"Church key" is a name for a metal bottle opener, the kind that's pointed on one end to pierce cans and flat on the other to anchor bottle caps. It is the simplest of tools, which makes it a strange inspiration for the Church Key, a new restaurant on Sunset in West Hollywood, which is many things, simple not being one of them.
The Church Key bills itself as an "American dim sum" restaurant, with Steven Fretz, who most recently worked at XIV, in the kitchen.
What does American dim sum mean? It's a construct that a few restaurants around the country have been playing with, most notably State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, in which the printed menu is augmented with roving dishes that come from the kitchen as they're made.
Unlike State Bird Provisions and others of its ilk, at the Church Key, the chefs who actually make the dishes are not the ones pushing the carts, which takes away the awkwardness of personally turning down someone's creation. Rather, waiters do the offering. Falafel croquettes and pig ear Cheetos make the rounds, and if you take up the offering, the card on your table is stamped to tally what you've eaten.
On a Friday night, the Church Key can be a thing of wonder. Step though the big, glass doors and you immediately feel it, that whoosh of energy that comes with a restaurant in the prime of its popularity: the din of excited conversation, the music, the chandeliers twinkling above the wide, white-bricked room. There are high ceilings, a giant hearth flanked by overstuffed leather couches, a huge circular window above for dramatic effect. If you want to see the beautiful people, here they are, looking as if they've stepped off the set of a fashion shoot or a reality TV show. British guys in suits who look like they might be a boy band rub shoulders with women in furs. It's a glorious circus, West Hollywood–style.
As if that weren't enough, there are roving women dressed up as flight attendants, pushing old Pan Am carts and offering boozy frozen pops, which they make with liquid nitrogen. They're not half bad, either, though no match for the cocktails from the list, courtesy of Devon Espinosa, who has previously slung drinks at ink. and the Tasting Kitchen.
Those drinks are a big part of why it's possible to have a pretty great meal here without even bothering with the dim sum and flight attendant gimmicks.
In fact, other than a few odd duds, I found the food from the kitchen uniformly better than the stuff off the carts. That fact is slightly disappointing but also utterly unsurprising: Food made to order is generally better, even in traditional dim sum restaurants.
So the wee plate of coconut-crusted shrimp that comes off the cart, or the hamachi crudo with vaguely Vietnamese flavors, can't hold a candle to the tuna tartare from the kitchen with perkily spiced papadams and dollops of Greek yogurt and fruity bursts of pomegranate seeds. Or the aggressively pink chicken liver parfait, which is whipped to a light but exceedingly rich texture, and comes with brioche and chives. It's delivered in an interesting container made of wood — like gardening equipment turned pâté cradle. Does it matter? No. Just one more thing to elicit oohs and ahhs, like the hijinks of a high school girl obsessed with demonstrating her extreme level of quirkiness.
Pierogi come crisp on the outside with creamy centers, served with apple butter and aged Gouda. It's high-end drunk food, which is absolutely appropriate under the circumstances.
There's a rigatini pasta in a sauce of splendidly musky Moroccan lamb shoulder with maitake mushrooms. If you're in the market for pasta, go for this rather than the truffled cavatelli, which presents like an upscale mac and cheese but tastes bland and saltless, augmented by the most boring artichoke slivers of all time.
Yet there are instances of true elegance on this menu, like a tapioca-crusted tai snapper, which comes over broccolini with a pert, white soy vinaigrette. The fish is perfectly crisped, the vinaigrette lending tang and delicate Asian overtones. Fusion? Yes. Delicious fusion? Yes.
The problem with the Church Key is its wild unevenness. One night the place is an untamed party, a wonderfully hedonistic spectacle, and you're at the center of it. The drinks are great, the food is better than you expected, the ladies pushing Pam Am carts are adorable, and while you have to admit the place is pretty silly, you also have to admit how much damn fun you're having.
Another night, the rhythm of the restaurant is off, and the gimmickry of the place falls flat.
Carts rarely arrive from the kitchen, and when they do, the food on them is lukewarm, leaden and boring. The Pan Am chick shows up the second you sit down, at which point you are hardly in the mood for a Popsicle (boozy or not), and then disappears for the rest of the evening.
The place seems woefully understaffed on some slower nights, with waiters rushing around to tables all over the huge restaurant. Would you believe me if I told you it took 35 minutes one Monday for me to get my credit card back after I'd relinquished it to my server? My friends had left; my parking meter outside blinked red. I stood up more than once to try to find someone who might let me leave, but no one noticed.
OK, that was one night, one server. But even on livelier nights, on evenings when I thoroughly enjoyed the overall experience, there were issues with the basic premise of the place. If you're seated near the kitchen, toward the back of the restaurant, you'll be bombarded with dim sum carts, which is good or bad depending upon your mood and hunger levels. But up front, near the door, nary a cart graces your presence. They run out too soon and turn back for more.
All of this makes planning a meal a tad difficult. How much should you order from the kitchen? How long should you wait before giving up on the carts? If you want a frozen booze Popsicle, when do you want it? And will that have any correlation to when a purveyor of said Popsicles might show up?
Regardless, for dessert, you absolutely ought to order the brioche doughnuts. They come with an intriguing black sesame milkshake, which is just as workable as the black sesame creme brulee you may have had at more ambitious, Japanese-influenced restaurants.
But the doughnuts themselves are kind of amazing. Drizzled in a brown-butter glaze and served piping hot, they're like Krispy Kreme on steroids but with a strange, sour after-tang, which I imagine to be the yeast asserting itself. They come three to an order — one might make you woozy from sugar and fat, but it's a pleasant delirium.
"Pleasant delirium" is a state that might be applied to the Church Key, in general. It's a place with just enough exuberance, a dash of true quality and fistfuls of fun. To complain too strenuously about its flaws would be to miss the point.
THE CHURCH KEY | Two stars | 8730 W. Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd. | (424) 249-3700 | thechurchkeyla.com | Mon.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. | Plates, $6-$27 | Full bar | Valet and street parking