CHEESEBURGER: With seasoned French fries, this is a Fenway classic.
The former occupant of this space, the old Linwood Grill, wasn’t such a bad bar. I mean, a little gentrification is okay, but did the new owners think it had to be called “Church” to send a message? They also partitioned it like a former British Colony, putting in separate entrances and blocking connections between the restaurant and nightclub halves. Okay, there is a (secular, abstract) stained-glass window in the dining room. But the background music still features enough blues and soul to go with the departed barbecue — no organ, no choir. A hint of Goth is as close to a cathedral as Church dares to get. Of course, for lots of people, it’s a place to eat near Fenway Park. For that, it’s not in a league with Eastern Standard, but it has some satisfying comfort dishes, some decent Italian-American food, and some competent bistro specialties. My impression is that the kitchen’s theme music is neither hymns nor blues but “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Church | 69 Kilmarnock Street, Boston | Open Mon–Fri, 5–11 pm; and Sat & Sun, 11 am–3 pm and 5–11 pm | AE, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking; free lot behind restaurant, except on red sox home-game days | Sidewalk-level access | 617.236.7600
We started with a major-league breadbasket, full of sourdough slices, a couple of crisp wafers — not communion, though — and some tasty but overly dense mini muffins of gingerbread and cranberries. The pink stuff the bread comes with looks like bean paste, but it’s some kind of sweetened butter.
My appetizer recommendation is fritto misto ($11). In Italy, this dish would have a lot of small, bony fish. But nearer Fenway Park than Pisa it’s got chunks of filet (cod and salmon), scallops, shrimp, and squid, with a very good marinara dip. We also liked steamed mussels ($9), plumped up to seasonal scrumptiousness and served with an excellent white-wine sauce and French-bread toasts.
I wasn’t as crazy about beef empanadas ($7), which have a filling somewhat like the Argentine kind but a flaky pastry that is all wrong in this context. Served with a fairly serious Vietnamese-type chili sauce, though, the four little crescents are a pretty good snack on their own terms. I also jumped ahead with a half-order of tagliatelle Bolognese ($8; $16/full order) as an appetizer. The thick homemade pasta ribbons are the real deal, but the meat sauce is burger-flavored and loaded with cheese, not the real ragù. It just tastes like average Italian food.
An entrée of eggplant rollatini ($16) has something of the same generic-flavor problem, though Italian-style eggplant is never a mistake in my book. I have to admit that my favorite entrée was the absolutely classic grilled cheeseburger ($12). Seasoned French fries, iceberg lettuce, pink tomato — take me out to the ballgame, indeed! Church could drop all this bistro pretension and specialize in burgers.
That said, the pressed and seared free-range chicken ($16) is another fine dish, perhaps a little salty, served with large-grain Israeli couscous (and a surprising mixture of cheese — parmesan couscous could be the new cheese grits). Baked local cod ($19) might have been too local for a day too long. It lacked the fresh sweetness of the very best cod, and extra salt didn’t cover the weakness. A truly impressive lemon-butter sauce, not far from buerre blanc, would have made this entrée a winner on a better day. It was served with a nice garlicky spinach.
Entrées other than the cod tend to lack vegetables, but $4 side dishes are enough to serve several people. The sautéed spinach is loaded with garlic, and the green beans are pretty, crunchy, and fresh, if not so local.
The wine list is surprisingly serious in relation to the food, and is based in France and California. It’s organized by style and what wine writers call “body.” Our pinot grigio drinker had the Austrian version, a 2006 Fred Loimer grüner veltliner “Lois” ($8.50/glass; $31/bottle). This was light and aromatic, with a sweeter finish than I expected, but still good wine. A 2005 malbec from Alamos ($7/$26) was a quaffable Argentinean red. From the heavier part of the red list came a glass of 2003 Hayman & Hill cabernet ($9.50/$35). It’s unusual to see a wine with any age on a new list, but this wine actually could use another year in the cellar. It is still somewhat astringent, with a serious nose of anise and dark fruit.
Just as the cheeseburger topped the entrées, a weak flight of desserts was led by the increasingly revived root-beer float ($7). They use Harpoon, the best local root beer, and then load in vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. A baked apple tart ($7) is folded informally back over some of the filling, but neither pastry nor filling (heavy on the cinnamon) is exceptional. Dark-chocolate molten cake ($7) with good strawberry sauce is the real thing. Vanilla-bean crème brûlée ($7) was the usual, though, and lacked the promised blueberry compote. I think I’d rather watch the outfielders run sprints and throw the ball around.
Servers, in black T-shirts, white aprons, and blue jeans, were active and helpful, and the room isn’t overly loud, despite lots of hard surfaces. Sometimes eclectic menus can be played to a variety of diners. But each dish has to taste like the restaurateurs and chefs respect it. At Church, my sense is that the cheeseburger and root-beer float are where their heart is, and Italian food is a nice night out. The bistro dishes and desserts just don’t jump out of the crowd of similar presentations elsewhere.
Robert Nadeau can be reached atRobtNadeau@aol.com.
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