Last night George and I checked out Church & State. No idea where the name came from. It's not on the corner of Church and State, nor could I detect any disestablishmentarian themes in the cuisine or the venue. It's on the corner of Industrial and Mateo (near Alameda and 7th), in the bottom of the old National Biscuit Co building, in a tiny pocket of trendy lofts surrounded by gritty industrial stuff a few blocks beyond Little Tokyo. In other words, one of the green shoots of the new urbanization of downtown. We'd heard of the restaurant itself from mentions in LA foodie circles (Evan Kleiman, Jonathan Gold, the usual suspects), and our downtown friends were all onto it. With no plans for a Saturday night, we decided to be check it out. Though we were able to snag a table for two on very short notice, the place was pretty hopping the whole time we were there. There was no valet, and we had to park a couple blocks away, in front of the still-industrial looking stuff. We did get approached by one panhandler, but in the short walk to the restaurant, we noticed lights in windows of inhabited lofts, and a few nicely-tended urban landscapes on roofs or between buildings. Right near the restaurant, we noted another nice restaurant across the street, as well as a respectable-looking convenience market and a gym. Inside the restaurant, the scene was that of traditional French bistro furnishings placed in the industrial rehab context, with the extra-high ceiling leaving the construction unapologetically exposed, and strings of lights strung festively around. I thought it worked quite well, being true to both its urban setting and its Belle Epoque themes.
The menu is very traditional French bistro, with mussels, steak frites, frisée aux lardons, roasted chicken, and authentic country touches like pigs feet, pigs ears, roasted marrow bone, and charcuterie. I was delighted to discover a cassoulet on the menu, and was also intrigued to find a "cassoulet aux légumes". I was imagining a cassoulet filled with carrots, parsnips, broccoli, and peas, all cooked with the white beans in magical duck fat, which sounded just as marvelous and slightly healthier than the traditional cassoulet which is filled with wondrous artery-clogging sausages, duck legs, and other fatty bits. Alas, our waiter was unmistakably French, not only in his accent, but in his demeanor, and didn't really sell the vegetable cassoulet when I asked him to describe it. (It is not the style of the typical French waiter to be at all chatty the way American waiters are, nor to spontaneously compose paeans of praise when asked to describe a dish.)
We both started with salads, George with the frisée, and me with a "salade au marché, which had arugula, beets, pine nuts, and thin strips of charcuterie. Mine was delicious and George, while initially looking askance at how lightly poached the egg was (he's the sort that does not like his eggs runny), tucked in and left nothing. I was also intrigued by an item called "pois chiches" on the hors d'oeuvre menu, which was lightly fried green chick peas, so we gave that a try. They were tasty, with a nice seasoning on the outside, although a bit awkward to eat. Like edamame, the good stuff is inside a husk that you really don't want to eat. Unlike edamame, these didn't easily pop out, or if there was a neat trick to eating them, we didn't discover it, so we just squeezed the tasty soft center out in our mouths, while also getting the seasoning off the husk, and then awkwardly removed the crinkly husk. (Anyone have any tips on eating these?)
For mains, I went for the traditional cassoulet au Toulouse, which had succulent white beans, savory sausages that tasted like fresh ground lean pork with garlic and herbs, lardons, a crispy duck leg, and bread crumbs to texture the rich goodness of it all. George had a bit of a time making a selection, as the chef was being extra cautious about the gluten issue, and so steered him away from anything that went into the same frier that other stuff with flour had been in, and said to scratch the au jus on everything. So he ended up having steak frites with bearnaise sauce (but no au jus), and roasted potatoes instead of the usual frites. It was disappointing to have so many limitations, but it was appreciated that the chef was being conscientious (as opposed to another restaurant we'd been to recently that didn't take allergies seriously), and they did go to some effort to accommodate us. (The pois chiches are normally made in the frier, but the chef prepared a special batch for us in a separate frying pan.) The wine list was thoroughly French, and with a nice range of wines to choose from, including selections by the glass. I neglected to get the details (left my iPhone in the car), but George had a nice Medoc (cab-merlot blend) with his steak, and I was pleased to find a Languedoc wine offered by the glass, which was lovely with the cassoulet.
For dessert, the waiter presented us with a tempting display of tarts (the chocolate-raspberry tart looked particularly intriguing), but we decided to share a citron mousse which was lovely. The creamy mousse had a light lemon flavor which was contrasted with a topping of tart lemon shaved ice. It was light and refreshing, and the contrasting lemon/tart/sweet/creamy flavors tickled the tongue. On our way out, George caught sight of an interesting looking glass jar with two small spigots on either side. We asked the waiter who was carrying it, and he explained that it contained ice water and was part of a service for absinthe. Intriguing! We'll have to try that next time.