11/12/2013 09:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"The Church Key" Restaurant - American Dim Sum!

Whoever said that there was nothing new under the sun in the restaurant business (maybe it was me) was wrong. Last night I had dinner at a stunning new restaurant unlike any I have ever experience. And I had a delightful, fun time while doing was different but satisfying on many levels. It's name is THE CHURCH KEY, and it is located in the Sunset Tower office building at 8730 Sunset Boulevard, (310) 424-249-3700, just a few feet west of the old Le Dome/BLT location where Victor Drai will soon be opening his Rare Steak House. This Sunset Plaza strip is becoming a hot place for new eateries, with The Strand just opened down the avenue and my personal standbye, Le Petit Four, forging ahead after the death of its sorely-missed co-owner, Robert Bigonnet. But The Church Key is a whole different kettle of fish....a kind of new conception of an age-old format. But first to the name. Do you know what a church key is? Admittedly, I didn't until I looked it up on Google and found that it is that handy little metal item with a pointed tip which you use to pierce open the top of a beer can which doesn't have a pull-tab...while the other end has a hook which can pry open a beer/soda bottle. Supposedly it resembled the keys used by monks to open their church. One of the unique features at the new restaurant are cocktails which have been canned by them and are serve with a church key, which the customer is encouraged to keep as a souvenir. I asked my server, Wendy, if she knew that you had to puncture the can top twice to get the liquid out easily and she laughingly said that was included in the instructions to the guest. It seems that a fellow named Devon Espinosa (from Pour Vous and Ink) is the sommelier/cocktail guru and he came up with the novel concept of canning some cocktails, especially the Negroni, for freshness.

A canned Negroni cocktail from the drinks cart with its church key to open it.

The drinks cart with its stewardess-clad hostess.

Another trick offered is nitrogen ice pops, but I have yet to try one, along with pre-constructed cocktails in mason jars. The "Odd-er Pops" are pre-made three-ounce cocktails in those recognizable popsicle bags. Each color represents a different one....The'Yellow Polka Dot Bikini' is a lemon drop cocktail, and 'It's Not Easy Being Green' is the appletini. The liquid popsicle cocktail is given a short, smoky nitrogen bath and then the slushy thing is served with the tip of the bag cut off for slurping. Four flavors, and I eventually will try them all. The mason jar cocktails are to be shaken by the drinker. Like I's different here. Devon is part of the management team of Joseph Sabato, whom I knew from The Bazaar and XIV, and the executive chef, Steven Fretz, whom I reviewed favorably when he was at XIV (Fourteen) working with Michael Mina on that lush, lovely venue down Sunset (which still sits empty, unfortunately). When I greeted him tonight, I urged him to rub the stomach of the sacred jade Buddha I always wear around my neck and he did so, then unveiled his arm which was covered by a tattooed Buddha that put my hundred-year old medallion to shame.

Chef Steven Fretz.

..and the buddha on his arm, far more imposing than the Buddha I wear around my neck.

But more the point, what makes this large and lovely restaurant unique is the concept of the rolling carts. I immediately said to my stalwart companion that it was a smart and sophisticated take on the age-old Chinese dim sum carts. (Sad to say that my downtown dim sum hangout of yore, the Empress Pavilion, is no more....but The Palace on Barrington and Wilshire still has the rolling carts for dim sum.) Here at The Church Key, they have seven rolling carts at the moment which are manned (with one exception) by attractive young women. They feature savory cold dishes, as well as some desserts, and one cart is a rolling slicer (manned by a guy) which offers slices of ham by the plate. I recognized the hand-slicer as one of those wonderful Italian jobs which cost about $10,000 ....and said that my friends, Peter and Merle Mullin, had one in their kitchen. That's my dream Christmas gift, folks.

The ham-slicer on a cart is manned by a young guy.

The Tai Snapper is a signature dish of the talented of the regular menu.

Pig's ear Cheetos is a fun item from one of the carts.

...but the dish you will want is this Chicken Liver Mousse delivered uniquely.

Potato pierogi are as delicious as they look.

