It would be disingenuous for me to claim that I don’t fall for gimmicks and fanciness. Because I do. Man, do I love me some shiny packaging and smoke and mirrors. It’s true for beauty products, it’s true of gadgets, and it’s definitely true of food. I'm a sucker for molecular gastronomy, and minibar still ranks as one of my most memorable dining experiences.
That being said, I get that not everyone is into that. And it's not the kind of food I want to eat on a day-to-day basis. Dishes that rely on pristine flavors and tried-and-true-technique instead of crazy combinations and equipment that looks like it belongs in a science lab - that's the kind of food I return to again and again, long after the liquid nitrogen clears and the lavendar-flavored foam dissolves. And it’s the kind of food that chef Bruce Kalman is cooking up to transform the Churchill from just another bar (albeit one with a very good cocktail program) into a genuine gastropub.
And it definitely doesn't look like any old bar. In honor of its namesake (the British Bulldog), the interior of the Churchill feels like an English manor, complete with reclaimed wood, iron table tops, antiqued mirrors, Edison bulbs lights, and vintage records and books. We eschewed the more formal dining area for a table on the patio - an ideal spot to lounge before the warm fireplace while sipping one of the few cocktails we hadn't tried, a dangerously tasty Manhattan on draft.
But this visit was focused on whether the food is a good match for the revamped cocktail menu. And the answer is a solid "yes." With an extensive list of shared and snack plates, the new food menu is ideally structured for ordering bites with your libations. The chef first sets us up with two of the snack items to whet our appetites. It's a bit mean - after eating one of the doughy, airy and cheesy (gruyere) gougeres, I immediately want a basketful more. The duck fat popcorn is less of a draw, and definitely for salt lovers, but the little bowl also packs a really assertive duck flavor that so rarely comes through in items using graisse de canard.
The Churchill's charcuterie and cheese selections are really something special. The house-cured meats are phenomenal, particularly the velvety fatty guanciale and the richly flavorful duck prosciutto. The cheeses (all from California: Hopscotch Cheddar, Glacier, Pozo Tomme, and Moody Blue) are paired really well with a variety of mostardas (condiment of fruit and mustard).
Now here's where it gets a little awkward. Even though Mark was sitting across from me, I think I may have fallen in love with Chef Kalman over the pickle plate. Though the plate was loaded with all sorts of pickled goodness (cucumbers, red onion, peppers, green beans), it was the pickled Brussels sprouts that kept my attention. My mind, she was blown. I've never had pickled Brussels sprouts before, but they are amazing - like sauerkraut, but in big meaty bites instead of shreds.
Shishito peppers are pretty common on menus in LA, but we always enjoy them. These were no exception, nicely charred with some tangy lime and refreshing cilantro, and sea salt. More memorable, though, was the wonderful, picturesque combination of plump slices of slightly sweet roasted fig, creamy jersey ricotta, honey, and peppery, fruity pink peppercorn.
Also photogenic was a straightforward and tasty salad of earthy beets, tart grapefruit, and crispy fried balls of goat cheese.
Our last shared plate didn't really seem like a shared plate at all, but an entree. The pork belly porchetta featured a substantial hunk of lovely, fatty, juicy meat, caramelly roasted grapes and hearty beans bathed in a slightly tart saba (syrupy condiment similar to Balsamic vinegar)-based sauce. If there was one complaint, its that the pork crackling on top didn't quite have the airy crunch we were expecting. But it was a small flaw in an otherwise top-notch dish.
As I noted above, the number of shared plates and snack options seems perfectly suited for causual meet-ups with friends, first date drinks, or just killing time. But the Churchill's owners are also looking to create destination dining, and from the one entree we sampled, Chef Kalman is on the right path. The casserole of duck confit is elevated comfort food - the intensely flavorful bits of pork fennel sausage are perfect with the falling-off-the-bone tender duck and roasted veggies.
We passed up the many wood-fired pizza options in order to save room for dessert. I think it was the right choice. A sprinkle of sea salt nicely rounded out the flavors of a rich, smooth chocolate budino.
And the combination of bourbon-glaze on a moist, slightly sweet apple-and-bacon-upside-down cake was equally good. My favorite part, though, was probably the thick chunks of spicy, subtlely meaty, sweet bacon brittle. Trust me.
A year after opening, and it feels like the Churchill has finally found its sweet spot. Yes, there’s a lively bar scene and good cocktail program. But with Kalman in the kitchen, the Churchill is also a spot to get great, elevated comfort food – no smoke, no foams, no spherification, no gimmicks - that I’d be happy to eat on the regular.
*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.
The Churchill - Mid-City West
8384 W 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Hours: Mon-Wed, Sun: 7:00a - 12:00a, Thu-Sat: 7:00a - 2:00a