Rumors were flying earlier in the week that Walter Manzke, the former chef at the well regarded Bastide, could be moving from those tonier digs on Melrose Place to Church & State in downtown LA.
To start, a little history lesson on Bastide is in order. Bastide is infamous for chef-shuffling, twists and turns in concept and absolutely abrupt closings. As the LA Times reported earlier this year, the restaurant "is on its fourth head chef in less than six years, including the year and a half when it was closed."
Bastide owner and television commercial director Joe Pytka spent a reported $3.5 million to open the restaurant at the end of 2002, with chef Alain Giraud behind to stoves. Under Giraud, Bastide earned the only four star rating ever awarded from Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.
But less than two years into the business, Pytka let Giraud go, replacing him with with Ludovic Lefebvre, currently of Lavo in Las Vegas (Lefebvre didn't make it to the two-year mark either). Giraud has recently seen great new success opening his own more casual brasserie, Anisette, in Santa Monica.
After releasing Lefebvre, Pytka shut down his restaurant to search for a new chef and a new concept. Eighteen months went by as Angelenos waited to see what would happen. Then in July of last year, Bastide reopened, with a new design, a new menu and a new chef, Walter Manzke.
Manke, who started his career in LA, had seen success at L'Auberge in Carmel with his wife, Marge, who had been named Bastide's new pastry chef. The restaurant garnered a great deal of positive attention under Manke's leadership and the LA Times gave it three stars. Suprisingly, he quit this past May.
At the time, Manzke told Eater LA:
"I knew the risk of going to Bastide. It would be a challenge to take it and turn it around. It's not just opening any restaurant. It had some baggage. I finally felt like everything was coming together at the restaurant. We were getting the right people in both front and back of the house. I had a great team. A lot of return people from when Bastide was open before. My sous Chris Gore is great. But then the attitude changed. It just got odd. There were some accusations. But this was unexpected. I was almost encouraged to step away. I didn't feel welcome anymore. I knew the end was near."
(As an aside, Paul Shoemaker -Providence's long-time chef de cuisine - took over after Manzke's departure. He earned 3 1/2 stars in his review by the LA Times. Just three weeks ago, the news broke that the Bastide staff was "locked out" when they showed up for dinner service while owner Joe Pytka vacationed in Scotland. Not only were they locked out, but they were called into his production office to hear the news. Bastide was closed again.)
And so, the cycle continues. This past Thursday, Eater LA confirmed that Walter Manzke had taken over the helm at Steven Arroyo's Church & State. Following in the footsteps of Alain Giraud before him, Manzke has gone from fine dining to French brasserie. The fact that this brasserie happens to be in an industrial section of downtown (in the Biscuit Company Lofts) makes it that much more exciting.
Those who have been following the story know that Church and State isn't a brand new restaurant. It had already seen a visit and a review by the LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold. In Gold's words:
"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."
In other words, the decor was more important than the food. Well, the decor is still exactly the same. What has changed is the food and the service. Like Bastide, Church & State recently experienced an abrupt chef change. Greg Berhardt, the opening chef, charged Arroyo with asking him to "dumb down" the food from the "more exciting, intelligent and aggressive approach" he had originally conceived. Berhardt says he left, however, because of the "organizational nightmare in the front of the house."
Berhardt's food was pretty good, no complaints there. I didn't think this restaurant needed an "intelligent, aggressive approach." I liked the simple concept, although I thought there should have been a more affordable lunch menu. As for the service, however, Berhardt was right on. It could only be described as absent.
In my return to the restaurant on Friday, both the service and the menu had changed. Manzke was at the pass and things were running very smoothly. The servers were attentive but not bothersome and the food fit the mold of a classic brasserie. Of course, there are the ubiquitous brasserie dishes like steak frites, escargots-persillade and French onion soup.
And there is at least one carry over from the earlier menu, pissaladieres - a thin crust French pizza. The most popular appears to be the one with caramelized onion, bacon and crème fraiche touched with a hint of smoke from the wood-burning oven. It is very similar to the "tarte flamee" served at Comme Ça.
First up for us, the classic salad Lyonnaise. A perfectly poached egg sat atop a bed of blond frisée and "croutons" of bacon dressed in a pleasantly balanced vinaigrette. In this first dish, you see Manzke's devotion to perfect ingredients. Many kitchens have no problem serving the green ends of the frisée lettuce; the portion of the leaves that have exposed to sunlight. Not Manzke. Only the palest ("blanched") portions of the frisée make it to the plate. It is a very simple gesture, but one that is much appreciated.
Because we couldn't help ourselves, we also had to order a serving of Manzke's "pork fat" French fries as an appetizer. These fries, I am sure, will earn Church & State a great bit adulation and maybe even a little extra publicity (Exhibit A: pork's effect on the popularity of the Nickel Diner). Manzke, with a hat tip to Los Angeles' multicultural heritage, has eschewed the traditionally French use of duck fat in favor of, dare I say it, rendered lard making these fries a gateway drug to the temple of deliciousness.
For our entrees, we ordered the bouillabaisse, a special sandwich of the day and the roast chicken with wild mushrooms. The base of the bouillabaisse was the color of a bright orange tomato at the height of summer, a byproduct of the judicious use of saffron. The delicious broth also had a touch of anise flavor, most likely from the addition of fennel. It was the type of broth that forces you, against your better judgment, to ask for a second order of the complementary bread so you can soak up every last drop.
The seafood, a mixture of mussels, clams, a couple of giant prawns and some type of white fleshed fish, was all properly cooked. Nothing was dry or overly chewy, which likely means that they were likely all prepared separately and then added to the broth at the last moment - another simple technique that shows Manzke's dedication to his craft. In a traditional touch, the dish was garnished with two small slices of toasted baguette that had been slathered with a saffron aioli.
The roast chicken with wild mushrooms was just that, roast chicken with wild mushrooms. As long as a bird is properly cooked, there is only so much you can say about it. And Manzke's was properly cooked. Of course, he was able to show a little bit of creativity in the preparation and plating. The thigh, the drumstick and the breast were all cooked separately so they wouldn't dry out. The thigh was deboned, rolled and tied into what looked like a small sausage with crispy skin - nice. The mushrooms were well caramelized and very earthy. My only complaint is they they were a little sparse. It would have been nice to see a few more on the plate.
The last entree was the daily sandwich special. Each day, the kitchen will be offering a pressed sandwich with your choice of either fries or a side salad. On this day, the sandwich was filled with roast chicken and a Gruyere (I think). It was very simple and very tasty; one of the better values on the lunch menu.
The dessert menu, at least at lunch, was fairly limited. They were offering a chocolate pot de creme (which was excellent), a tarte tartin and a vanilla creme brule. I understand that Margarita Manzke, the chef's wife, prepared all of the desserts and baked all of the breads at Bastide to great acclaim. Hopefully she will take over the dessert menu here and really make it shine.
One my first trip to Church & State, before Manzke arrived, I thought it was a restaurant worth visiting once, but maybe not worth a trip back. The value just wasn't there. The food was overpriced. The restaurant's front of the house was disorganized and this lead to confusion and delays at the back of the house. Manzke has brought order to the restaurant. His calm control and expanded menu has turned this simple brasserie into a downtown destination. It still isn't cheap, but you don't leave thinking like you had just been cheated. It is just the opposite. We were very satisfied.
Let's hope, like Giraud, he plans to stay in one place for a long time.
For pics, click here: http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/200...