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

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Monday, July 11, 2011

J. Betski's $20 Menu - Rich food at Pauper Prices!

Last week, I found myself in Raleigh, NC for a business trip. Being completely unfamiliar with the area, I turned to the community for some advice, and they did not disappoint! Of all the tempting deals proposed, I settled on the $20 menu at J.Betski's for two reasons. 1. $20 for two people sounds like quite the deal and 2. I've never eaten in a German/Polish restaurant.

The decor at J. Betski's feels like a light and airy take on an old German monastery. There is the requisite dark wood paneling, amber stained glass, and beer steins lining the bar. Even the cutlery had intricate scroll work on the handles, an unexpected touch of class not normally found in today's restaurants. The walls are decorated with delicate wrought iron frames, a modern suggestion of the old monastery windows. And then there's the light! One entire wall is made of windows which leads to their outdoor patio. When we arrived at 7:30pm, the place was still awash in sunlight, giving it a bright, welcoming feeling.

After the waitress took our drink orders (they have a number of specialty cocktails that use flavors such as elderberry), my coworker and I settled down to the business of figuring out the food. The $20 deal includes one appetizer and two "pub" plates. The pub plates menu seems to be made up of what I would call German/Polish comfort food, while the regular menu has a more elegant and refined take on the classics. Bring on the comfort!

The first bit of comfort was the bread, a dense and tangy rye served with whipped butter. The dark bread had a nice solid crust with a soft and chewy interior. Heavenly.

Then came the Beef and Spinach Pierogies with Caraway Cream. The al dente dough was wrapped around a filling so moist and flavorful it simply oozed deliciousness with every bite. Buttery crumbs on top gave the dish a nice crunch, while the cream helped to smooth everything together. The tang from the caraway contrasted beautifully with the richness of the filling. A lovely little dish.

Then came the entrees. We ordered the Honey Braised Pork with Braised Cabbage, but they had run out of that so we got Short Ribs instead. This was probably the most disappointing plate. While the short ribs did fall right off the bone, they were a little dry and didn't pack the flavorful punch I've come to expect from ribs. The Braised cabbage was a nice addition, the moistness helping to balance out the drier meat. I wonder if the regular Honey Braised Pork would have been better.

My favorite dish of the evening was the Chicken Stew with Mushrooms, Cognac, and Spaetzle. This dish was utter creamy richness without tasting too heavy. There was definitely some bacon hiding in the mix for extra an salty indulgence, in addition to the soft, earthy mushrooms, the moist flavorful chicken, and the buttered spaetzle cooked to perfection. Each bite was an explosion of utter comfort and happiness. If I lived in Raleigh, this would be a great place to go any time I felt even slightly down, as no one can be sad with this much homey goodness on their plate.

We ended with the Blueberry Cheese Strudel for an additional $6.75. The cheese was the sweet kind normally found in danishes, wrapped around tangy blueberries in their own syrup. The pastry crust rolled around it was heavier then I would have expected, and while the dish was certainly tasty, I think a lighter crust would have elevated it to another level. Not that we didn't finish every bite of it;)

Overall we had a delicious meal for an even tastier price at J.Betski's. I think we could even have split all the food three ways as I was stilled tremendously full until lunch the next day. Four belt notches.

J.Betski's offers their $20 menu all night Monday-Thursday.
10 W. Franklin St. Suite 120
Raleigh, NC 27604

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