The Church Key
Los Angeles (Hollywood), California
While the focus at recently-opened The Church Key is on the food, General Manager Joseph Sabato, Chef Steven Fretz and Master Mixologist Devon Espinoza have created an experience that is completely apropos for its Hollywood surroundings; the dining adventure is like a mash-up of Mad Men, Willy Wonka and Lost. Imagination, magic and mystery is at play just entering the expansive room – while the restaurant is named for the metal tool used to pry off bottle caps and punch triangular holes in beer cans in the days before pop tops, the logo features a skeleton key. The space looks like a performance art gallery with white brick walls, chandeliers and retro furniture; a massive rectangular bar takes up most of the back third. Bartenders dress in lounge/swinger apparel, ready to serve Rat Pack-influenced libations with a modern twist (imagine an Old-Fashioned featuring Apple Jack brandy, Buffalo Trace bourbon, chai syrup and an orange peel).
Should you choose to imbibe at your table rather than the bar, the friendly and helpful flight attendants from Oceanic flight 815 will wheel around the airline beverage cart and set you up with a variety of “freeze pops” for adults made on the spot with liquid nitrogen. If you’d rather opt for a retro beverage, Mandy will provide you with one of their cocktails canned in-house and furnish you with a church key – your attendant will inform you which potable the gleaming, label-less cans contain (such as a classic, candy-like Negroni).
If an evening of drinks and bar food is your bag, your best bet is the roving carts being touted as “American dim sum” – just don’t expect Chinese tea house women with pushcarts stacked with steamer baskets. Each flat-topped wagons carries an ample supply of off-menu items, such as hamachi with crisp rice and Chinese sausage; sweet and diminutive bay scallops, dehydrated for frying and served with micro cauliflower and a tangy passion fruit rémoulade; and, brown butter popcorn with sea salt and malt vinegar. Instead of checking off items on a ticket, the diner is supplied with a card that serves as your culinary passport; with each item selected (including the canned cocktails) the card is stamped with different colored ink with an image of the type of dish and a number that represents how much the dish costs, and you get to take the card with you as a souvenir. The exemplary light bite that bears special mention is billed as “pig ear Cheetos” – these light and crispy snacks defy any preconceived notion as far as texture and taste go. Anyone who has had to gnaw through a leathery piece of pig ear will be amazed at the wispy treats that crumble in your mouth; this is achieved by brining, boiling, pressing, dehydrating and slicing the ears prior to frying. The cheese powder coating is instantly reminiscent of the familiar Cheetos taste without the questionable unwashed foot smell that assaults your senses when opening a bag of the orange snacks.
The menu items are innovative and delicious – a plank of thinly shaved Benton’s country ham comes accompanied by a fig moustarda that tastes of fig while not being overly sweet, house-made pickles with egg and green tomato, and grilled, freshly-baked sourdough. The Grade 7 ahi tartare is treated with a pomegranate dressing, pea sprouts, and dots of Greek yogurt crème fraîche – the melt-away tuna chunks contrast with a light and crispy papadum; the menu also features an outstanding crispy sous vide pork belly fried with a Gochujang chili paste that gives it a Buffalo wing/BBQ quality, and an al dente, chestnut puree-stuffed sunchoke agnolotti with brown butter, hazelnuts Chanterelle mushrooms and Beaufort cheese. Although an impressive and ambitious dish, the tapioca-crusted tai snapper is a bit busy – picture a sharp broccolini sandwich with a block of chewy, crunchy rice on the bottom and the crispy fish on the top – a swath of red Fresno chili across the plate adds some color, but not a big kick of spice.
The Church Key is a mysterious and magical place that is like the love child of Willy Wonka and David Lynch; if you ask Joseph Sabato what drove management to deploy so many fun and novel contrivances in one place, he’ll explain that it’s because no one told them they couldn’t. With exceptional cuisine and a top-notch bar in a unique and entertaining environment, Sabato, Fretz and Espinoza appear to have found the key to success.
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by the restaurant. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the owners or staff of The Church Key.