Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Campanile - 10/29/2012

624 South La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 938-1447

After 23 years in operation, Campanile will be closing its doors at the end of October. Though I'd known about Campanile for a number of years, the staid menu always turned me off, still it felt wrong not to try the restaurant at least once before its closure.

Very few restaurants make it two decades in Los Angeles, so it's when one closes. What makes Campanile's closure even more unfortunate is the fact that it has less to do with declining sales and is more of an object lesson of the dangers of going into business with family. You see, the building that houses the restaurant is owned by Larry Silverton, Mark Peel's former father-in-law who decided not to renew Peel's lease. Instead the space will be turned over to Walter Manzke who plans to use it for Republique, his bistronomy concept.

The restaurant along with La Brea Bakery were opened by the then husband and wife team of Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton in 1989. One of the earliest adopters of California cuisine, Peel started his career with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison before stints at La Tour d'Argent and Le Moulin de Mougins in Europe. Returning to California. Peel would spend a year at Chez Panisse before leaving to open Spago (yes that Spago).

Recent news aside, the building that houses Campanile has quite a history of its own. Built in 1929 for Charlie Chaplin, he never had the opportunity to occupy the space before losing it in his divorce to his "child bride", Lita Grey. The dining area of the restaurant is built into an "alley" between two wings of the building giving the space a very European feel. One side of the building is dominated by an open kitchen and bar the other houses the original La Brea Bakery.

Sazerac - rye whiskey, cognac, peychaud bitters, absinthe rinse
Moscow Mule - vodka, ginger beer, lime
Pancho Victoria - reposado tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, kaffir lime-ginger syrup, float of lagavulin
Campanile's cocktail list has a surprising blend of classic and contemporary creations. I opted for a Sazerac, the timeless coupling of stiff rye whiskey with notes of citrus and licorice. The Moscow Mule turned out to be one of the better preparations I've had. Pretty typical features of effervescence, spicy ginger, and citrus but somehow more focused that I'm used to. The Pancho Victoria was the best of a strong trio. Even before taking a drink I was struck by the smoky peat of the Lagavulin. This is followed swiftly by the blend of fruit juices though the whiskey and tequila come to the fore on the finish.

Strawberry Salad - mixed greens, Humbolt Fog, strawberry & white balsamic vinaigrette
This was a surprisingly effective salad. The lightly bitter greens are brightened appreciably by the tangy crunch of the pickled onions. Meanwhile the strawberries provide a burst of jammy sweetness heightened by the contrasting notes of astringency and acidity.

Pickled Deviled Eggs - crispy bacon, chives
A fairly prototypical deviled egg the creamy yolk pairs nicely with the smoky crunch of the bacon and zest of the chives.

Duck Meatballs - shaved parmesan, torn basil
The meatballs certainly tasted better than they looked. The lightly packed ground duck meat oozes with meaty savor while the sauce adds a spicy kick to the mix.

White Bean Puree - balsamic reduction, olive oil, parsley, crostini
The puree has a dense starchy texture and smoky smack reminiscent of pinto beans. Perhaps not the most complimentary comparison but I enjoyed this dish despite my general disinterest for beans.

Fresh Sheep’s Milk Cheese Ravioli - wild mushrooms, tomato cream sauce
This was the least successful dish of the night. The tomato sauce was bright and tasty but far to intense, and its monolithic flavor handily overwhelmed any nuance the wild mushrooms might have added.

Sauteed Trenne - garlic, shallots, bitter greens, bolognese
The trenne was arguably my favorite dish of the night. The pasta itself has a dense texture while the browned sections conveyed a crunchy toastiness. The mixture of bitter greens and the weighty sapor of the braised meat made for a direct yet delicious combination.

Pasta Carbonara - pancetta, cream, cracked pepper, gruyere
Its hard to screw up this working man's pasta of cream, cheese, bacon, and pepper but conversely its hard to make one that stands out either. Peel's version was tasty enough but lacked the poached egg that I've seen on other preparations.

