A good friend wanted to take me out for my birthday, and since it had been a while, we chose Campanile. I've always been a fan of Mark Peel and Campanile, and I have to say that, over the years, I've had some really memorable meals there. Well, I had a memorable meal tonight too, but not in a good way.
We arrived and, as usual, got the stuffy hostess routine. Every time I've been to Campanile, the folks who've greeted us have seemed sort of snooty; in the past, I've shrugged it off because the food was so good. Anyway, we were promptly taken to our table upstairs, with a balcony view onto the main dining room. This was the first time Ive been seated upstairs, and its a rather cool space, but unfortunately, the large table next to us was occupied by a group of people who had decided it would be a good idea to bring their infant and (two or three-year old) daughter to Campanile. In addition to rubbing play dough all over the linen tablecloth, running around squealing (amazingly, grandma and the three-year old actually appeared to be playing hide-and-go-seek at one point), and throwing buttered linguini onto the carpet, the older girl was entertained throughout her meal by a portable dvd player showing cartoons (complete with audio, so that all of us could enjoy). For approximately two hours, we were subjected to a hellish cacophony of soft jazz music competing with Looney Toons. Look, I know it's L.A. I've gotten used to hipster doofuses in bowling shirts, torn blue jeans and high top tennis shoes at high end restaurants. But at a place that wants to be thought of as one of the top restaurants in the city, I expect a certain minimum level of elegance. I put on a sports jacket or a suit, and the Missus dresses up a bit. (She looked really nice btw.) Blaring cartoons, flying pasta, the scent of over-ripe diapers, and screaming three year olds are not, at least for me, compatible with an elegant dining experience. Leaving aside the rather stunning lack of consideration these particular individuals demonstrated (they brought a TV to Campanile for heaven's sake!), I think Campanile shares a good deal of the blame. It is just not appropriate, in my view, to allow diners in a high end restaurant to disturb those around them to such a breathtaking extent.
That said, onto the food, such as it was: No amuse. La Brea bakery bread with butter and what appeared to be kosher salt. Salad with lettuce, fresh goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, red onion slivers and lightly toasted walnut halves, dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. It was well executed, and the pomegranate seeds were very sweet, but this isn't really cutting edge stuff at this point, no matter how well executed it is. (Then again, what did I expect; I ordered it.) For my main course, I had the braised chicken (thigh and leg) with sausage and mushrooms over creamy polenta. The creamy polenta was gritty, and the braise reduction rather bitter. (I was trying to figure out what I didn't like about the sauce, and I think it was just that it was too concentrated). The sausage was good, as were the two slivers of shitake mushroom. Overall, a serviceable dish, but frankly not even in the same neighborhood as some of the other meals I've enjoyed at Campanile. Dessert was, without any question, the best course of the meal. The Missus and I shared the Carnival donut with crème fraiche ice cream and lingonberry sauce, which was flawless. The donuts were actually pieces of dough, crispy and chewy, hot from the fryer. The ice cream was rich, and slightly tart, and the berry sauce/compote had a dense berry flavor with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. This is a dessert for adults -- not too sweet, with a wonderful combination of textures and flavors.
Other nits -- there were chunks of food baked onto my wife's fork when we sat down; our water glasses were refilled only sporadically; and my coffee was cold by the time my dessert arrived, despite my request that they be brought together. (I like my coffee with my dessert, so I ask the waiter, "Can you please bring my coffee at the same time that you bring out our dessert?" He looks at me like I'm nuts, says, "Of course" and then, of course, the coffee is served immediately by a bus boy, and is therefore cold and slightly sour tasting by the time dessert is served five minutes later. Arghh.)
All-in-all, a dining experience several notches below scrambling a couple of eggs and eating at home in front of the TV (where, at least, I can decide what to watch). It pains me to write this. There have been many occasions when I have left Campanile feeling I have just eaten at a restaurant at the top of its game. Several of the meals I've eaten there I would actually have to characterize as transcendent -- nearly perfect ingredients prepared with care, intelligence and genuine affection. Tonight's dinner, in contrast, was like some sort of surreal mediocre American bistro meets Chuck-E-Cheese. Maybe I just hit a bad night, and I'll probably give them another chance, but I must say I'm not in any hurry to do so. Oh well.