When caught in the harried midst of opening a restaurant in today's merciless LA culinary landscape, restauranteurs often forget the most important aspect of all. Sure, they get a young chef from some spot that people think is cool. They pack the menu with local, sustainable ingredients. They hire the hot mixologist (or whatever the heck you want to call bartenders these days) to make creative, expensive, schmancy cocktails. Train the front of the house staff like mad. They even get the designer to make the place's interior rustic. Yet contemporary. Yet industrial. Yet modern minimalist...
Despite all of these fine touches, restauranteurs let one thing slip their mind: IS THE RESTAURANT ACTUALLY FUN TO EAT AT? Not like in a Dave & Buster's sorta way, but in a, would I want to take a date/visiting friends/parents/enemies/a lady of the night there? In 2013, Los Angeles is a wonderful food city. There are a dizzying array of dining options every evening. So much so, that I (and many others, I'm sure) find themselves often only able to eat a restaurant one time. Maybe two. Ever. Not because I dislike the restaurant - but simply out of necessity. There are too many other restaurants to try.
This brings me to the point of this whole post: The Church Key, a new "New American" and "American dim sum" spot on Sunset in West Hollywood on the ground floor of Sunset Towers, which, despite the treacherous traffic from Santa Monica on a Friday evening, is definitely a spot I hope to eat at more than once. And a lot of it has to do with the fact the place is actually fun to eat at. Sure, Chef Steve Fretz's (Top Round; previously XIV and Curtis Stone Group) food excels, but there are other factors that will bring me back.
((This was a hosted event.))
THE SPACE: In the simplest of terms, The Church Key is just cool. One of the more impressive interiors of any new restaurant in 2013, CK possesses a very Southern California, laid back feel. Mix-matched furniture, lots of blacks and whites, a distressed tin roof and an overall very rustic, yet vintage feel make the place both simultaneously grand and inviting. When you go out for a nice meal on Sunset Blvd on a Friday night, this is what you want the restaurant to look like. And while it nails the SoCal cool aesthetic, it still is able to avoid the sitcom-y feel of some other recent openings.
DRINKS: Normally I skip the cocktail menu. I'm a Jack and Ginger or beer kind of guy. I'm boring like that. But the CK menu intrigued me. Especially the Fashioned Chai, which is the marriage of two of my favorite things: an Old Fashioned and chai. What beautiful nuptial bliss it is! A traditional Old Fashioned (in this case, Apple Jack brandy and Buffalo Trace bourbon) plus the sweet, spicy, warm hint of a chai syrup. This, upon first sip, automatically became one of my favorite Southland drinks. My lady friend also enjoyed her Shut The Fuck Up (vodka, lime, orgeat syrup and soda water) and Shot in the Dark (Dolin Blanc vermouth, bourbon, pineapple and "absinth rinse").
OFF THE "DIM SUM" CART: Now, what really makes The Church Key unique is their "Dim Sum" feature. The dim sum element - which, honestly, I first thought would be a little cheesy - really strives. Outside of the normal small plates/big bites menu, there are servers pushing around carts with assorted small bites and drinks. What this does -- besides keep you full in between courses -- is it adds a social element of picking and choosing amongst diners. Almost like a culinary ice-breaker that perpetually keeps one on their toes. Amongst a multitude of options, we ended up only ordering three things off the carts. And we purposely skipped the Pig Ear Cheetos every one has been talking about because, honestly, they didn't intrigue us. What we did order: Salt and Vinegar Popcorn, the bread rolls and the Hamachi. The Salt and Vinegar popcorn is awesome. Up there with Next Door By Josie's Beer and Bacon Caramel Corn as some of the city's finest. However, highly addictive (and free!), I would not recommend ordering this first like we did. You will eat it all and be full for the rest of the meal. Save it for the latter end. The rolls, buttery and flaky with a nice crust, come with a killer smoked bacon spread that serves as a perfect compliment. The hamachi is pretty standard fare, although the housemade rice krispies on top are a nice touch.
OFF THE MENU: The menu features a wide variety of playful, "New American" dishes, with many ethnical influences at play. We ended up ordering five items - two appetizers, a pasta and two mains. The first appetizer, the Ososky's Potato Pierogies, are good, but a tad over-fried. That said, their aged gouda filling and accompanying apple butter on the side serve as nice, innovative alterations to this Polish classic. The second appetizer though, very much to my surprise, shined. Seconds after I ordered the Grilled Artichokes, I couldn't even remember why I had ordered it. I honestly could not remember the last time I had been impressed with the dish. Maybe the kitchen read my mind because The Church Key Grilled Artichoke is probably my favorite Grilled 'Chokes iteration ever. Perfectly grilled hearts topped with a creamy Hollandaise sauce, peppadews and brioche croutons (a strange inclusion, but totally works). Really good appetizer. Sticking with the 'chokes theme, we moved on to the pasta course - Sunchoke Agnolotti with Beaufort cheese, chantrelles and brown butter. These are like warm, gooey, comforting pillows of Jerusalem artichoke and French cheese. Order them.
We then moved on to the mains - Tapioca Crusted Thai Snapper and Grilled Skirt Steak. The snapper is one of Chef Fretz's signature dishes, so we were eager to try. Although we both enjoyed the dish (tons of flavor, broccolini a nice touch), we both found it to be a little heavy (and a tad greasy). Honestly, on a normal menu at a normal restaurant, I imagine this dish would soar. But at Church Key, which encourages diners to order multiple small plates and dim sum offerings, by the time you get to the bigger dishes, you're pretty freaking full and more in search of something substantial, yet not overwhelming. The combination of a big, fried piece of fish atop a rice cake? A little overwhelming. The Grilled Skirt Steak provided no complaints though. Nicely seared/crusted, the undertones of the cilantro-sesame marinade shine through.
Note: The service was pretty impeccable, but I would recommend the restaurant keep on eye on patrons' plate needs. Often we found ourselves using the same plate for a variety of dishes. While some of the sauces co-mingled well, some did not (like hamachi and pierogies, for example).
DESSERT: A lot of people recommended the Sticky Toffee Pudding, but we were both really full by the time dessert came around, so we ended up just ordering the Brown Butter Donuts. Then, while waiting for the donuts to arrive, I caught a glimpse of the Pumpkin Torte on one of the mobile carts and had to try it. I recommend you do the same - deep, rich pumpkin flavor, topped with a meringue/marshmallow top. In fact, I think dessert serves as one of the most useful times for the dim sum carts. It enables a table to try multiple smaller desserts, rather than the usual order one item off the menu and share. That said, the Brown Butter Donuts are really good and you should probably order them. Hot and fresh out of the oven, my gf, who doesn't really like donuts, loved them. The accompanying Sesame Shake also adds a depth to the dessert. And, this is a little counter-intuitive because we were full, but I appreciate how CK doesn't skimp on the donut serving size. While many popular restaurants currently feature the venerable, suddenly haute pastry on their menu, most of the time they're "beignets," which pretty much means "small" and "not worth how much you're paying." Not so at Church Key. Unlike the snapper, if you can't finish the donuts in the restaurant, they make for a great breakfast the following morning.
IN CONCLUSION: I really enjoyed my first visit to The Church Key. It's a fun restaurant with some whimsy - in the restaurant space itself, cooking up in Chef Fretz's kitchen and also behind Devon Espinosa's bar. The American dim sum concept really makes for an interesting and innovative LA dining experience. If you go, please get an order of the donuts to go and drop them off at my front door. Thank you.
THE CHURCH KEY
8730 Sunset Blvd, WeHo