Church & State has to go down as one of the more unusual restaurant pairings in Southern California: owner Steven Arroyo, best known for casual clubby places such as Cobras & Matadors, and chef Walter Manzke, renowned for his meticulous French- California cuisine at Bastide, Patina and L'Auberge Carmel.
How Arroyo and his partner general manager Yassmin Sarmadi scored the highly qualified chef, I don't know. Arroyo has certainly never had a name chef at any of his other places (other than Grace's Neal Fraser very early in his career). But then again, now may not be the best time to find a job in fine dining.
If you tried the restaurant when it opened and were disappointed, let me just say this: After a rocky start that ended in the original chef leaving, the restaurant is really humming. Manzke is throwing himself into the bistro genre with gusto. He's making his own charcuterie. He's changing the menu every few days. He's in the zone.
For anyone looking for a restaurant downtown that has good food, and feels festive and fun, all without straining the pocketbook too much, that place is Church & State.
Manzke is working like someone possessed. He's the guy in the open kitchen with the flattop haircut and an old-fashioned kind of face that wouldn't look out of place on the AMC series "Mad Men." Hands-on all the way, he's even crafting his own hardwood cutting boards for the charcuterie and cheese platters.
Originally the loading dock of the 1925 National Biscuit Co. building, the one big dining room has a funky festive look with piazza lights strung across the high ceilings with visible pipes and ducts. Old mirrors and chairs with red leather seats complete the bistro look and tall windows look out onto Industrial Street and the Toy Factory Lofts across the street. The neighborhood can be dicey, but this precious little block is full of life in the dark -- loft dwellers walking their dogs, downtown folks bicycling home, high heels clicking on the sidewalks. With the spangled lights reflected in the windows across the way, this tiny section of the city begins to take on some of the industrial chic of the meatpacking district in New York.
The clatter and bang from the kitchen competes with the music pumping out from the sound system -- all you feel is the beat: it's hard to tell what it is. But nobody seems to care: They're too busy eating and drinking, big groups of six or eight friends crowded in at one table, or couples strung out at small tables along the back wall.
At one, a slender girl in a tight black vest, short skirt and black stockings toasts her companion and digs into an iced platter of oysters. They're Kumamotos and Kushis from the Northwest, nice and cold, fresh and delicious.
Dishes to share
The server madly pushes candles, plates, glasses away to clear a space in the middle of the table for the charcuterie presented on a foot-and-a-half-long cutting board. Most of it is made in-house -- lovely rounds of rabbit galantine studded with pistachios, a delicate partridge terrine with truffles, jambon persillé (pig's feet and Kurobuta ham with parsley pressed into a rectangle), slivers of deep red duck breast prosciutto (not all of them are available every day).
Manzke also turns out French canning jars filled with pork rillettes (pork cooked in pork fat that's rather on the lean side here) topped with prunes and Armagnac, and fabulously silky and rich foie gras with a layer of Port gelée on top.
There's peppery saucisson sec from Jason Balestrieri of Cantinetta Luca in Carmel (Manzke's former sous chef), and a savory tongue and blood sausage from the European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen in Beverly Hills. Order up a bottle of sturdy red wine from the rustic, but limited, wine list and you're good to go.
Another great dish to share is either of the Alsatian-style tarts. The first is a flammenküche, a large rectangular tart topped with sweet caramelized onions, cubes of bacon and Gruyère cheese rather than the traditional crème fraîche. It's essentially a tomato-less pizza with bacon. What's not to like? More sumptuous even is the tart blanketed in lemon crème fraîche, leeks and satiny smoked salmon. Not only is the topping terrific, the crust for both the tarts is thin and crunchy. The secret? The pastry is enriched with a little lard. And both tarts are so large, they're too much for just two. Bring a few friends along and share as an appetizer.
And sharing is what most makes sense here. Everyone will want to taste everything. Plates fly around the table as someone wants to try the bouillabaisse, which is a kind of miracle. The broth actually tastes like something from the south of France, redolent of flavorful fish and loaded with prawns, mussels and clams. If you're in a crowd, maybe you'd better get two: The portion isn't huge, which is why they can charge just $18.
Moules marinière is classic: mussels steamed in white wine and served with a heap of pommes frites fried in lard, which gives them a wonderful flavor, even though the aioli that comes with them is too wimpy.
How can you not love a bistro that proposes herring and potato salad? In this case it's smoked, marinated herring with boiled fingerling potatoes in a bright, vinegary dressing, with flower-shaped carrot slices for some crunch. Sometimes there's a marvelous leek terrine, pretty and green, and served with a thatch of celery root salad.
Don't pass up the escargots, an order of six, each served in an adorable tiny blue and white porcelain dish capped with a golden disk of puff pastry. There are plenty to share -- or maybe not, once you dip your spoon into that garlicky snail butter and find out how good snails can be when made by somebody who really knows how to cook.
Keeping it simple
Manzke has wisely stripped the menu down to a single page, with most main courses under $20. Even the very decent steak frites, which come with house-made béarnaise, come in a smaller size -- a petite assiette for a mere $14 as opposed to $24 for the regular.
We're all seeking comfort food right now and chicken à la Bourgeoise is just what's required, moist tender chicken roasted with carrots, pearl onions and bacon and served with a splash of the pan drippings. Manzke does a fine duck confit too, served with luscious braised red cabbage.
There's a different cassoulet almost every night, sometimes with pork sausage and duck, other times with roasted winter vegetables. But whichever version is available, the beans are cooked through, not always a given in this town.
The same stripped-down aesthetic also serves the cheese selection well -- not too many, but just enough. The half-dozen or so selections mean the restaurant isn't left trying to sell off old cheeses.
It's a late-night crowd downtown, with more and more people filtering in as the night wears on. Some come for a glass of wine and a steak tartare or some frites at the bar. Others come to try the absinthe setup or wait for a table.
I can imagine people slipping in for a dessert too, maybe a slice of that brown butter tart dotted with dried sour cherries and served with a billowy kirsch sabayon. Or maybe the tangerine pot de crème with the lilt of citrus to lift the sweetness.
Let's hope Manzke stays, because with Arroyo's sense of fun and Manzke's deft French cooking, Church & State has the heart and soul of a true French bistro married to an authentic sense of place: Los Angeles.
Church & State RATING: *** LOCATION 1850 Industrial St., Los Angeles; (213) 405-1434; www.churchandstatebistro.com. AMBIENCE Lively bistro in what was once the loading dock of the 1925 National Biscuit Co. building. Church & State rocks for the ambience and the food. SERVICE Friendly and persuasive. PRICE Oysters, $26 a dozen; charcuterie plate $14; hors d'oeuvres, $3 to $19; salads, $9 to $12; main courses, $11 to $26; sides, $6; cheese selection, $12 to $18; desserts, $7 to $8. BEST DISHES Flammenküche, smoked salmon tart, escargots, roasted marrow bone, herring salad, charcuterie plate, endive salad, roast chicken, steak frites, cassoulet, pommes frites au lard, tangerine pot de crème, cherry tart. WINE LIST Could have more interesting choices. Corkage fee, $15. BEST TABLE One in the front window. DETAILS Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Guarded lot parking, $4. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.