Most people with even a passing interest in local cooking have visited Church & State since it opened half a dozen years ago, a ground-level bistro on the ground floor of an old Nabisco factory, known for bringing dim lighting, expressive cocktails and Alsatian tarte flambée to a part of downtown then better known for illicit commerce than for kitchens serving blanquette de veau. Its first year or so saw a restaurant perhaps more centered on the cocktail trade than it was on the world of cuisine beyond steak-frites and chocolate mousse.
Walter Manzke took over the stoves for a while, fresh from his term at Bastide, and he took the restaurant in the direction of southern France, inflecting his savory tarts with herbs and summery vegetables (or even Époisses cheese), cooking his deeply flavored short ribs sous-vide and plucking live spot prawns from a tank before sizzling them with garlic and burying them under drifts of diced cucumbers. Manzke had a pretty spectacular run for a guy whose signature dish was probably fried pig's ears.
When Manzke left to pursue other projects, including a chain of fine-dining restaurants in the Philippines and his current mega-restaurant Republique, Church & State drifted for a while, going from chef to chef, keeping most of Manzke's menu but acting more as a casual Tuesday-night restaurant, the place you'd go when you couldn't land a table at Alma or Bestia.
But several months ago, Tony Esnault came aboard — an Alain Ducasse disciple who had worked for the master in both Monte Carlo and New York, and who was lured to Los Angeles by Joachim Splichal, who installed him as the chef at Patina, where my colleague S. Irene Virbila awarded him a rare four stars.
Esnault left Patina to work on a restaurant of his own with Church & State owner Yassmin Sarmadi. (The new place, Spring, is set to open later this year on the corner of 4th and Spring streets downtown.) And quietly, he set about transforming Church & State, which is for the moment the closest thing to a first-rate French bistro that Los Angeles has seen in years — French-French rather than California French; leaning toward rustic preparations and deep flavors rather than toward lightness, simplicity and the new, but informed with stunning technique. I hope he will manage to keep a hand in when he decamps to the new Spring.
So while you are still able to order the fried pig's ears at Church & State, the cheesy onion soup, the crisply roasted marrow bones and the steak-frites, that tarte flambée has been transformed into a tarte au céleri — crisp, buttery pastry topped with tiny cubes of celery, celery root and Granny Smith apples; different levels of tartness and crunch bouncing around the palate like billiard balls.
When it is chilly outside, there may be cassoulet, the famous bean dish of France's southwest, fortified with crunchy duck confit, a few hunks of sausage and lamb shoulder cooked down so long that the touch of a fork may cause it to collapse into a garlicky sigh. I loved the slices of rare venison saddle, soft as the costliest beef filet, with roast root vegetables and a thick, sweet, bloody sauce grand veneur. I'm not sure I have ever tasted better macaroni and cheese, crusty and chewy and stinky with Gruyère.
Still, Church & State may not be the place to order canard a l'orange — the sauce may not be over-sweet, but it has no particular character either — and while the snails may be presented in individual pastry-crowned crocks, the herbed garlic butter is a bit insipid. I'm not sure I'd send anyone here for the salmon, which tends to be overcooked, although the filet does sit on an excellent bed of lentils cooked with red wine and aromatics. The dish of seared scallops with puréed cauliflower is pretty close to every other version in town.
But there is the best coq au vin I can remember having in a restaurant: the braised chicken is scattered with lardons, garnished with mushrooms and pearl onions cooked to tiny nuggets of sweetness; the red wine in which the chicken has been cooked reduced to a profound, syrupy glaze underpinned with a deep bass note of thyme. You are not two blocks from the Los Angeles River. You are in a rough bouchon in Lyon, a smoky bistro in Paris' 11th, at the table of your best French friend's mom. And there are profiteroles for dessert.
Church & State
Chef Tony Esnault has made the restaurant the French-est bistro in town.
1850 Industrial St., No. 100, Los Angeles, (213) 405-1434; churchandstatebistro.com.
Hors d'oeuvres, $5-$17; salads, $14-$15; main courses, $21-$36; pastries, $9.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner, 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and street parking.
Onion soup, frisée salad, celery tart, coq au vin, venison saddle, macaroni and cheese.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times