Let’s get one thing out of the way first: If this is the poster you’re going to welcome me to your restaurant with, something in my meal had better be flambéed, motherfucker. The ice cream should be fried, the Caesar salad mixed at the table and seared tuna had best be all over the place. Because you had a choice when it came to your signage, and you chose to stick with the mulletted, bow tie-wearing guy. That says, “We’re doubling down, kids. Enjoy 1986.” And at that point, you need to own it.
Instead, the menu at the reopened Churchill’s Italiano in the Holiday Inn Executive Center, reads like a fairly straightforward Italian spot (albeit one with lots of lobster). Tuscan bean soup, bruschetta, pasta, steak. So far, so good.
The hostess, who seemed genuinely surprised to find a customer in front of her, was charming, sweet and cute as a button. She was also not yet 21, and unable to recommend a bottle of wine. Nothing against her, but if you’re running a menu with some entrees pushing thirty bucks, your waitstaff-of-one should be conversant in the wines (and legally capable of serving them). On we go…
Out comes an aperitif, on the house. Unfortunately, it tastes like off-brand liqueur…like something at the bottom of a Harpo’s cup late on a Thursday night. Normally, I don’t gripe about anything free, but this was nasty. Cloying, syrupy, high-alcohol, cheap-tasting. A bad way to start a meal at a place boasting “fine dining at its finest.”
Appetizers – paper-thin slices of veal with arugula for me and balsamic and a Caesar salad for the wife – arrived. From what I could tell, the veal was nice. Subtle, light, tender. Unfortunately I had to scrape off the balsamic reduction to taste the meat. Far too strong, and far too much of it to play nicely with veal. Also, there was a fraction of an ounce of meat on the plate ($11?). The arugula was perfect; a peppery harbinger of spring. Hooray, arugula.
Mrs. SMEs’ salad was deftly dressed with a clearly-homemade, lightly fishy Caesar dressing. It was also in dire need of salt, a problem since Churchill’s operates on the assumption that nothing that leaves the kitchen will need seasoning. I’m down with this practice, but you better get it right. Churchill’s doesn’t.
The entrees should’ve been a slam dunk. Penne amatriciana is nothing more than tubular pasta with a slightly spicy, pancetta-based tomato sauce. Filet mignon is a steak that you grill and put on a plate. Easy, right? Not if you overcook boxed penne and send it out swimming in way too much sauce (which, unbelievably, is dull). And not if you turn filet mignon into roast beef and serve alongside some plain Jane mashed potatoes. And not if you blanch escarole to death and throw some tired bell peppers on top. No, at that point it gets really hard.
It’s also hard to enjoy eating in a restaurant with literally not another person in it. It’s boring and cold. Who would order the mussels in this place? How long has the lobster been knocking around the walk-in? And beneath her youthful perkiness, I have a hunch the hostess was just as bored (holding your hand over a candle at the hostess station was a clue. And really, who could blame her?).
It’s possible I am being unfair. The new iteration of Churchill’s as an Italian spot is barely a month old and clearly, the kitchen’s not getting much practice. But for a relaunch, they’re making it hard on themselves. The visuals are dreadful. Go try to find a menu online. Pay top dollar for bland, offend-nobody food in a museum to the Reagan era. As much as I’d love another option on the west side of town, Churchill’s Italiano is a time capsule. And at least for now, it’s one better left in the ground.