocolate, the creme brulée, and the panna cotta with tangerine granita. I loved the freshness of the tangerine granita after the fat of the pig’s ears and I can’t go past a creme brulee. The pot de creme was very rich but had a great caramel sauce on top. Both tarts were also good but perhaps not my preferred choice of desserts.
By this time, it was approaching 3:30pm and the restaurant had emptied out and returned to a relaxed pace. We lingered over the last of our drinks, waiting for the rain outside to subside, and reflected on the meal.
Would I give it an A?
Well, the Department of Public Health apparently did.
Me? I’ll wait for my third visit to pass judgment.
And hopefully the next time Chef Manske will actually be behind the stove.Church & State 1850 Industrial St
Los Angeles, CA 90021