As the downside of industrial food production has become more widely understood, the demand for grass-fed beef and other meats has increased in a big way. Offering a win-win for the environment and consumers — with their healthier balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids and disease-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), pastured-raised meats have moved from the obscure corners of some farmers markets to the mainstream over the past 20 years. In fact, Consumer Reports recently recommended that consumers choose grass-fed meat when possible. In health-conscious, hamburger-happy California, there are now dozens of fast-casual burger spots, high-end eateries and groceries stores carrying grass-fed meats all across the state.
One of the leaders in this growing movement is Belcampo: a 100% vertically integrated, pastured-livestock ranch, slaughterhouse, nose-to-tail butcher and restaurant chain based on 27,000 acres of gorgeous northern California land. Belcampo is on a mission to make fully traceable, pasture-raised meats –from the high-end filet to the humble hot dog– a part of everyday cuisine. Oh, and they want to be economically sustainable too! Their’s is a capital-intensive model that would be difficult to emulate for most, but their bi-coastal presence, influence and potential cultural impact could stimulate the kind of demand that helps pastured meats make a permanent return to the American diet.
Co-founded in 2012 by Anya Fernald, cookbook author, artisanal food promoter, farm-to-table champion, and “the First Lady of Livestock” (according to Modern Farmer), Belcampo is organic and sustainable in every way imaginable. From the slaughterhouse custom designed by animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin to the multi-species rotational, “mob” grazing system (akin to that of Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin) that has increased moisture-holding soil organic matter and the carrying capacity of the farm, the operation is the very picture of balanced agricultural ecology.
And while the vision is grand, Fernald knows what she’s doing. Before Belcampo, she worked in Europe, Africa and South America for Slow Food International and the European Union helping small-scale farm producers market their artisanal and heritage products. Upon returning to California, she worked with Alice Waters to launch the first Slow Food Nations event, ran a sustainable food consulting business, founded the Food Craft Institute and launched the Eat Real Festival before teaming up with Belcampo investor Todd Robinson. She’s no stranger to taking on the established food system from all angles and championing a better, more sustainable option. Belcampo is really trying to put it all together in a operation that is both building and supplying demand and attempting the high-wire act of successfully running both a farm and restaurant.
And on a recent visit to Belcampo’s Santa Monica dining room, the scale of their ambition and commitment to the farm-to-table vision came into clear focus.
Like their other restaurants in the Bay Area, New York City, and elsewhere in L.A., Belcampo’s Santa Monica location is set up in part as a butcher shop. The first thing you see upon entering is an impressive and immaculate display of chicken, pork, lamb, beef and quail cuts as well as house-made salami, stock, sausages, bacon, roast beef, hot dogs, bologna, bone broths and eggs – all for sale and all from the Belcampo farm. Pair this carnal candyshop with Santa Monica’s wonderful weekly farmers market held a few blocks away and you can only imagine the kinds of exquisite dinners being made in kitchens around this sun-drenched, seaside town.
In contrast to the bright and stark butcher shop, the restaurant space is minimally appointed with white walls, blue and white tile, industrial chic fixtures, skylights and a wood floor that helps offset the cavernous size of the room and its potential for noise. The chill setting fits the calm, beachy vibe exuded by the staff, who were all quite friendly and fully in tune with the nuances of the operation.
The dinner menu was a predictably meaty, steakhouse-like affair, featuring a dizzying lineup of preparations of beef, lamb, duck and chicken with a few vegetable and curveball Asian dishes thrown in (lamb larb and chengdu noodles) as well as a catch of the day from the renowned seafood spot down the block, Santa Monica Seafood. There was steak frites, osso buco, roasted chicken, steak carrottes, a tallow wrapped filet, a pork coppa steak, short rib mac and cheese, beef carpaccio, steak tartare, duck poutine, chili wings, bone marrow gnochi and four kinds of burgers!
It being my first time, I decided to dive in meat-first to sample some of the acclaimed standards to get a sense of what Belcampo was all about.