So here we are seated at table beside the roaring fireplace and Steven orders a Grey Goose ($10) from the bar while I ask for the drink cart to come, to have the experience of a natty girl in a Pan American stewardess' uniform serving me a canned Negroni cocktail ($11) with its accompanying church key. She gave it to me and then prepared a glass with a house-made ice cube to contain the drink. Steven was examining the printed menu and commented on the reasonableness of the prices. At that moment a young woman pulls up a cart and offers us a free bowl of popcorn from it, which was excellent, and a plate of raw Hamachi ($5) which was also delicious, with a subtle Asian flavor. There are now seven carts roaming the spacious restaurant and the chef told me that they are building additional carts which will be able to serve hot foods.

Some tables are placed beside a roaring fireplace, with comfortable couches and chairs.

We consulted with G.M. Joseph and he told me the most popular dishes on the 17-item menu and I ordered almost all of them. This reasonably-priced menu features dishes from America and also around the world. Jidori chicken tikka masala ($18) comes with mango-cucumber raita and jasmine rice. (Jidori chickens are those wonderful free-range birds from my friend Dennis Mao which are delivered fresh to the restaurant shortly after they (the chickens) succumb.) We had the Potato Pierogies ($11), the two dumplings served with apple butter, aged Gouda, crème fraiche and chives. At this point a cart rolled up and we gathered in a bowl of Pig's Ear Cheetos (?price) , which tasted like crinkly....somethings... of thin pig ear chips covered with powdered orange cheese. One bite was enough for me. More to my taste were the Falafal Balls with Truffle Tahini. At this point in the meal a server arrived with a long wooden holder containing the Chicken Liver Parfait ($13) we had ordered, with its small dish of huckleberries, a pile of toasted brioche slices, sea salt and chives. The parfait came in a mason jar and was topped with a dark aspic. Loved it. Did I mention that they follow the ancient Chinese method of recording the dishes you garner from the carts by stamping the card on your table with a 'chop' that each cart-pusher carries.....that way they can total your bill at the end of the night.

The cart-people stamp this card on your table to indicate dishes you order.

The spicy tuna tartare may be the best in this city.

When the chef heard me ask Joseph for a slice of lemon to squeeze atop the wonderful dish of Tai Snapper ($22), he growled, "That's my signature dish," but I explained that I drizzle lemon on everything. This hunk of pristine fish was crusted in tapioca and served with broccolini on a crispy rice cake in a white soy vinaigrette. Steve was busy portioning out a part of the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($15), one of the best versions of this eponymous dish in the has a bit of pomegranate and, I learned later, some Greek yogurt for smoothness, just delicious. Pork belly is also on every menu in town but not like this..the Crispy Pork Belly ($13) is enveloped in a bed of greens. I read on the menu that it was glazed with Gochuang, whatever that is, and some cashew butter, with radishes and sesame. Actually an awesome dish, as was the Grilled Skirt Steak ($22), with its pickled veggies. I was told there was a 'special' this night of 18 (?) oz. of aged prime steak ($52?) but we passed..too stuffed.

The chocolate semi-freddo is the richest fudge-like cake you can imagine. Deadly good.

..and you will be offered a free bowl of popcorn from a cart when you sit down.

And I knew that Steve had enlisted the services of
Pastry Chef Ian Opina (from Hatfield's) so we ordered a few desserts. Sticky Toffee Pudding ($9) was the first suggestion made by our server, with its date cake and candied orange. But my favorite was the Milk Chocolate 'Semifrddo' ($10). Then we received an order of Brown Donuts ($6), a few plump donuts with a brown butter glaze and cinnamon caramel. A cart passed by with dishes of donut holes, also to be tried soon.Yet to experienced is the Pear Tart ($8) and the Banana Split ($10) with cherry ice cream. (Joseph..what was the chocolate fudge dish we had?)

Donuts are on the menu and a cart also offers the donut holes.

I was asked to describe the place and I said, Casual Elegance, which say it all. It's a large space divided up with a fireplace, the spacious bar in the back, white walls, a high tin ceiling, and lots of tables of every height and comfortable couches and chairs of every description. Dish towels for napkins, odd silver, just casually elegant. Yes, the concept is unique...but if it were not carried out with precision and attention to every detail, it would not be the extraordinary restaurant we see here. When was the last time you exited a restaurant and said, "That was such fun?" I guarantee you will do so here.

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