Viva La Raza - passion fruit, agave nectar, lime juice, jalapeno tequila
Aviation - plymouth gin, maraschino liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, crème de violette
Alexandria’s Sour - Kaffir lime syrup, vodka, pressed lemon, topped with champagne
I've been especially partial to Campanile's tequila-based cocktails and the La Raza with its energetic blend of tropical fruit and chili was easily the best drink of the night. I struggled with the Aviation, finding the combination of cherry and violet liqueurs a bit like a urinal cake. The final drink had the refreshing levity of a sour augmented by the residual effervescence of the champagne.

Olive Oil Poached Salmon - beluga lentils, wild arugula, parsley pesto
This dish shows of some real finesse with the olive oil adding the slightest floral essence while the arugula and pesto give provide depth of flavor without overwhelming the fish. Unexpectedly, the tender lentils contrast wonderfully with the lithe texture of the fish.

Grilled Striped Bass - grilled broccolini, kalamata olives, blistered cherry tomatoes
After Starry Kitchen I've come to appreciate a good grilled Striped Bass. The fish has an oily sheen but mild flavor that lends itself well to the smoky flavor imparted by the grilling. Similarly prepared vegetables amplify the char while simultaneously imparting acidity and bitterness.

Pan-Seared Scallops - creamy polenta, vanilla butter carrots, asparagus, wild arugula
The triple dose of sweetness from the polenta, vanilla, and carrots was a bit clumsy, but taken alone, the scallops are superb, buttery sweet with beautiful caramelization wrapped around a still rare center.

Aged USDA Prime Rib - flageolet beans, bitter greens, black olive tapenade
This was more like a rib eye than a prime rib. Regardless of the name, the meat was tender and flavorful, with a restrained earthiness from the olive. A solid steak, but the beans and greens didn't add much to the dish.

Welschriesling ‘Zwischen Den Seen,’ TBA #7, Kracher 375ml 2004
A fantastic TBA that is just entering its drinking window. The golden viscous liquid abounds with layers of honey, candied stone fruits, and pineapple tinged with a grapefruit-like freshness.

Apple Cheddar Tart - rum caramel, vanilla ice cream
I know adding cheddar to an apple tart or pie is quite commonplace but I thought the cheese's light savor interfered with the sweetness of the apples making the dessert feel a bit flat.

White Chocolate Saffron Crème Caramel - strawberries, candied almonds
I'm a sucker for creme caramel and the nuanced flavors of white chocolate and saffron coupled with the exquisite texture made this one a superb example of the dessert.

Seasonal Sorbet - lemon honey sorbet, blueberry compote, roasted pineapple
Light but flavorful, this dessert deftly showed off the versatility of fruit, from the resonant tang of the lemon to the ripe sweetness of the pineaple.

Housemade Ice Cream - chocolate lavender, chocolate sauce, brownie bites
Most of the meal has been fairly straightforward but this was a bit too simplistic. The brownies and ice cream feel more suited to a home cooked meal than a restaurant. The lavender might have been a nice touch but its delicate flavor is lost under all the chocolate.

Boca Negra - chocolate sauce, orange buttermilk sherbet
For serious chocolate lovers! This cake is loaded with a ridiculous of bitter chocolatey richness to which the scoop of sherbet provides an absolutely bracing tangy contrast

I feared the food would be a bit tired, but the simple flavors, fresh ingredients, and precise execution made for an enjoyable if not innovative meal. Though I am happy that Manzke is finally opening his own place, I can't help but lament the loss of this iconic LA restaurant.


Ore D. said...

Hi Ryan - great post. Sad news about the closing but like you said in the opening, getting into biz with the fam is tricky.

I am eager to see the change and I hope that the foh and boh staff find work elsewhere in these tough times. There is some talent behind those stoves.



sygyzy said...

$110 a head? Pretty "affordable" meal

Charlie Fu said...

Don't forget, famed California winemaker Manfred Krankel was also co-founder of La Brea Bakery/Campanile. It's where he got his money to start up his winery

Epicuryan said...

Good to hear from you again. I'm sure the staff will find good homes. There is talk of the restaurant reopening in LAX so maybe some of the staff will rejoin them.

It should have been a bit more they forgot to charge us for the Kracher. Still even with the wine it is one of my cheaper meals.

Good catch. I think I read somewhere that the winery was originally created to supply Campanile... SQN has come a long way since then.