Open almost two years, the downtown bistro Church & State has seen a lot of changes in its brief life. Steven Arroyo (Cobras & Matadors) opened the restaurant in the Biscuit Co. Lofts on Industrial Street in September 2008. The original chef lasted only a couple of months and was soon replaced by Walter Manzke, the former executive chef at Bastide. With his impressive fine-dining credentials, Manzke seemed an oddball choice to head up the funky bistro's frenetic kitchen, but Manzke took on the job with gusto, even making his own charcuterie. Great French bistro cooking and affordable too? Church & State pulled in crowds from all over L.A. But without a financial stake in the restaurant, it was inevitable that Manzke would eventually leave to develop his own project.
In the meantime, Church & State's managing partner Yassmin Sarmadi bought out Arroyo and when Manzke left this year, she brought in as chef Joshua Smith, who'd been working for Alain Giraud at Anisette in Santa Monica.
It's easy to understand why it probably seemed like a good idea. It would mean moving from a place where Smith didn't call all the cooking shots to one where he was the boss. Plus, the downtown clientele is more adventurous, and an open kitchen meant he could be the star.
Life doesn't always work that neatly. I don't know if it was Smith's choice or Sarmadi's, but at first he basically ended up executing Manzke's menu. Not an easy job. And the e-mails started coming in from readers disappointed in the changes.
I checked him out early on, and true, many of the dishes weren't as good, especially the charcuterie, which now tasted bland and boring. (Making pâtés and terrines is a skill that takes years to perfect.)
But I did taste a couple of Smith's own dishes, which showed what he could do when given the chance. I loved little toasts with white bean purée topped with uni. And spot prawns split and sautéed, just barely warmed in beurre blanc with capers. They're spectacularly good. I decided to wait and see.
After giving the new chef some time to settle in, I went back several times and each visit as Smith introduced more and more of his own dishes, the food got better and better.
Smith's got a tough act to follow. He's not Manzke, and some of Manzke's fans are never going to get over it. They should, because Smith's cooking his heart out, and bringing a slightly different angle on French bistro food to this still charming place.
Now five months into his tenure, the menu is surely but slowly shifting in Smith's direction. Don't worry, you can still get oysters on the half shell, steamed mussels, a decent steak frites, cassoulet and those delicious potatoes fried in lard.
The savory tarts have changed a little. Tarte flambée still isn't a real tarte flambée, too rich by far with a heavy load of Gruyère on top instead of crème fraîche. But, there's a new tarte aux blettes, a thin-crusted rectangular tart topped with Swiss chard, pine nuts, raisins and dabs of creamy goat cheese.
And what a surprise to see cervelle de canut, a staple on Lyonnaise bistro menus, here in L.A. The creamy sheep's milk cheese with herbs whipped into it makes a perfect starter to share. Simply spread it on the stack of little toasts.
Triangular flaps of crispy pigs ears are a little greasy the night I try them, but good with a silky rich bearnaise. And I really like the salad of thick slices of warm veal tongue set on rosy slices of beet with horseradish cream on the side. Unless you're sharing, it could stand in as a main course.
White anchovies layered with paper-thin slices of potato to form a terrine makes a very pretty dish. The proportion of anchovy to potato, though, means it's very vinegary and almost too intense.
There's a new staff in place too, now that Sarmadi is running the restaurant, which includes a new and enthusiastic sommelier — and a much better wine list, the one item Church & State was lacking on the first go-round. The wait staff strikes just the right tone, not intrusive, not too formal.
And the crowd is still a vibrant mix of downtown denizens, tourists, expatriate French and stockbrokers, though this time fewer starving artists and more well-heeled women with major bags. In other words, eclectic. One thing they all share is a willingness to accommodate themselves to the noise, which is considerable. This may not be the spot for a first date or a 50th wedding anniversary. However, if you want to sit outside on the sidewalk terrace in front, it's not as crazy loud. There is wind, though, welcome on a steamy summer night but not so much when it's chilly out.
Then again, that would be when a cassoulet would sound awfully good (why they serve this hearty fall and winter dish in the summer is anybody's guess). The same goes for the choucroûte, house-made sauerkraut crowned with fine-textured sausage and a pork chop, which is fine except for the ribbons of sauerkraut that are incredibly, inedibly salty.
A better choice is the quite wonderful North Sea cod with little dabs of duck confit strewn around on a potato purée. And as a side, try the blistered shishito peppers garnished with homemade colatura (anchovy sauce).
The dessert offerings have been expanded, and now they're presented show-and-tell style on a long wooden board. Tarts, such as the brandied cherry tart with pistachios or a luscious raspberry and dark chocolate ganache version are a good bet. As is the summery lemon mousse pudding topped with citrus granita.
It's good to know this little pocket of life and laughter in the depths of downtown L.A. is still thriving. With its quirky scene and boisterous regulars, Church & State is a real destination. Smith is finding his way to reinvigorate the menu he inherited. Restaurants don't necessarily have to stay the same year in, year out. This one is changing. That's inevitable. Don't fight it; embrace it.
The Review: Church & State
Joshua Smith is the chef at the downtown L.A. His predecessor, Walter Manzke, is gone, and he isn't coming back. It's worth getting used to.
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