Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ladies that Lunch Chronicles: Campanile

Chef Mark Peel gained some notoriety with his TV stint on Bravo's 2nd season of Top Chef: Masters. But around Los Angeles, this father of 5 is known for his longstanding seasonal cooking at Campanile. Amongst his many other accomplishments, which include being a protege of Wolfgang Puck, co-founder of La Brea Bakery, and a Santa Monica Greenmarket maven (see video below), we discovered on a random Thursday afternoon, that this chef is also in the restaurant at all hours.

As the morning crew wrapped up lunch service, chef Peel rapidly rushed into the dining room. He pulled the general manager aside, and immediately started talking business. For a guy who's seen more than his fair share of fame, it's nice to know that he still has his hands on the day-to-day happenings at his own restaurant. A great lesson for all entrepreneurs.   

Besides showing up, what Peel also learned these past 20 years, is that by using local ingredients and cooking comfortingly simple food, LA patrons will keep coming back. And, you know what – It works.

From studio execs talking shop to a real estate agent and his prospective clients to a small office party to a mother-daughter duo, it seems that there is no "type" of person that particularly dines at Campanile during the day. And, as the food starts rolling in, I can see why. The dishes are takes on classic comfort foods – Pasta carbonara, fried chicken, bread pudding. It's more like lunch in the South, than in the Southland. But, at what first seems schmaltzy is in fact brilliant. This is the place where you hang because it's been there for years and you know it won't let you down. The food is predictable and good. However, at times, it seems that just one aspect prevents each dish from achieving its true greatness.

For example, the duck confit salad with peppery arugula dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette is a delightful way to start the meal. However, the long carrot "ribbons" are way too long. Each strand sloppily makes its way into my mouth only after winding around my fork several times like spaghetti. The tender duck confit (cooked in its own fat) and crispy (dare I say, chicken?) skin made everything else on the plate forgivable. However, the undercooked, crunchy risotto with overcooked salmon scraps served to my table companion was not.
Posted below are a few snapshots of the meal. Enjoy!

Bacon lardons, cracked black pepper, creamy pasta sauce

The crispy fried chicken was moist on the inside. It was crunchy, well-seasoned, and spicy on the outside. The potato salad was a mix of fingerling potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, red onions, and corn.

The risotto looks good. But, it's a dud. More butter! More stock! Mix in some cheese. Risotto (and salmon, for that matter) shouldn't be this dry! Those poor mushrooms and artichokes – at least they were delightful. :) 

Bread pudding. Great in theory. Dry and tasteless in reality.

Chocolate pot au creme with pistachio shortbread. Dud! The chocolate pudding had way too much gelatin. The texture was rubbery and the flavor was disappointingly bland. Chocolate! Why can't I taste chocolate?!

View of the dining room interior from the more casual, lunch area in the front. The space itself was used as Charlie Chaplin's office. The upstairs private dining rooms, named after Chaplin, pay homage to the screen actor. Watch another Campanile "commercial" below. 

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