Big Frenchy

Church & State Bistro gets a boost from Tony Esnault

For a city that's undergoing such a dramatic culinary renaissance, Los Angeles has a surprisingly small contigent of French-born chefs.

Even rarer are French chefs cooking classic bistro food. One happy exception is at Church & State, the perpetually bustling Downtown bistro in the Arts District, where former Patina chef and Loire Valley native Tony Esnault has taken over the kitchen.

The bustling dining room

The Alain Ducasse disciple developed a formidable reputation at Patina, where he was known for his deftness with farmers' market vegetables. At Church & State, he's returned to his classical roots.

It's wise to begin with a wooden platter of his charcuterie ($17), a gem-like array of vinegar-tinged head cheese, cured pork belly, velvety pork rillettes and a quenelle of robust chicken liver mousse.

A light chicory salad perked with fresh citrus segments ($15) contrasts with a stellar French onion soup ($11) blanketed in melted Gruyère.

Chicory salad with citrus

Entrées could have been pulled directly from an Escoffier tome: Canard à l'Orange ($36) is presented as a fan of tender pink slices of breast and confit leg, drizzled with a balanced sauce lightly perfumed with orange. Steel pans of sumptuous cassoulet ($32), stocked with plump garlic sausages and tender white beans, make you long for a blustery day.

In true Parisian fashion, service from your well-groomed waiter can seem brusque and aloof, but end your meal by cracking a spoon into a perfectly executed créme brûlée ($9) and all will seem right with the world.