Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meditation at Campanile

All the new blogging is about loss. In this it resembles all the old blogging. Or so the story goes with Mark Peel, as I've blogged about the demise of his Tar Pit, and now it's time to bid a fine farewell to Campanile too. Yes, I'm going to over-romanticize this, and perhaps blow it out of proportion, as I only had the chance to eat there thrice, but when someone like Jonathan Gold can write, "It is hard to overstate Campanile's contributions to American cooking," I'll take his word for it. And indeed, beyond being a paragon of California cuisine--by partially helping invent it--from 1989 until its close this November, Campanile was also a kitchen that launched a thousand careers, it seems. It would be hard for me to imagine the LA dining scene without Suzanne Goin and Lucques and AOC, Suzanne Tracht and Jar, Nancy Silverton--originally co-owner and Peel's ex--and La Brea Breads and Mozza and Short Order, Matt Molina and Dahlia Narvaez, also Mozza, and more (I miss the Kidders' closed Literati II, I wish I could afford Manfred Krankl's Sin Qua Non wines).

Simply put, the spot just felt special. Part of that is the incredible space, all air and light and arch. It's one of the rare spots in LA where things truly feel Mediterranean, and then knowing the history, that Chaplin built it, lost it in the divorce to his child bride--well, it's all high Hollywood and just enough tawdry to be everything you believe LA to be, isn't it? Plus, while I'd never been until probably 2005 or so, well past the restaurant's most acclaimed ground-breaking days, it still always had that air of "this is where things happened." (Go back and look at that chef list, or a fuller one here.) It's sort of like the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, and those Massacio frescoes that first put perspective onto a wall. They are gorgeous on their own, but you stand there knowing in your spot stood Michelangelo 500 years prior, studying, studying. That all adds up to something.

Our last visit was mere days before the closing, and was not altogether auspicious. We had a 5:30 reservation as we wanted to get back to Santa Barbara at a reasonable hour (and had run a half marathon that morning, if I can brag a bit), but they were just clearing out the ending at 6 wine tasting, the very last they would do and a sparkling wine blowout (people seemed immensely, bubbly festive). Somehow just one poor waiter had the whole front room, and that included the worst behaved non-drunk table I've ever seen at a restaurant--three generations from one family, with the grandmom the most demandingly worst: every time anyone on staff went by, she'd bug the person for something, and somehow the table, all the way down to the base tablecloth, got reset 3 times. The unfortunate waiter did his best--that table was one clearly determined to remain unpleased--and we got a free glass of wine, so he did his best to make us happy.

And we were. For it still was that beautiful room, and Peel himself peeked in at one point looking a bit like an uncle surprised to see all his family in his house, and those cocktails, if arriving a bit late, were the even more cleverly made than named Pancho Victorias--think of it as a high class margarita with grapefruit juice, kaffir lime, and a float of Lagavulin (there's the Brit for you, and a smoky one it is). I can't vouch for Chryss' meal, although she seemed mighty pleased with carrot soup to start and fresh sheep's milk cheese ravioli with wild mushrooms and tomato cream sauce. I started with a strawberry salad, the berries themselves still vividly ripe despite it being fall (I guess it's strawberry season all year anymore), but they really were mere jewels amidst the greens of all sorts and the Humboldt fog cheese smearing about, making the dressing a creamy delight.

I had to eat something light like that as I followed with one of Campanile's signature dishes--aged USDA prime rib with flageolet beans, bitter greens, and black olive tapenade. At least that's how it's billed on the menu, but what arrives might surprise. For, and perhaps all my Florence talk earlier helps make me think this, it seems this might be bistecca alla Fiorentina by another name. It's not--not that thick, not that hanging over the platter. It's more refined, if a big hunk o' beef can ever be so, not even the prime rib of a Lawry's; indeed, there's no rib on the plate at all. The beef arrives, sliced, still done to perfect order, its juices mixing onto the beans (never enough beans) and greens beneath, making a sauce combo few plates can match. As for that tapenade, it's not doled on after grilling, it's fired right onto the beef, so the charry, crsipy crunch isn't just from the grill, it's the olives, too.

I guess the good news is Campanile can't ever really be gone--Peel promises to do something new (but he said that about Tar Pit too, so I worry); all his former chefs cook away with bits of Campanile set in their repertoires; even the space will be a restaurant again, run by a well-respected chef I like, Walter Manzke. And then there's that steak. I can still taste it, almost as if both its charcoal/olive crunch and then sweet sweet melt were still on my tongue.

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