View more photos in the Church & State slideshow.
Pig’s ears are not hard to find in Los Angeles. Shanghai-style restaurants tend to have them, boiled and pressed into a kind of sliced terrine, and Sichuan chefs supplement the ears with three kinds of chile. Slivered pig’s ear is an essential component of the Thai pork salad nam sod, and Mexico City–style pig’s ears carnitas are everywhere. I haven’t been to the restaurant Yangchow in a while, but I was always amazed at the high quality of the simmered pig’s ears in the otherwise Americanized dining room.
But the best ears I’ve ever had, better than the crunchy ones at Spotted Pig in New York, better than the fritters at the Bristol in Paris, better than the ones I first learned to love at Mandarin Deli, were at Church & State not long ago: simultaneously crisp and chewy, soft and tasting like the best French roast pork, piled into a metal julep cup with a little dish of béarnaise sauce on the side, as impossible to stop eating as the onion rings on your girlfriend’s plate. This is the place to nibble on ears. Or pig’s-foot fritters. Or braised pork belly with fresh peas. Or giant, roasted marrowbones, naked and split in two.
A plate of Santa Barbara spot prawns, kept alive in the kitchen until they’re ordered, then briefly cooked, split in two, and served under drifts of finely diced cucumber, was good enough that a friend insisted a nonseafood-eating pal take at least a small bite, and compelling enough that she ended up eating every molecule of her first shrimp in more than 30 years.
We have been to Church & State before, you and I, the rough-edged artists’ brasserie built into a loading dock deep downtown. It is known for its skeins of bulbs that looked like Christmas in July, the cassoulet, and the decent fries. Church & State was — is — a Steven Arroyo joint, which means that the food was predictably less accomplished than the vibe, that the music was turned up high and the lights turned down low, and that there were beautiful young women everywhere your glance happened to fall. The wine list was basic. The onion soup was probably about 50 percent melted cheese. After the thrill of nibbling on duck confit in a place around the corner from former crack dens began to fade, the restaurant’s most interesting feature was probably its weekend bartender, Michel Dozois, whose dazzling cocktails were everything the cuisine was not.
Walter Manzke took over the kitchen a few months ago, fresh from a stint as the chef at Bastide, a technician able to orchestrate a 12-course degustation menu with the sure confidence of John Woo putting together an action sequence. He transformed the menu, which looks superficially the same, into something approaching a work of art — a document guaranteed to mist the eyes of even the steeliest gourmet.
Sherry Virbila at the Times gave the reborn restaurant a rare three-star review, and suddenly the sleepy dining room had an energy this part of downtown had never seen before, and a clientele that one waiter compared to Benjamin Button: Averaging well into their 60s at 7 p.m., the crowd becomes magically younger as the evening wears on, ending up as callow, tattooed 23-year-olds by the time the place closes at 11.
What this incarnation reminds me of is the wave of bistros born from the ’90s recession in Paris, slightly grungy places opened by young chefs who had worked in the city’s best restaurants, and who transformed simple dishes through hard-won French technique. It was food no less noble than what they had cooked at the Ritz or the Crillon, and it was theirs: meals whose price was within reach of friends and peers, not just rich businessmen, Japanese tourists, and government officials on expense accounts. Some of those chefs — Yves Camdeborde, Christian Constant, Eric Fréchon — became the real drivers behind the retraditionalization of French cuisine.
Manzke shares some of the preoccupations of this wave of chefs: a fondness for pig parts; fetishes for farmers market produce and for detail; and the adoption of technology when it suits his purposes.
The roast chicken comes as parts that have been rolled and tied, so that the crackly skin nourishes the flesh. The snails have been baked in butter, herbs and plenty of garlic, in tiny, individual pastry-topped pots. The fries are cooked in pure lard. The charcuterie — house-made terrines and house-cured meats — is presented on a long plank, and a friend declared the ultrasmooth jar-cooked foie gras to be “delicious, delicious cruelty.’’
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Those pig’s ears were sealed in plastic with herbs and simmered at low temperature until the cartilage transformed itself into a subtle memory of itself, and were then rolled in panko and fried. Escoffier may have known neither the cooking method nor the fine Japanese bread crumbs, but he surely would have recognized the crunchy, aromatic result. Deeply flavored short ribs also saw sous vide, I suspect, cooked down to an almost jellylike consistency and served in a little puddle of reduced red wine.
Church & State has always served a pretty good version of tarte flambé, a sort of Alsatian pizza topped with thickened cream, but Manzke’s is about a thousand times better than his predecessor’s, so thin and crisp that it practically shatters when you look at it, flavored with both wood smoke and the smoke of good bacon. If it’s on the menu, try the version with stinky Époisses cheese and poached duck tongues, an unpredictable but delicious combination.
Is this the most refined bistro cooking in Los Angeles? At the moment, it just might be.
Church & State: 1855 Industrial St., L.A., (213) 405-1434, www.churchandstatebistro.com. Lunch Tues.-Fri.,11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Thurs. & Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. Full bar. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$74. Recommended dishes: snails, fried pigs’ ears, charcuterie plate, prawns à la Nicoise, roast chicken à la bourgeoise, vanilla pot de crème.