As a first course, I sampled the beef tartare and lamb meatballs alongside some house-pickled vegetables, a celery salad and a baby lettuce side salad. Being a fan of all things pickled, I relished the lightly sweet and briny cukes and crisp slender carrots but pined for the radishes the waiter informed me had just run out.
The baby lettuce salad was mostly unremarkable except for the interesting role parsley leaves were given to impart a sharp herbaceous character that kept me munching away. The lightly dressed celery salad, on the other hand, was a lovely little creation, with thinly sliced bits of de-veined celery, radish, parsley and red onion. This bowl of refreshing watery crunchiness would end up serving as an ideal counterpoint to the heavier dishes to come and it has already made its way into my own home cooking rotation. But now, on to the meats.
The minced sirloin tartare was served in a neatly caked patty with shallot, caper and a bright-orange, soft-boiled Belcampo farm egg on top ready to be broken and stirred in. Moistened in the egg yolk’s embrace, the simply seasoned meat yielded a clean, rich flavor offset by the sharper savory notes from the shallot and capers. It also had an unexpected firmness (a possible hint at the muscle strength inherent to pastured meat) that made it somewhat hard to spread on the grilled bread but took nothing from the delicious indulgence of the dish.
Even so, the tartare was quickly outshined by the deceptively modest-looking lamb meatballs. From the crisp and nearly-but-not-quite-fried crust to the firm but chewy mantle and the extremely tender core, a bite into these meatballs was a geological tour of textures that reflected a perfect understanding of how to cook pastured lamb. At all depths of the excavation, utterly clean flavors shone. Gone were the pungent gamey notes often associated with lamb. In their place was a rich tallow-iness on the crust and mild garlic, mint and a hint of lemon within, which was all that was needed to frame up this truly first-rate lamb.
After this momentary lamb detour, I got back on the beef train as out came my 100-day aged beef burger served with a gooey raclette, caramelized onions, watercress, and dijonaise on a brioche with a side of French fries. Here I was witness to what could be one of the highest expressions of the art of the patty: burger decadence taken to a logical extreme.
Grass-fed burgers can be good but they can also be dry, as the leaner meat tends to overcook relatively quickly in the hands of rushed line cooks. But this burger had none of those problems. Its moisture and fat content was sufficient to give the meat an almost creamy texture on one hand but also keep it firmly held together on the other. In fact, the greasy drippings and oozing raclette quickly rendered the bun a fairly useless soggy mess, which I dispensed with to get a more direct approach to the matter. While the precise effect of a full 100 days of dry aging can be hard to decipher amid mouthfuls of the salty, cheesy, oniony experience, the condensed, buttery rich flavor of the meat was on full display. With an umami level through the roof, the tender meat with its visible chunks of tallow delivered a series of nutty, even tangy notes.
Hot on the heels of this decadence came a rather hefty rosemary, hay and tallow-wrapped filet mignon served with fingerling potatoes and perfectly steamed brussels sprouts that were crisply embalmed in caramelized butter. You may be wondering ‘why wrap a filet in tallow?’ First of all: tenderness. As with the burger, the tallow lends an extra dose of insulating fat to help keep this notoriously lean cut tender during cooking — of extra importance with grass-fed filets. Secondly, the fat helps amplify the meat’s flavor while minimizing the funkiness that can come from lengthy aging. And as a bonus, the barely perceptible hay and rosemary notes offered a delicately woodsy zing to accompany the richness of the cut. The result was a masterful expression that the high level of clean flavor and richness that pasture-raised beef can display.
And the notable juiciness and flavor of both the filet and burger is no accident or simply tallow trickery. Belcampo raises cows to be much older than in conventional feedlots (24-30 months compared to 18-19 months), which allows for greater natural fat-deposition and marbling in the muscle tissue. Studies have also shown that animals that are unstressed before and the time of slaughter, produce a more tender meat – something Belcampo has made a key focus. And finally, animals foraging on a diverse diet of grasses, grains and legumes through different phases of plant growth develop a much wider range of potential flavors.
