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Church & State in downtown Los Angeles

RESTAURANT REVIEW

The French bistro has a stripped-down menu well-crafted by Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide.

March 18, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA | RESTAURANT CRITIC

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 persille (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 gelee 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 flammenkuche, a large rectangular tart topped with sweet caramelized onions, cubes of bacon and Gruyere cheese rather than the traditional creme fraiche. It's essentially a tomato-less pizza with bacon. What's not to like? More sumptuous even is the tart blanketed in lemon creme fraiche, 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.

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