It was just hours after the Preakness that my husband and I dined at Churchill's. Thinking about the night later, we realized how ironic it was that the owners of the horse that came in third, Mane Minister, were said to be dining with friends in the restaurant's back room.
Ironic in that, if the competition among restaurants were a horse race, Churchill's would not finish in the front. Third in a field of eight maybe, winning a few laurels but not a lot, that's Churchill's.
Like all the horses in the Preakness, Churchill's tries for the winner's circle -- it's clear that its aspirations are high -- but, like most Triple Crown hopefuls, it succeeds some times and at other times finishes back in the pack.
Our meal began strong. My husband's French Onion Soup ($4) was as good as he has ever had. The soup was made not from a beef base but, seemingly, from a butter base -- a much more appropriate and delicate medium for the subtle taste of onions.
My Shrimp Cocktail ($7.95) was very good. But I had the same complaint as the last time I ordered this appetizer: Why, for so much money, did I get just three shrimp? Granted, they were large -- two or three bites per shrimp -- but they still looked lost on the plate.
We then split a Caesar Salad ($4.75) that was several notches below both the appetizers and other Caesar Salads we have had. The dressing was watery; the dish was bland, lacking any discernible edge, whether cheese, anchovies or pepper. It was not prepared tableside.
Coming into the back stretch, the pace picked with our entrees.
My husband had the Surf and Turf, a small filet mignon and a crab cake ($24.95). The filet was tender and beautifully prepared, but lacked flavor. The crab cake, though brimming with huge lumps of crab, was an unappetizing white and very bland. Some Old Bay and a little longer under the broiler might have made all the difference.
I had Medallions of Veal ($19.95) sauteed with green peppers, onions and mushrooms. More than anything else, it tasted of green pepper. Not that I have anything against green pepper; it's just that the veal -- even though the pieces were large and tender -- was overpowered.
More interesting, perhaps, than either entree were the accompanying vegetables. Julienne carrots with a captivating sweetness, steamed cauliflower and broccoli covered with a light sauce were a delight.
Into the home stretch, with high hopes: The waiter said all of the desserts were made in-house. I chose cheesecake with a substantial layer of chocolate shavings on top. The chocolate was an unusually nice touch, but the cheesecake itself had an odd edge that made it disappointing.
My husband's strawberries with Cointreau were no better than your average California berries from the supermarket, though the liqueur and the fruit are an enticing combination.
The desserts dropped back a notch though when we saw the prices -- $4.50 for the cheesecake, $4.50 for the berries plus $1.50 for the Cointreau.
In all, with two drinks, coffee ($1.50) and a delightful bottle of Alsatian Gewertztraminer our bill came to $115.
Dining at Churchill's is an expensive proposition. After all, $24.95 is a lot of money for a plate of food, even if it does hold a crab cake and a filet. It's enough money that we deserved more even quality and more even service. When my husband asked for rolls, the waiter brought one for him, none for me. We also had to ask for water and coffee refills.
Our waiter, though friendly, courteous and attentive, seemed overworked and, frankly, talked so fast that we had a difficult time understanding some of what he was saying. Fortunately, all the dishes Churchill's serves, including daily specials, are on the menu.
The atmosphere at Churchill's puts it in front of many restaurants. The second-floor dining room is warm and inviting with soft colors, mirrors, candlelight and a perfect red rose on each table. This room, up a winding stair from an equally inviting, but more casual bar, sets the pace for a prize-winning meal.
Unfortunately, like Mane Minister, Churchill's just didn't put it all together as well as it might have.
Churchill's Seafood Restaurant
225 N. Liberty St.
Hours: Lunch served Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner served Monday-Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas can be arranged.