For photographs of Church & State, view slideshow here.
If you paid attention to art in Los Angeles a couple of decades ago, you probably spent a fair amount of time on the outer reaches of Industrial Street, where the exhibition space LACE occupied a crumbling warehouse building whose odd shape was dictated by the old train tracks that ran behind the building, and whose steady diet of performance, music and enormous art openings drew big crowds to the deserted area. Twenty years later, LACE is gone, long-ago relocated to Hollywood Boulevard, but Industrial Street has become one of the nicer corners of downtown, still close to cold-storage warehouses and fish wholesalers, but flanked by loft buildings carved out of old factory space. Downtown chic is sometimes a nebulous concept even on the moneyed blocks of South Park, but it feels pretty real here among the great shoes, nice cars and pedigreed dogs, the valet parking and the scrubbed sidewalks, the black suits and the microbrew-stuffed pub — a little like New York’s West Village in the late 1990s.
The latest addition to Industrial Street is Church & State, a brasserie opened by Cobras & Matadors auteur Steven Arroyo, a source of sautéed skate and house-made lardo, cassoulet and Chinon, in a neighborhood that until recently was known more for poverty tacos and wine stuffed into paper bags. (The pub Royal Claytons, with decent fish and chips and a protean microbrew selection, opened about a year ago across the street.) Church & State is an unlikely place to find a good version of blanquette de veau, a soft, rich dish of veal stewed down with white wine that you would be proud to serve at a dinner party; or a crock of the lardy potted-pork spread rillettes; or a plate of beef bourguignon, but it’s nice that it’s here.
Arroyo, of course, is L.A.’s master of the adequate: restaurants that are just fun enough to draw us in, with food just good enough to temper the opinions of Yelpers, Chowhounds and the food press. Cobras & Matadors is nobody’s idea of a great tapas bar, but it’s a lively place to fall into with a group and consistent enough to sneak into the Weekly’s list of 99 Essential Restaurants sometimes. Nobody would ever mistake the cooking at Arroyo’s Malo for that of Chichen Itza or the Border Grill, but the tequila selection is strong, the music is loud and it is located in a part of Silver Lake where people have always yearned for a Mexican joint grittier than El Conquistador but not quite so funky as Tacos Delta. Sergeant Recruiter is the kind of gauzily lit, steak-frites-intensive wine bar that a romantic teenager might have come up with after her semester abroad in Paris, and that is part of its charm.
Church & State seems to be Arroyo’s idea of an art-world restaurant — the finishes not quite perfect, woodpiles for the oven randomly placed and grinding music that seems about 15 degrees off from what you might hear on Morning Becomes Eclectic. Like some lofts in this neighborhood before the days of wine cellars and elliptical trainers, the restaurant is illuminated by skeins of low-watt bulbs, although in this case they are the kind of proto-Edison things you find in nice hardware catalogs instead of out-of-season Christmas lights. Big, messy paintings, school-of-Warhol, hang not quite parallel to the ground. The “patio,” a patch of sidewalk cordoned off from the street by a few dozen planted pots, seems almost bucolic on a warm evening sitting around a long table with friends and meat and wine.
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Like art-world restaurants everywhere, Church & State thrives less on the magnificence of its cooking than it does on its off-skew vibe — and at prices that assume that your gallery owner is going to be picking up the bill. (Cocola, my favorite vanished local art-world restaurant, had pretty bad food, but its spectacular John Chamberlain wrecked-auto sculpture more than made up for it.) As with every Arroyo restaurant, the food is at least correct: a rough-hewn pork terrine that functions as a terrine; a sweetish onion soup weighted with the requisite amount of melted cheese; a bread-crumb-topped cassoulet where every bite of the beans is flavored with at least a bit of dense sausage or duck confit; a roasted chicken that tastes like a chicken that has been roasted. As you might expect, there are wonderful French fries — the one foodstuff of which everybody is a connoisseur. I especially liked a dish of clams baked with crème fraîche — a slab of grilled, oiled bread dipped in the briny, garlicky cooking liquid is the single best thing in the restaurant.
“You know,” a friend said of the Provençal-style pizzas baked off in the wood-burning oven, “If Trader Joe’s sold pissaladiere, it would probably look a lot like this.” And floppy, superthin flatbreads probably would, although the topping of cream, onions and bacon is more properly associated with the Alsatian tarte flambé.
Arroyo tends to be unsentimental about his creations, and it is almost certain that if the Church & State brasserie concept doesn’t work, the space will be transformed into — well, probably another Cobras & Matadors, as the steak house Hillmont and the oddly named GOAT were before that, and as his recently shuttered South Pasadena wine bar 750 ml (my favorite of Arroyo’s restaurants so far) may be soon. But Church & State might be just the restaurant the area needs, a bastion of chocolate mousse.
Church & State, 1855 Industrial St., L.A., (213) 405-1434. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$74. Recommended dishes: country terrine, blanquette de veau, trout in bacon.