Saturday, July 16, 2011
Soup Kitchen Wednesday at Campanile - All Bark With Very Little Bite
Campanile is known as an iconic LA institution. In the fickle world of restaurants, it has stood the test of time for the past twenty years, winning numerous awards and nominations including the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award and the James Beard Best California Chef Award. Plus, chef Mark Peel even appeared on Top Chef Masters just last week. So, given all this, I was really excited to try their $22 three course "Soup Kitchen" menu.
The space itself is stunning, exuding the feel of a castle. The soaring ceiling is mostly composed of skylights, filling the restaurant with a bright white light that gradually dimmed into candlelight as the evening wore on. Walking in past a gurgling Mediterranean fountain, I immediately noticed the patterns traced on the stone wall which give the room the look of a Medieval feast hall. I was ready for a meal fit for a king.
As soon as we sat down they brought a bread basket and butter. Hurrah! I wish more places would bring bread immediately, instead of waiting till after you've placed your order. I have a tendency to show up at restaurants starving, so a little bread to munch on while I mull over my evening's meal is a welcome treat. Campanile is partnered with their neighbor, La Brea Bakery, and all their bread comes from there. The multi-grain bread was dense and nutty, but nothing to write home about. Far superior was the airy white bread, with just the right amount of chewiness and a nice crust.
Our waiter, a distinguished older gentleman, made sure to point out the Wednesday Night Special, explaining that they had first started the deal during the Writer's Strike. As soon as the recession became "official," they decided to reintroduce it. It always features the soup of the day, a chicken, fish, or vegetarian entree, and ice cream or sorbet for dessert.
After placing our order, we were pleasantly surprised when Chef Mark Peel himself came out of the kitchen to chat with us. I love when "celebrity chefs" can actually be found in their restaurant instead of just on TV. After speaking with us for a brief spell, he continued to circulate the room, clearly at ease with his guests. We were off to an impressive start.
First came the chilled Cucumber Yogurt Soup. The yogurt imbued it with a really nice tang and creaminess while hundreds of tiny slivers of cucumber gave it a great texture, especially when eaten with the smooth richness of the avocado garnish. A perfect dish for all the hot days of summer. If I could change one thing, I probably would have used more avocado for the garnish, both for the texture and also to break up the monochromatic look of the dish.
Next came the Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms and Garbanzo Beans. I opted for pasta since I don't like fish and we're currently on the poultry section of my cooking school, so with all the leftovers I eat a lot of chicken these days. But my dining companions both got the Halibut and assured me it was delicious.
The pasta was good, but not great. It could have used a little more oil as some of it stuck together, and the garbanzo beans were harder then I would have expected, almost like little nuts! However, I do give them credit for being fairly generous with the mushrooms considering their price tag. They were buttery and delicious, thoroughly enjoyable, just like the accompanying slivers of garlic and Parmesan.
We ended with Vanilla Ice Cream. I have to say, this was the most disappointing part of the meal. I understand that this is the "cheap" menu, but they couldn't afford any other flavors? The vanilla itself was very custardy and rich, I would guess it has about five egg yolks in those three little scoops:) Although, for my personal taste, it could have been a little sweeter. The hazelnut biscotti served on the side was buttery with a great crumb and flavor. I only wish they'd giving us a full sized biscotti on such a big plate.
Overall the meal was tasty, but certainly not the rapturous experience I'd come to expect after all those accolades. And while I appreciate the value and the $22 price tag, I'd be happy to see them charge $25 or $30 and spring for a better dessert. I give this three out of five belt notches.
Campanile Soup Kitchen Wednesdays: $22 for three courses.
624 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036