Monday, August 31, 2009

Church & State

In that God-forsaken cranny of the world between Skid Row and East L.A., just west of an abandoned outdoor sewer with the unfortunate appellation "Los Angeles River," there is a proper French bistro. Church & State's location is as unlikely as that flickering outpost of Gallicism in Apocalypse Now Redux where Captain Willard takes a surreal respite and a few hits of opium. Indeed, the provenance of the restaurant's curious name must lie in the lack of both Church and State in these parts.

Walter Manzke presides here, proving that his former employer, Joe Pytka – infamous for his ad infinitum overhauls of Bastide over on Melrose Place – is a complete meshugeneh. Manzke actually prefers to toil for another goof, Steven Arroyo, in this urban netherworld than in Pytka's stunning Andrée Putman-designed space. Manzke saves Arroyo from what could have been his worst idea yet, which is to say, even worse than Goat, the former restaurant on La Brea whose lifespan approximated that of a midge and which melted down like Joba Chamberlain on a hot night in Cleveland two summers ago.

To the hordes of self-anointed cognoscenti, attracted to what Jonathan Gold calls – without a whiff of sarcasm – an "art-world restaurant," Church & State's geographic isolation must be among its chief charms. So are the spacious room and its high, post-industrial ceilings, which ably approximate a French brasserie (though with enough hints of purported insouciance so as not to resemble a Keith McNally theme park).

Manzke's team executes with ease. On a recent visit, the Santa Barbara spot prawns were impeccably fresh, naturally sweet, and thoroughly irresistible. A light butter sauce brought out their flavor, and the prawns' own pink roe and a smattering of capers provided a modest counterpoint of salinity. The foie gras terrine with port wine gelée was as deliciously rich and creamy as I expected, though it was not lusty in the way that, say, Bistro Jeanty's foie blond is. (I admit to bias. Outside of France, there is no better bistro in my book than Philippe Jeanty's Yountville outpost.)

My lunchtime companions, to their detriment, lacked ample appetites; so per my custom, I took more than my fair share. I salivated over a beautiful croque monsieur, its melted gruyere glistening across the table. I worked an angle and devoured half of it, and while it was very good, the proportions were imperfect due to a surfeit of béchamel. I concluded with a delectable slice of mission fig tart, which had a nice buttery crust; it was a fitting coda to an enjoyable lunch. I intend to return soon, even though the neighborhood is ugly and depressing.

Church & State

1850 Industrial Street

Los Angeles

(213) 405-1434