My friend Greg recently treated me to a dinner at Church & State in downtown LA. He didn’t tell me where we were going, and I swear that one of the streets we drove down was the same one where Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson murdered her husband in Double Indemnity. In the end, we made it safely to 1850 Industrial St, where I realized that Nabisco actually stood for the National Biscuit Company. Who knew that Oreos were all about the anagram?
Church & State has been around since 2008, longer than I thought (I don’t get out much,) so it’s had plenty of time to practice. It’s a French bistro, taking its name, our server told us, from the fact that France was one of the first countries to separate religion from government. I thought it had something to do with the David Mamet film with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patti LuPone, but then I remembered that that was called State and Main. Executive Chef Tony Esnault came to the restaurant by way of a couple Alain Ducasse restaurants in NYC and the Disney Hall Patina out here. I’m happy he did.
We began our dinner (our server told us we’d ordered too much food) with cocktails.
Greg ordered the only misstep of the evening, a PB&J cocktail, made from rum, peanut orgeat, and strawberry. Peanut butter and chocolate might mix well together, but peanut butter and cocktails do not: it was vulgar and did not compliment the cachat we began with: a pot of goat cheese blended with lavender and honey, served with croutes. The tang of the chevre blended marvelously with the sweetness of the honey, the lavender blessing the combination with floral notes redolent of Provence. I drank a Premeditated–I’d finally gotten around to reading the latest Michael Connelly, so it seemed appropriate–a cocktail inspired by an Old Fashioned, a mix of rye, rum, apricot luxardo, and bitters. This was a good cocktail, and its earthiness accompanied the goat cheese very well.
By the time the Steak Tartare arrived, we were ready for another drink. Greg was disinclined to order another PB&J, so he chose Smoking Indoors, a mezcal based drink shaken with curaçao, chile infused honey, and lime–a second cousin to the margarita, and a vast improvement over his first drink. I went with the Bird of a Feather, made with Scotch, apple brandy, honey, sherry, and lemon. I prefer the brown liquors when not quaffing gin. The steak tartare, sourced from free raised beef at Strauss Family Farms, was a delight.
It was chopped, not ground, and mixed with an engaging melange of herbs, an egg blended in to give it a fresco-like sheen. Many places tend to overuse horseradish in their steak tartare, but I’m pleased to say that Church & State did not fall prey to this error. The tartare was served with a mesclun salad and pommes frites garnished with a homemade mayonnaise. I have become quite a fan of mayonnaise since I’ve begun blending it myself, and this one was marvelous, just the right combination of egg, oil, and acid: rich, lemony, and indulgent. The frites were perfectly crispy and seasoned.
Greg was insistent that we sample the Os à Moelle, but I felt trepidation: I’d never eaten bone marrow, as sucking a bone has never appealed to me at the dining table. But Greg did not lead me astray. Marrow was a revelation. A shank bone, cut in half and seasoned and roasted, it was served with toasted baguette and a radish relish. Spread upon the toast and garnished with a little radish, marrow tasted the way prime rib smells when it’s cooking. It’s a good smell and a good taste.
By now, we had moved on to wine, and ordered a Chinon from the restaurant’s exclusively French wine list, and a matter of some happiness to Greg, who is partial to Old World wines. It accompanied our Salade de Betteraves, a composed salad of beets, goat cheese, and lovingly arranged lettuces and edible flowers, light and refreshing after the exuberance of the previous courses.
The Tarte aux Petits Pois was probably the most avant garde dish we ate that evening. A butter rich flatbread supported a purée of mint and peas, dusted with pea tendrils, diced carrots, red onion, and goat cheese. It tasted like nothing so much as a samosa pizza, and it floated as trippingly upon the tongue as a Shakespearean soliloquy.
We ended the savory portion of the evening with Bouillabaisse. As tempting as the lamb stew sounded, we felt a taste of the sea was in order. A pair of giant prawns terrorized us from the steaming bowl, surrounded by a bed of mussels, clams, and cod. The lobster based stock emitted an aromatic bouquet of fennel, saffron, and tomato. We dug in happily like a pair of peasants from Marseilles, and found it marvelous. Though I did have to behead Greg’s prawn for him.
We ended our simple repast with a shared dessert: a lemon tart. With a shortbread crust, an Italian merengue garnish, and a sweet cucumber coulis, it was as bright and refreshing as a morning in spring. I must say, however, and Greg agreed, that it tasted more like lime than lemon. What ever the fruit, it was exquisite.
The food was wonderful, and the staff was, too. We were welcomed at the door and allowed to choose our table. If we left our chair, we came back to find our napkin refolded. Everyone was attentive but non-obtrusive, our server offered forthright recommendations with knowledge and enthusiasm. All in all, it was an exceptional meal: superlative food, great service, and excellent and intelligent company. I think that Julia would approve, and there cannot be higher praise than that.