Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bistro Blues Pt 1: Church & State

Our server wants to be a real estate agent.

Fair enough. Everyone has a calling!

My mother-in-law, Dolly, who happens to be in town on this particular weekend, was a hard-working real estate agent for twenty years, and is free with advice. Now an aspiring weaver in Washington State, the real estate industry offered her an occupation, but not a calling.

Our waiter is more conflicted -- he's in a service industry but has no appetite for service.

Dolly and I had stolen away from toddler-tending for a trip Downtown that was to include fabric shopping and lunch. I had wanted a lovely place for us to relax with a glass of wine, and Church & State fit the bill.

Now I hear that there has been a, well, separation at Church & State. Walter Manzke, the original and highly-touted chef, has left as of a few months ago. C0-owner Steve Arroyo was bought out last September.

Maybe this is why I haven't quite understood all the hype around Church & State. We went for dinner with friends to celebrate A's birthday as recently as January. The food was tasty, but the bill racked up quickly, and in the end C&S seemed like just another solid French bistro.

On the one hand, it is a beautifully designed restaurant. I am a sucker for a big open space with exposed brick and wood beams and giant windows. Everyone loves the antique replica Edison light bulbs, seemingly ubiquitous these days, which are strung playfully overhead. And I covet the butcher block where the baguettes make their home. It would look perfect in my kitchen.

But on the other hand, decor alone can't make a restaurant.

It's not just the food either. A marriage of ambiance, cuisine and service are what make a dining experience, and nothing can ruin a perfectly decent meal faster than lousy service.

On this afternoon, our little waiter from Toulouse is a snooty, disinterested grump. He can barely make time for us. He scoffs when I inquire if the steak tartare is big enough for lunch. (Seeing it listed under hors d'oeuvres made me uncertain.) "Well, it comes with a salad and frites!" he snaps.

He does manage to take Dolly's order for the salade au poulet before promptly marching off and leaving me hanging. Over five minutes later he returns for my lunch order and Dolly's wine order. Again, however, I am left with my mouth hanging open mid-sentence waiting to order the Picpoul.

Another five minutes passes before I'm able to capture his attention long enough to order this crisp white. Not surprisingly, my tomato and bacon soup is half-finished before I can ask that he actually serve the wine before my soup is gone.

Almost nothing annoys me more than being served the food before the wine. Disagreeable and grouchy service, though, is one exception.

I freely admit that I'm unforgiving in this regard. I don't care what's going on in the server's life -- I've done crap restaurant work, and we're all on the clock at some point in the day. But when we're off the clock and paying to dine, we are paying for the experience, and hopefully an altogether delightful one.

It is the server's job to facilitate this. And a sourpuss will ruin the affair every time.

At least there's food, right?

The good news is that the food in this case is tasty. Again, not mind-blowing, but as before, it's solid. The tomato and bacon soup announces the smoky flavor of the bacon without drowning out the round richness of the tomato.

The steak tartare, a bistro classic, is a competent rendition. The egg yolk is folded into the chopped hanger steak with a bit of cornichon and shallot. Here I can't help myself, as I am still partial to the steak tartare from my restaurant days -- the egg yolk resting on top and the companion garnishes lined up in tiny hills alongside the beef.

The accompanying crostini are crunchy and convey the meat to your mouth effectively.

To my mind, the aioli is unnecessary, as are the frites. Too much richness.

In the end, we are unable to resist dessert.

Perhaps as a result of Dolly's chitchats with him about his next career moves, our server seems to perk up a touch at this point. He heartily recommends the citrus mousse and the apple crumble. We take his advice.

The mousse is served with a berry granita on top. I dislike the frozen scrabble that infiltrates my creamy citrus mousse.

The vanilla ice cream on top of the crumble suffers from a slight case of freezer burn, but the crumble itself has lots of crunch and the apples manage to hold their bite. Ultimately, though, this dessert is almost cloyingly sweet.

By the time we're finished, our lunch experience, though lacking the same sweetness, has been too much like these desserts: unchecked and uneven, with too much iciness in-between.

I still may return to Church & State if I have other business to attend to in this outlying and industrial neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles. That's rare enough, though, and I certainly won't rush back. I'd hate to be stuck in that snoozer's section again.

Could it be that quality and attention to service are in decline at Church & State, and I simply missed it in its heyday? Can we get revival?

Church & State
1850 Industrial Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021

1 comment:

PMF said...

A story well told of an experience that comes up all too often. How disappointing. Not the story but the experience. The photography is without a doubt not disappointing. At least, on your blog one can find consistent excellence.