State Bird Provisions is probably the most influential restaurant to have opened in the United States last year, a smallish place in San Francisco's Western Addition that supplements the small plates issuing from its open kitchen with even smaller plates served from carts circulating the restaurant, kind of like dim sum. It keeps its customers off-guard — it is difficult to formulate an ordering strategy, so you end up with twice as much food as you had intended to get, which means that the restaurant makes money, its patrons are dazzled by their own spontaneity and everybody is happy. The food is very good.
State Bird is also very hard to get into. If you hadn't remembered to reserve several months in advance, you basically show up before the restaurant opens, stand in line for a while and then return, often hours later, when somebody sends you a text message.
So it became inevitable that the State Bird model would make its way south at some point. Angelenos are fond of dim sum and the concept of standing in lines, and semi-Asian-ish small plates have pretty much become the standard in local kitchens. And along comes the Church Key, an appropriately theatrical version of the concept, in a cavernous bar space just a couple of doors down from the old Le Dôme. The Church Key is the project of maître d' Joseph Sabato, bartender Devon Espinosa and chef Steven Fretz, who have been around town for years, although not always together, at places like XIV, Bazaar, Pour Vous and Ink.
Is the ceiling artfully peeling? Are the chairs leather and slouchy? Does the bar take up more real estate than a luxurious two-bedroom apartment? Is the fireplace roaring even though it is 80 degrees outside? You know you're on the Sunset Strip even before you notice that the music careens from Led Zeppelin to Vampire Weekend and back again. There are a lot of AMGs lined up outside at the valet stand. There are a lot of carts lined up inside the dining room.
If you are into hardware, the Church Key is definitely the place to be — it is easy enough to believe that you have been transplanted into the culinary pages of a Rejuvenation catalog. One cart holds a red, hand-cranked Berkel ham slicer from the 1950s, the one every charcuterie buff has coveted at one time or another, loaded with Benton country ham from Kentucky — the translucent pink curls are served with spicy apricot jam and powerfully sour pickles. A wooden tool box is pressed into hors d'oeuvres service, with jars of airy chicken liver mousse and piles of toasted brioche.
A vintage PanAm drinks cart may roll by, pushed by a uniformed flight attendant prepared to make you a kind of alcoholic Kool Pop, frozen on the spot in a misty swoosh of liquid nitrogen. (It is understood that nobody in this crowd would be caught dead ordering anything as déclassé as an Appletini or Sex on the Beach, but the campy stewardess outfit somehow makes it OK.)
Another cart holds rocks glasses, spherical ice cubes and house-canned cocktails: The Negronis and Manhattans are especially good, better, in fact, than the made-to-order cocktails, which tend to be pretty sweet. You are handed a cheap metal church key and invited to open and pour the cocktails yourself — you may have forgotten how good it feels to pierce a steel can. You get to take the church key home as a souvenir, which will sit on a shelf next to your eight-track player and the old StarTAC you could never quite bring yourself to recycle.
You probably should order a couple of dishes from the printed menu, which includes a sort of riceless bibimbap with crisped lardons of pork belly, sliced radishes and a slug of the Korean chile paste gochujang; potato pirogi loaded with crème fraîche and apple butter; and crunchy fried snapper in a tapioca crust. The composition of spiky frisée and sliced Frog Hollow pears from Northern California is tasty once you wrap your mind around the muskiness of black walnuts, and Fretz's salady take on chicken tikka masala is at least amusing. A sour, clumpy "truffled" cavatelli Alfredo and a mushy "Peking" quail stuffed with a wet wad of rice might be better left alone.
But at any rate, you are probably here for the carts, wheeled to the table every few minutes, bearing Koi-style sashimi plates of cleverly dressed raw salmon, albacore or hamachi; tuna tartare on crunchy piers of rice; egg rolls stuffed with pork; coconut-crusted popcorn shrimp; fried falafel balls with truffle aioli; sometimes even free bowls of popcorn tossed with pepper and salt. The dish everybody is talking about is probably the "Cheetos," fried pig's ears blown out by some mysterious process into featherlight shards whose texture actually resembles that of the heavily advertised snack, served with a little dish of uncannily aerated guacamole.
Pig's ear "Cheetos," guacamole fluff and lemondrop martini Kool Pops from a cart. The future is already here.
The Church Key
The future is here, and it comes with carts.
8730 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (424) 249-3700, thechurchkeyla.com
Small plates, $9-$24; "dim sum," $4-$7
Open 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.