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Taste Test: Church & Main


Published October 26, 2010 at 6:19 p.m.

I made the reservation under a fake name, as I always do. This time, my guests were asked to show up looking for “Jen.” I wore my hair down in an effort to obscure my face. But at Church & Main — which opened on October 11 in the old Smokejacks space — I simply couldn’t stay anonymous.

The general manager and sommelier, Dave Sullivan, had met me when I wrote a story about his former place of employment, The Pitcher Inn, and several times since, partly because his sister works at Seven Days. A few minutes after I arrived, he spotted me as he bopped across the restaurant with a pair of wine glasses and a bottle of something French.

Did “getting made” substantively change my experience at the new restaurant? It’s hard to say. Both my meals were good enough that I’m looking forward to going back for more — but neither was perfect.

My first visit to Church & Main, on a Wednesday evening, started on a down note. In the early afternoon, I’d called to reserve a table for three. When I arrived, the hostess told me that a no-reservation policy for parties of less than four had recently been implemented, and the staffer I’d spoken to had missed the memo. Instead of honoring the reservation anyway, somebody had decided not to save “Jen” a table.

Since regular tables were full, I declined a spot at the bar — side-by-side seating makes sharing trickier — and opted for the “lounge” area in the corner, with cushier chairs and a low table. It wasn’t a bad location; I could see all the action at the bar. But, after two and a half hours hunching over plates of food, I’d have taken a trip to the chiropractor in lieu of dessert.

The seating wasn’t the only source of discomfort. Our water wasn’t refilled until our entrées were gone, and I was parched. (Other tables received carafes.) On another visit, the two-top table was so long and the room so loud that I could barely hear my husband over the din.

However, the globally influenced appetizers were good enough to smooth over the rough edges. A trio of Italian arancini — fried balls of rice and Taleggio cheese with marinara sauce — were served piping hot, and the outside crust was ideally golden and crispy. A plate of duck confit, the French classic, featured a tender leg on a bed of sweet and tangy wilted red cabbage and cherries.

Some items were a bit more unusual. London’s Fortnum & Mason gourmet grocery claims to have invented the Scotch egg — a whole egg surrounded by sausage with a breadcrumb coating — in 1738. Church & Main puts a twist on the original by smoking the egg before swaddling it in meat. The result was a little dry, but the dish came with a grainy mustard sauce that helped moisten each mouthful. Even more flavorful were the Portuguese fish cakes with Espelette- pepper-laced aioli.

But my favorite appetizer, one that recalled a much-loved dish from Smokejacks, was the tuna-tartare fish taco. Served in a crunchy “wonton taco shell” with a drizzle of soy sauce, the bits of fish tasted fresh and briny. The plate was decorated with a smear of bright-green wasabi and dots of deep-red hot sauce, which made the tacos one of the prettiest items on the menu as well as giving diners the choice of how much to spice things up.

On one night, the soup du jour was a pleasantly smoky, tart tomato bisque, topped with a hard-to-cut but flavorful slice of blue cheese and caramelized-onion toast. The Caesar salad, served in a funky bowl with a rim that was higher on one side than the other, had just the right amount of creamy, garlicky Gorgonzola dressing.

The entrées didn’t seem as creative as the appetizers and, over two evenings, I was moved to order only one of them. The mahi mahi was well done, rather than medium as requested, but I enjoyed the mashed plantains and zippy chayote (cactus pear) and corn slaw on the side.

A portion of fried chicken and waffles — from the segment of the menu labeled “Your Comfort Zone” — was perfection. The waffle was nutty and savory, the chicken juicy and tender, and the bourbon-and-bacon gravy with which they were slathered was delicious.

The roster of desserts was pretty standard, despite tipping a hat to Smokejacks once again with an offering of “milk & cookies.” I wasn’t thrilled with the brownie spring roll, which sounded more fun that it was. The dessert arrived cut in two, bleeding brownie batter and mascarpone onto the plate. A touch too messy to invite picking up, the roll also rebuffed attempts to cut it, even with the provided steak knives.

The “bananas Foster for two,” prepared tableside on a rolling cart, was much more charming, if a bit dangerous. Our server melted a slab of butter in a pan with a heap of brown sugar and, when the mixture was bubbling and gooey, added a few pieces of banana.

Then came the show. He poured on rum blended with crème de banane and tilted the pan to set the alcohol aflame. We oohed and aahed; the man at the next table ducked as a wave of unexpected heat erupted near his head.

When the flames died down, the topping was spooned over chilled bowls of vanilla ice cream, which caused the butterscotchy sauce to congeal appealingly in places like sugar on snow. The frozen treat tasted just as expected, but the spectacle alone may have justified the $16 price tag.

At Church & Main, prices are all over the map. The bookends of the menu — small plates and desserts — seem pretty expensive. Most of the former hover around $10 or $12, while the latter start at $7 and top out at $30 for the nine-selection cheese plate.

The items in the middle of the menu, by contrast, seem reasonably priced. A variety of burgers loaded with tasty toppings, such as applewood-smoked bacon and crispy onions, cost $11 or $12 and come on brioche buns. A generous portion of mac and cheese is $12. Two entrées coast in at under $20; the most expensive, a steak, is $27.

How about the vino? Plenty of restaurants say they have wine for every pocketbook, but Church & Main lives up to the promise. It offers a couple of bottles for less than $20, and a few glasses for $6. At the other end, big spenders can try the $256 ’02 Cristal Champagne or Harlan Estate’s ’07 cabernet sauvignon for $550.

Like a handful of other pricey wines, the latter is also available by the glass ($110) or the ounce. Twenty-two dollars may not seem like a bargain for such a tiny pour, but it gives an oenophile without a trust fund the opportunity to sample a wine that would otherwise be out of reach. Having a certified sommelier, who can help novices pair the right wine with their food, is another big plus.

Touches like these — and the appealing navy blue and gold décor — make Church & Main enticing. The multitude of small, medium and large plates, which allows diners to customize meals at different price points and for different levels of hunger, works nicely, too. Even after two consecutive visits, there are more items I can’t wait to try — sweetbread scramble, cioppino, an ounce of that really pricey cab.

If anything keeps me away from Church & Main, it will be the policy of not taking reservations for small parties, which is probably better for the restaurant’s bottom line than it is for customer service. A couple out for a romantic evening can have few less pleasant experiences than standing awkwardly by a restaurant’s door getting chilly and hungry while they wait for another party to leave (especially when a film at the Roxy or a show at the Flynn is next on their schedule). Unless Church & Main changes the rules, I’ll plan to spend my date nights somewhere else.

But when I’m dining in Burlington with a gaggle of foodie friends, Church Street’s newest restaurant will be near the top of my list.