Have you heard about Belcampo Meat Co.? Because it is an impressive operation, with its own slaughterhouse and half a dozen restaurants/butcher shops scattered around California. There's an organic 12,000-acre ranch near Mt. Shasta, and photographs of the cows grazing underneath the snow-topped dormant volcano are the kind of farm scenes 4-year-olds are driven to re-create in crayon. If you have several thousand dollars to drop on a long weekend, you can attend Meat Camp there.
When Belcampo opened a butcher shop in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market last year, it immediately became sanctified among the humane meat crowd, as well as Paleo diet devotees who appreciate the grass-fed meat (Belcampo does own huge biodynamic farms in Uruguay and Belize).
Other customers marveled at the high prices, the delicious burgers at the adjoining lunch counter and the odd cuts of meat: A lamb crepinette was one of the best things I have ever slapped on the grill; a goat-belly roast was as tough as an old billy even after a four-hour braise. Grass-raised Belcampo meat is beautifully raised, but it can also be lean and unforgiving if you aren't used to cooking it.
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It may be useful to imagine the new Belcampo in Santa Monica as less a restaurant than a demonstration project, a way to invite customers into the Belcampo lifestyle and show them how leaner meat should be prepared. Think of it as Meat Camp but with cocktails — very, very good cocktails.
Or you could think of it as a kind of meat speak-easy hidden behind a butcher shop — a big, windowless supper club accessed from a discreet doorway, dominated by the bar, ringed with booths filled with people indulging in their new vice. (Anya Fernald, Belcampo's chief executive, told the New Yorker last year that her target market was ex-vegetarians.)
Appetizers include mutton chops, grilled beef heart and a choice of hand-chopped tartares. I like the spicy, mild goat tartare with chile and licoricey hoja santa, although the vaguely Indian lamb tartare with papadum and the beef tartare with smoked oysters are both perfectly good. The bread comes with lardo. Both the kale salad with diced avocado and the slightly oily tempura zucchini and eggplant seem like tokens, especially in this farmers market-obsessed corner of the city. Belcampo may be an environmentalist's favorite but is not a place to get away from animal flesh.
You will be eating French dip éclairs: rough cylinders of eggy pâte à choux stuffed with rare sliced beef and served with a little dish of broth for dipping, like a Paris bistro's take on the sandwiches at Philippe's. You may enjoy the quail, fried and glazed in a way that will remind you of every Cantonese restaurant you visited before the age of 6. The snap peas tossed with the spicy chopped nut mix called dukkah aren't bad.
If you are sensible, you will have had a couple of Josh Goldman's cocktails, which are the best in any restaurant in town at the moment: a fragrant sherry cobbler straight out of the 19th century, perhaps, a sour made with beets and tequila, or something called the Temptation of Bitterness that includes an entire ounce and a half of Angostura bitters but goes down like iced tea.
Still, you are basically killing time before the real meat comes. And whether you like Belcampo's meat, all raised on the Northern California ranch, will have a lot to do with your attitude toward Fernald's grand project, whether your taste for humane, sustainable meat production can override the understandable yearning for char, salt and fat.
Do you like the beefy, sweet, browned taste of limp shoestring fries cooked in tallow, or do you wish they'd cooked the potatoes crisp in another oil instead? Would you prefer dripping, dead-rare meat on the Roast Beef Banquet to the thin, dryish slices Belcampo drapes over toast? Can you eat the stringy, intensely flavored braised beef short rib with pleasure, or do you long for the gushing melted fat you'd find in the short ribs at Odys & Penelope?
The restaurant's minimalist burger is as good as the one you may have tasted at Grand Central Market, served on a soft Bread Bar bun with caramelized onions and a bit of good cheddar. The steely meat-tartness of the aged beef cuts through the sweetness almost like a condiment, slightly funky and distinctly animal. Sometimes there will be a delicious pork rib chop on the specials list, which will be served on a bed of polenta with ripe, leaking cherry tomatoes. The coiled pork sausage is plain, soft, barely seasoned and the perfect thing to accompany a glass of Beaujolais.
But everything about Belcampo screams steakhouse, from the dark wood, to the hanging meat up front to the list of sturdy reds. You could order the steak-frites, usually a small off-cut, such as sirloin tip, sliced before it gets to the table, although you may know it's beside the point — it is hard to taste the strong, chewy meat beneath all the garlic butter. And unless you are a real player, you're probably going to skip the huge, ultra-expensive cuts that occasionally make it to the menu.
Which leaves us with Belcampo's centerpiece: the dinner for two, which comes with a salad enhanced with crisp bacon and a gooey, cheesy mound of potatoes au gratin. It's a self-contained Big Night Out. And the steak is probably a decent-sized New York strip — it's not the A5 Wagyu at Cut, so fatty you could almost think of it as a fluid, and it's not the trillion-calorie beef bomb that is the chef's cut strip at Mastro's. It is less juicy. The flavors are both more pronounced and more delicate, like a Bartok string quartet as opposed to a full-throated Sousa march. It is probably the steak that our great-grandparents enjoyed, in the time before meatpackers discovered how to over-fatten their cattle with corn.
Belcampo Meat Co.
A cocktail-friendly restaurant from the folks who run the Grand Central Market butcher shop.
1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (424) 744-8008, belcampomeatco.com
Snacks, $5-$9; small plates, $13-$24; entrees, $18-$38; vegetable sides, $6-$11.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Butcher shop.
French dip éclair, goat tartare, cheeseburger, steak-frites.