Not to be overlooked, Belcampo’s gorgeous bar served up some excellent original cocktails that paired well with the heavy dishes and kept a steady tempo going. The two I tasted were the playfully named Beets by J, a ruby-red añejo tequila and pureed-beet charmer brought to perfection with citrus-spiked agave, lemon and lime juices and a smoked salt rim, and the Gotas de Tempo (Spanish for “drops of time”), a remarkable and highly quaffable balance of espadin mezcal, pineapple, lime, and raspberry with soda and a smoked salt and paprika rim that sported a handsome rosé to light orange fade.
While dining at Belcampo is akin to many high-quality steakhouses, both in terms of fare and price point, eating here is obviously much more.
The premium charged for the high-quality and fully traceable meat is undeniably steep, but every dollar spent is directly connected to the livelihood of the farmers, butchers, chefs, and waiters and goes back into keeping the machine going, the cows grazing, the chickens laying and the grass growing. Every delicious bite is a direct result of the choices the farm managers make about when and where to rotate animals across different forages and every meal contributes to a better planet, healthier bodies and, hopefully, a more resilient agricultural economy. For a world like that, I’ll happily eat the Belcampo way.
But even setting aside such praiseworthy goals, Belcampo also succeeds in offering an opportunity to indulge as guilt-free as is possible in the pleasures of well-treated and well-prepared meat.
(Matt Bierce, 7/3/19)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): Eatwild maintains an easy to use directory of more than 1400 pasture based farms in the United States and Canada (producing products including chicken, turkey, beef, pork & lamb) and which raise their livestock on pasture from birth to market and “actively promote the welfare of their animals and the health of their land.” CLICK HERE to link to Eatwild’s directory.]
[Restaurant at Belcampo Meat Co.; 1026 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA; 424.744.8008; Lunch & Dinner: Sun-Thurs 11:00AM-10:00PM, Fri & Sat 11:00AM-11:00PM; https://belcampo.com/restaurant/santamonica/ Belcampo also takes online orders for certain meats, offers al-fresco, on-farm meat camps and has 6 other dining locations, including two more in Los Angeles, 2 in the SF Bay area, a recently opened dining room in New York’s Hudson Yards, and an on-farm location: Los Angeles, CA: 317 S. Broadway (Grand Central Market in downtown L.A.); 213.625.0304; Breakfast (all day), Lunch & Dinner (counter-service diner): Mon-Weds 10:00AM-8:00PM, Thurs & Fri 10:00AM-10:00PM, Sat 9:00AM-10:00PM, Sun 9:00AM-8:00PM; https://belcampo.com/restaurant/dtla/ Los Angeles, CA: 8053 West 3rd Street; 323.937.0170; Breakfast (all day), Lunch & Dinner: Daily 10:00AM-10:00PM; https://belcampo.com/restaurant/weho/ Oakland, CA: 55 Webster Street (Jack London Square); 510.281.0998; Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Thurs 11:00AM-10:00PM, Fri 11:00AM-11:00PM; Brunch & Dinner: Sat 10:00AM-11:00PM, Sun 10:00AM-10:00PM: https://belcampo.com/restaurant/oakland-restaurant-butcher-shop/ Larkspur (Marin Co, CA): 2405 Larkspur Landing Circle, Building 4; 415.448.5810; Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-9:00PM; Brunch & Dinner: Sat & Sun 10:00AM-9:00PM; https://belcampo.com/restaurant/larkspur/ New York City: 20 Hudson Yards, 500 W 33rd Street, 212.244.4474; Lunch & Dinner: Sun-Thurs: 11:00AM-10:00PM, Fri-Sat: 11:00AM-11:00PM; https://belcampo.com/restaurant/nyc-hudson-yards/ Farm: 4720 Scarface Rd, Gazelle, CA; (530) 435-0244]