LAReview

photo credit: Jakob Layman

Camphor review image
7.8

Camphor

$$$$

923 E 3rd St, Los Angeles
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Have you ever felt like you were inside of a disco ball? That’s what happens in the bathroom at Camphor, a mostly French, occasionally Southeast Asian restaurant in the Arts District that’s as surreal as you’d expect. Mirrors cover every wall, reflecting back infinite versions of yourself. There’s a heated bidet and three different types of liquids for your hands (scented and unscented soap, plus a silky soft lotion). And almost everything is either gold or silver. The bathroom is a bit over-the-top; precious and extravagant in a way that can feel uninteresting, like a perfectly pretty flower or a person with a Leo moon.

Camphor the restaurant works similarly. After one dinner, we described it to a friend as “shiny, expensive, and nice.” Which about sums it up. You’ll drink excellent cocktails infused with sage and spiced vanilla pineapple and eat soft, pungent cheeses. The word “exquisite” will probably spill out of your mouth. If you want someone to know you’re trying to impress them, come here to do it.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

If dining at hot, new restaurants is your sport of choice, you may feel a wave of déjà vu in the dining room. The space—very obviously—was once home to Nightshade, and décor-wise, not much has changed. There’s still that icy, jewelry box feel to it: velvet booths line the walls, marble tops tables, and meals arrive on antique serving ware. And the service is top-notch—drink orders are taken the moment you step in the door, food runners describe dishes in vivid detail, and if you happen to get the date wrong and arrive a week early (like we did once), the host will look for a way to seat you as if their life depends on it. You’re in good hands.

But let’s go back to “mostly French, occasionally Southeast Asian” food. What does that mean? Well, 90% of Camphor’s menu is typical of what you’d find at an upscale French bistro: baguettes served with funky cheese, asparagus in béarnaise sauce, and peppery steak au poivre. It’s the kind of traditionally executed food that will please even the pickiest of grandfathers and corporate executives who haven’t tried something new since the first-generation iPod.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

However, it’s in that non-traditional sliver, the other 10%, where our favorite Camphor dishes live. Many are inspired by the two chefs’ respective Southeast Asian and Indian upbringings, like lamb and lentils topped in a rich, creamy foam. Citrus-y beef tartare is served with a plate of scattered tempura herb leaves. Oh, and that gunpowder shrimp. You’ve got to order this. Deep-fried and coated in a spicy, burnt orange chili powder, these tiny shrimps pack a surprising amount of meat and, well, quite frankly, heat—popping and bursting in your mouth, just like the name ensures. Not everything is a hit (we found the chicken served au jus and other entrees particularly snoozy), but most dishes are made in that meticulous haute French style and taste perfectly acceptable.

Camphor review image

Which might make you think Camphor is a date spot. That’s true. But look around and you’ll also see birthday parties, families, and older couples on, what seems like, quite charming double dates. Trust us, the bill will be high (did you really think using the bathroom inside of a disco ball would be cheap?), so prepare to drop around $150 per person, including drinks. It’s the perfect place to eat with people expecting lavishness and who still describe themselves as “gourmets.” Bring your wealthy aunt who loves to spoil you, or clients planning on using the corporate card. And definitely make use of all three liquids in the disco ball bathroom.


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Food Rundown

Cocktails

Yes, the cocktails are so good, they deserve their own section. In fact, on our last visit, our friend ordered the St. Germaine—a citron-colored cocktail made with tequila blanco, sage, and spiced vanilla pineapple—took one sip, and declared it the best drink he had ever had. The non-alcoholic options are great too: they taste nuanced and deliberately crafted in a way that doesn’t feel like an afterthought.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

Gunpowder Shrimp

Made with what can only be described as, “a ton of dried red chilis,” the gunpowder in this dish is every flavor we love in this world. There’s heat, there’s depth, and also a mouth-numbing spiciness. We wish we could eat this crackly dish with every meal, and would maybe even choose it over table bread, if it came down to it.

Bread

Oooh, that’s a thick loaf. Four dense, chewy bread slices, served with a little dish of Époisses, which is a pungent, soft-paste cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s ultra creamy, smashed down to a consistency that’s almost like butter, tinged with a bit of funky nuttiness. Maybe we take back what we said about the gunpowder shrimp replacing bread. There’s room for both.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

Saucisson

Pronounced sah-suh-zaan (we embarrassed ourselves last time, so we’re providing this information here), it’s a simple little sausage dish—sliced cured meats, replete with marbled fatty bits. If you’re a person who has ever incorporated loving charcuterie into your personality, order this dish.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

Beef Tartare

A quite fun tartare. The meat itself is great, laced with a bit of lemon and other citrus flavors, and served with a plate of deep-fried tempura leaves. There’s shiso, parsley, etc. It’s not the most elegant—or practical—presentation (you will inevitably ask for more leaves), but Camphor is always happy to supply them.

Garden Salad

A salad that actually tastes as if it’s from the garden. That’s rare. Of course, you have the typical lettuces and a light dressing, but there’s so much more going on here, it almost feels wild—a plain white bowl is filled with various greens, multi-colored lettuce, and arugula, and mint, and herbaceous parsley. So fresh, it’s almost like the air on a Terry Gross podcast.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

Lamb & Lentils

Although the name might not jump on the menu—it’s buried with the other side dishes and salads—this is the comfort dish we didn’t know we needed at Camphor. It’s served in a wonderful metal tin, with lambs bits and lentils on the bottom and a rich, sea foam cream on top. It’s soft and a little milky, with a hidden spice packed into every bite. Goes well with almost any meal.

Jakob Layman

Camphor review image

Chicken

A very fancy chicken dish that tastes like… most other chicken dishes. They try to spruce it up a bit—each piece of chicken contains two types of meat: the traditional breast part and a light pink mousse made with Indian masala. And it’s plated on a lovely silver tray and served tableside with an au jus gravy bowl. But at the end of the day, it’s the chicken entrée. If you want that, you’ll be delighted. If you’re looking for something to challenge everything you thought you knew about poultry, you won’t.

Marzipan

What a fun desert. Not every shaved ice dish hits at a restaurant , but this one is tart, icy, and kind of spectacular. It’s served out of this gorgeous glass dish that, when dropped at the table, might make you gasp slightly. Super sweet marzipan hides under a mound of fluffy ice, studded with visible bits of meyer lemon. A clean, light, and refreshing way to end the meal.

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