There is no side of bacon listed on the menu at Belcampo's Santa Monica restaurant, yet the four dudes at the table next to me all miraculously have a side of bacon. There's nothing fancy about the plating or preparation of this bacon — it's just three strips of bacon on a plate, like you'd get at a diner for breakfast if you ordered bacon as a side. But this isn't breakfast, and these guys are eating steak and drinking beer. My guess is that one of the guys got a burger, asked if he could get bacon on it, was told he could have it as a side, and then everyone else joined in the fun. It matters not, because a side of bacon for no reason at all makes perfect sense at this particular restaurant, which has one aim: to showcase the meat that Belcampo Meat Co. produces.
"Produces" is one of those words we use a lot and think about little, especially when it comes to meat in this country. Thinking about the actual production of meat is usually unpleasant. But in Belcampo's case, when we say "produces" we mean that they actually control the production of their meat at every stage, from the birth of the animal to the retail sale. The company raises the livestock on their farm in Northern California, has its own slaughterhouse nearby, does the transport and butchery of the meat itself and sells it at Belcampo butcher shops and restaurants.
The story of Belcampo the company is long and fascinating, and has been told before in these pages and elsewhere.
While there are quite a few restaurants attached to Belcampo's butcher shops throughout California, the new restaurant in Santa Monica is probably the most ambitious. There's a different chef at each location and, aside from the Belcampo burger that has become a signature item for the company, the menus are specific to those chefs. Many of the locations, such as the counter at Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., are more like burger stands than real restaurants. But here in Santa Monica, the dining room is large, the bar is bustling, the menu is extensive. This is a real restaurant, not just the cooked-food component of a butcher shop.
Once you find the entrance and get back into the dining room, it's bigger than you imagined, the ceilings higher, the place more swank. It has the feel to me of an old-school British pub that got fancied up.
There are a host of fun cocktails from Josh Goldman of the Soigné Group, including a version of the zombie we've seen elsewhere from this particular drinks consultant. It's no less fun or flame-topped here.
The chef is Maiki Le, who worked previously at Josie, and her intent is to focus on the quality of the meat. There are quite a few dishes that are basically cuts of cow (or sheep or goat) arranged artfully over greens, or over a piece of bread, or just on a plate. The beef heart comes sliced, sitting atop mizuna with some roasted peppers and a light salsa verde. Those things that come under the slices of heart are delicious, but they're utterly secondary to the meat itself, which is like a steak but with deeper, darker flavor, one that underscores the seriousness of the organ from which it was cut.
And so it goes. There are giant steak dinners that vary from night to night in terms of cut and price. There's a roast beef banquet composed of sliced roast beef, gloriously pink and juicy, served on buttered toast, as rich and beefy as you could possibly hope for, drenched in a rich jus and with extra sauce on the side.
Three types of tartare are available: beef, lamb and goat. All of them are presented simply in an effort to give you more purity of meaty flavor and less distraction. There's a smear of turmeric oil here and a dollop of sheep yogurt there, but the real focus is on the freshness of the tartare. The burning questions — is raw goat meat good, and if so, is it good in a somewhat skanky way? — are answered resoundingly. It's good. It's not skanky. Its faint musk is barely perceptible, and wholly enjoyable. If you gave this to someone in a blind taste test, they'd likely identify it as a particularly mild, mellow beef.
Almost all the food here is hearty, heavy and somewhat rustic. A coiled pork sausage entree, which is served over mashed potatoes and super fresh fava beans, could feed a small family. Even the bread comes with lardo whipped to butterlike consistency, making for a richness that creeps up on you — and an oddly comforting realization that these people are trying to sneak animal fat into you in seven different ways throughout the course of an evening.
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When chef Le gets more creative — when her point of view veers too far from the restaurant's goals — things make less sense. A fried quail salad with a lemongrass glaze, for instance, seemed muddy and unfocused next to all this simple and simply delicious meat.
Because Belcampo raises no fish, no fish or seafood are on this menu. I understand why, but the company also doesn't raise vegetables and manages to find space for those. A couple of seafood items would make for a more balanced experience. That said, I somewhat sadistically brought a vegetarian friend with me to one meal, and the kitchen was happy to put together an entree for him, a mound of polenta and various roasted vegetables, which was more than satisfactory.
But most are here for the meat, for the thrill of being in a place where you might order a steak and request a side of bacon and be indulged and understood. It's a restaurant as a front for indoctrination: The higher-ups at Belcampo are betting on the fact that once you taste meat of this quality cooked incredibly well, you'll never want to go back to the cheap, mass-produced stuff again. They're probably right.
BELCAMPO MEAT CO. | Three stars | 1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica | (424) 744-8008 | belcampomeatco.com | Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Entrees, $18-$115 (for a dinner for two) | Full bar | Valet and street parking