I first met the gifted French chef four years ago when he was the Executive Chef at Patina next to the Walt Disney Hall. Each dish he prepared was a work of art. Some were almost too beautiful to slice a knife through or pierce with a fork. I was saddened to hear that he left Patina, yet eager to find out what kitchen he would be improving with his French artistry.
Fortunately, owner Yassmin Sarmadi of Church and State snatched him up. She hired Esnault to help her open a new restaurant, Spring, scheduled to open in October. The menu will feature lighter-style French Mediterranean cuisine.
While developing Spring, Esnault turned his attention to preparing rustic, country style French fare at Church and State.
The noise level is loud and tables are very close together with just enough room for a server to walk between them, making for a lively, bustling atmosphere.
The restaurant offers a New York vibe with brick flooring and outdoor lighting strung from one corner to another. The wall of white tile and glass in the back are remnants of the National Biscuit Company’s loading dock. Built in 1925, this gorgeous space once had trains pull up in the back with raw goods to make Nabisco products.
The building was designed to look like a castle with mini turrets on each end. Above the restaurant are luxury lofts with hardwood floors and spiral stairways. Across the street is the old Toy Factory with retail on the ground floor and more basic lofts above.
Looking over the menu, it flows from lighter to heartier dishes. Many guests sitting at tables near us ordered the beautiful puff pastry escargot with garlic butter, so we did too. It looks and tastes like a luscious soufflé in a classic egg cup. Others enjoyed the roasted marrow bone served with marinated radish salad or a charcuterie plate that is cut and cured in house. We all raved about the rabbit ballotine with young greens, herbs and mustard.
On the menu it states that all of the products used in the dishes come from organic farms and have been without antibiotics or hormones.
Near the kitchen are white ceramic vases stuffed with fresh French baguettes. Every table receives bread and on the evening we dined, a plate of fresh out-of-the-oven baked cheese puffs were served.
Esnault makes colorful tartes for appetizers that are actually flat breads, savory onion soup and an array of salads.
For my entree, I opted for the healthy three-beet salad and Coq au Vin that is braised for three days in red wine, herbs, salt and pepper.
The beet salad arrived with deep magenta roasted beets and sunshine yellow soft beets. To add texture and a crunch, Esnault includes some candy cane raw beets to the salad with baby lettuce, hazelnuts, goat cheese and a leek vinaigrette.
I ordered a glass of 2012 Moulinde Gassac Guilhem Rose to accompany my meal. It had pleasant pink hue and intense red fruit nose.
While enjoying the wine and salad, I noticed Esnault is usually in the dining room next to the kitchen’s serving counter. He stands with his back to his diners, looking at the multitude of chefs preparing various dishes. Since the noise level is high, he often cups his hands to shout out orders.
The coq au vin arrived with pearl onions, carrots and mushrooms in the lovely Burgundy colored sauce. On the plate were two drumsticks and a meaty thigh that was so tender, the meat just fell off the bone.
Since my husband was in the mood for seafood, he had a choice of scallops, a filet of Scottish salmon or a Provençal fish Bouillabaisse stew with fresh prawns, Manila clams, mussels, fennel, potato, leeks and garnished with a rouille, made with olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and chili peppers.
He opted for the salmon, which was served on a bed of lentils with pickled red onions and textured with bits of crispy bacon.
Meat dishes offered on the menu are a clean cut of venison saddle that is not too marbled or a 100 percent grass-fed flap steak with frites and a béarnaise sauce. A duck breast with confit leg adorned with orange is another option.
The dessert tray arrives on a plank of wood with several delights to choose. All are made in house. They are small in size, yet big in flavor. The chocolate tart was dense, rich and satisfying with a salted caramel drizzle.
Church and State offers a prix-fixe Sunday Supper. Last Sunday, Esnault served an amuse with a choice of two appetizers, choice of three entrées and one dessert. It was $44 per person with an optional $22 wine pairing for three courses.
$$-$$$ Open for lunch Monday through Thursday starting at 11:30 a.m. Open for dinner on Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. Dinner on Saturday and Sunday begins at 5:30 p.m. 1850 Industrial St. Go to Church and State at OpenTable or call (213)405-1434.