Breaking away from the brasserie pack downtown:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Church & State is the odd bistro out in L.A.’s recent brasserie boom – an uncomplicated place that fits downtown’s still-indelicate fringe. While Anisette, for example, pursues Old World grandeur, Church & State monopolizes modernity. It’s a methodically simple restaurant spread out on the ground floor of the Biscuit Company lofts, where it brings the rest of downtown right inside. Its bare brick floors, strings of slumping lights and Skullphone paste-ups approximate the atmosphere of an alleyway as much as an ornate bistro.
But as the least formal of the brasserie pack, Church & State remains undervalued. That neglect might derive from the fact that under its opening chef, the food simply fell a little flat. Or perhaps it stems from attached restaurateur Steven Arroyo – eaters may have been worried that the restaurant was quietly working to become yet another Cobras & Matadors. Whatever the cause, Church & State is now disproving doubters. Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide, has the kitchen fulfilling its promise. Now, Church & State is on the ascent. It’s a genuine French bistro all the way down to the bone marrow.
Plates here aren’t quite tapas tiny, but they aren’t overloaded either – most starters are well portioned. The great pork rillettes – a little jar of Berkshire pork rendered down to a paste and topped with a layer of wine-soaked prune jam – is rich enough to feed four. Smeared on a few crusty cuts of bread, it could probably even sink the stomachs of a half-dozen. There are relatively lighter options – a crispy pig’s ear, classic moules frites and French onion soup – but some of the best bites are the biggest.
Packed with foie gras terrines, cured strips of pig and every other piece of meat you could want, the charcuterie plate is a filling step in a French-ward direction. The excellent (and huge) salmon tart, meanwhile, proves that size doesn’t have to mean heft. Built on an airy flatbread, the tart, which is marked by lines of lemon crème fraîche that crisscross into edible plaid, is as guiltless a dish there is.
But Church & State can also get plenty heavy. The cassoulet de Toulouse, an artery-hardening stew of white beans, pork belly, duck confit and sausage, seems as much a meal from the frontier as it does one from the south of France. It’s a hearty choice, but the sausage is too salty, defined by a saline sting that can stick with you well after a couple of cups of water.
As simple as it is, the roasted chicken might just be the restaurant’s quintessential dish: chicken armored in a golden crust that defends against dryness. Because of that, the bird is more than moist, each piece a juicy complement to the pearl onions, carrots and (of course) bacon that share the plate.
Seafood isn’t what drives Church & State, but it is an option should you want to keep off the meat. Barring an order of oysters, bouillabaisse – filled with the requisite prawns, mussels and clams – is probably the best option.
Dessert descends from similar bistro roots, a list populated by options like a Meyer lemon pot de crème and a cherry tart sauced with a dollop of kirsch sabayon. Like most of Church & State’s dishes, the desserts present unpretentious flavors for an unassuming place. And now that Manzke is manning the kitchen, that simplicity is finally being focused.
Church & State, 1850 Industrial St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 405-1434. Open for lunch Tue.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and dinner Tue.-Thur. 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Street and lot parking. Full bar. Food for two: $35-$65. churchandstatebistro.com.