I admit we arrived without reservations. Terrible of us. (We'd reserved elsewhere, and then we couldn't get in. More on that in a couple of weeks.) Anyway, we turned up at Churchill's on an impulse, and were taken in and made grateful, but they seated us badly.
No, I shouldn't zero in on Churchill's for offering us Siberia when plenty of other places have done the same thing. Still, it has to be said some time: Why, when attractive tables are unoccupied at a restaurant and they remain unoccupied all evening long, suggesting no one's reserved them -- why seat three people (no, we weren't wearing tennis shoes or jogging shorts) next to a back-and-forth slapping kitchen door, with a line of sight on the men's toilet and the brightest light fixture in the room overhead? Dinner for three cost us $150 before tip. Even if it had cost much less than that, shouldn't a third-class table be the table of last resort?
First, we ordered a drink, and calculated the extent of our misfortune. Then, we asked to be moved. Churchill's courteously settled us elsewhere in minutes.
L They were lovely. Still, we brooded over how we'd been read.
At our new table, Churchill's looked appealing and hospitable. We found a menu that had a strong emphasis on seafood, and fairly steep prices, with a number of entrees in the $23-$26 range. However, Mondays to Saturdays before 6:30 p.m. and Sundays from 4:30 p.m., a pre-theater dinner costs $17.95. The night we were there, it included a salad, a choice between chicken and fish, ice cream and coffee or tea.
To sample a range of appetizers, we chose the pate maison ($6.50), escargots ($8.50) and blackened prawns ($11.25). What first struck us was how handsomely the pate dish had been designed, setting geometric shapes of pale pate among cuts of French bread, sliced, fanned cornichons, and pretty, small, white pickled onions that looked, at first, like peeled white grapes. However, in texture, the pate was homogeneous, like liver sausage, and in taste, exceptionally bland, leading us to conclude it was a commercial product, not something made in house.
The six snails had -- and imagination. Bubbly with butter froth mixed with pebbles of Roquefort and chopped hazelnuts, they were served in the indentations of a special porcelain snail dish. Oddly enough, however, though the butter was piping hot, the snails were barely lukewarm.
The blackened prawn dish was also beautiful on the plate. Three large, spiced prawns lay over a pale gloss of beurre blanc scattered with plain black beans and chunks of ginger. Yet the black beans, probably canned, lacked depth of flavor, and the ginger was present as separate chips, not as an orchestrated taste. As a consequence, $11.25 seemed pricey for three big shrimp look-alikes.
Our main courses suggested that Churchill's sets out to use high-quality basic ingredients but chooses to finesse sauces. We sampled a special of grilled redfish ($19.95), medallions of veal ($19.95) and beef Churchill ($23.50). The redfish fillet was generous in size, but in taste and smell, faintly old -- edible but not glorious. The several 1/2 -inch-thick veal medallions were flavorful and tender, and well complimented by slices of grilled red and green peppers, onions and mushrooms. Their slightly thick, bland and characterless sauce was a disappointment, though, and all too similar to the sauce served with beef Churchill. A bordelaise sauce should be rich with demiglace, red wine and beef marrow. Churchill's bordelaise was not.
Beef Churchill was described in part as a "beef tenderloin filet stuffed with Roquefort cheese, wrapped in puff pastry." Think beef Wellington, a difficult dish to manage well, because the puff pastry tends to cause the beef to steam in its own juices, and the steam toughens the puff pastry. Its hazards were realized at Churchill's, despite fine meat. Also, the Roquefort had vanished, so the dish was good beef in a stodgy wrapper.
Vegetables were one of the meal's pleasures. All three entrees included lightly oiled, fresh cauliflower and broccoli, an appetizing melange of rices, a bit of tomato topped with bread crumbs and garlic, and gently sweetened matchsticks of fresh carrot.
Our desserts ($4.50 each) were apple pie and two sorts of chocolate cake, one a rather dense, one-layer affair, and one a fluffy American birthday cake. Neither was strongly chocolate. Yet the pie was vigorously apple, with a delicious crust and real whipped cream.
Service was conscientious and cheerful, though at times slow and not entirely smooth. Our waiter, for example, removed my companions' plates while I was still eating dinner. That shouldn't happen, but it does, of course, and has, at plenty of other places, too.
Next: Puerta del Sol
Churchill's, 225 N. Liberty St., 727-0910
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: All major credit cards
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes