A fried onion ring in the shape of a pig’s ear. Says a different voice – the voice of the girl who eats bread instead of things that have been excised from an animal’s head.
I take a sip of my glass of wine, willing the velvety blend of Grenache and Syrah to ease my discomfort.
“Try one, D.” Cathy of Gastronomy Blog urges from across the table.
“I don’t want to take one away from you guys…” I insist, sweeping my hand in the direction of Cathy’s fiancé Vern, and Cathy’s mother, who is also joining us for dinner.
“There’s four – one for each of us.” Cathy says with a wink.
I smile weakly and reach for the ear closest to me. I spoon some of the accompanying béarnaise sauce onto my plate, and slowly dip the fried triangle into the yolk-colored cream.
Before I can further convince myself that “it’s not just a fried onion ring at all,” I bite into the crispy shell of the Oreilles de Cochon ($8).
It tastes like… fried food. Slightly porky fried food. But, shockingly, not offensive.
In that moment, I’m feeling okay about it. Maybe even a little bit good about it. Maybe even good enough to eat another one...
Until I see the gelatinous innards poking out from the fried casing.
I quickly finish the last bite, but the image has affixed itself to my visual cortex.
That was a pig’s ear. I think. And now it’s inside my stomach.
Awash with nausea, I instinctively reach for my piece of still-warm French baguette and bask in its familiar taste and texture.
This I can handle. I muse, spreading the tender flesh with a liberal amount of soft butter.
I melt back into my chair – finally able to relax and enjoy the pleasantly harried pace of the restaurant and open kitchen.
We are at Church & State, a French bistro in Downtown LA that has received considerable praise and media attention in the year and a half since it has been open. Food-loving Los Angelos are particularly focused on the kitchen now that Head Chef Walter Manzke has announced his imminent departure. (He will be replaced by Anisette’s Joshua Smith after the current transitionary period is over.)
I hadn’t expected to try pig’s ears when Cathy invited me to dinner two weeks ago. Nor had I expected to duel with the Escargots de Bourgogne ($13) – snails baked in garlic and parsley butter. And I certainly wasn’t lusting over the Assiette de Charcuterie ($18) with its generous spread of homemade pates and terrines (among other things).
But the ebullient restaurant environment has cast its spell on me tonight. Whereas prior to my visit, the items in question sounded unappetizing to my palate that is more accustomed to “traditional” American proteins, ears and liver and snails seem decidedly normal within the confines of the classic space.
I surprise myself by wanting to sample everything – in particular, the escargots, which I loved when I had them for the first time at LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T in December.
The snails arrive nestled at the bottom of tiny ramekins that have been topped with puff pastry. I push the delicate crust into the sea of lush butter sauce below and then carefully spoon the escargot into the softened pastry.
“All in one bite?” I ask Cathy.
She smiles encouragingly, and I follow suit.
It is one of my favorite bites of the evening.
While I am impressed by the breadth of the charcuterie plate that truly is “fit for a king,” or, more accurately, LA’s version of a king – LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold, ultimately, I find the spicy mustard to be the most compelling feature for my tastes. I haven’t yet acquired a universal love of all cured meats and liver, but can imagine it would be heaven on a wood plank for some.
For me, it’s just like walking the plank (on very unsteady legs).
For the final course of the evening, I order an expertly seared duck breast served over a bed of spritely Brussels sprouts and kumquats ($24). As I savor each meaty piece that is further enhanced by its bright accompaniments, I can’t help but remember my recent disclosure that duck doesn’t go with Brussels sprouts. The slightly sweet kick from the kumquats marries the flavors together well, and I actually prefer the slightly unconventional vision of the duck entrée to the more classically prepared short rib dish that Vern orders. We all marvel, however, over the supple texture of the short rib that I imagine has been sous-vide to achieve such a tender consistency.
The totality of the meal – from the complimentary gourgeres to the standardly pleasurable side of mac and cheese that the American in me insisted the table order ($6) – leaves me with a strong and favorable impression of the little French bistro. But in the hours that follow, it’s hard for me to separate the experience from the image of that darn gelatinous pig ear.
Especially since I’m no longer surrounded by the charming wait staff and romantic restaurant lighting that made eating the ear seem as mundane and ordinary as eating a French fry.
Church & State
1850 Industrial St
Los Angeles, CA 90021