If you're at a farm-to-table restaurant, chances are your server will dote on the provenance of ingredients more than the dishes. Once I was introduced (posthumously) to a cow named Bunga, who servers reassured was fed grass during special intervals when the pastures were less wilted by sunlight.
Churchill Street serves beef from locally raised cows, and they may have been lavished during their short lives. But you wouldn't know it. Said cows come from Peterson Craftsman Meats, and here it's served as a grilled flatiron cut, lean and meaty and accompanied by summer squash that tastes cleanly of itself.
While there is a section on the back of the menu that quietly explains where the meats, vegetables and other products come from — pretty much all local — this information feels like an aside, preferring to let the baby lettuces and spinach in a trio of salads speak (crisply); or giving rhubarb the breathing room it deserves in a dessert.
There is no pomp here, alas, only dinner. And Churchill Street makes it count in a city (Shoreview) once described as a food desert until a concerned resident, Carly Gatzlaff, stepped up. Last winter, she tapped Jonathan Gans and Josh Hoyt, alums of the beloved Bachelor Farmer, and Aaron Marthaler, who runs the kitchen, to bring upscale dining to the northern suburbs.
Marthaler cooked under Thomas Keller at the three-Michelin-starred French Laundry in California. Keller's exacting standards may explain the caliber of Marthaler's cooking as he expands on the great American tenor of comfort classics, like ensuring that the double-patty burger has just the right amount of cheese (both white and yellow American), sauce (cobbled from Worcestershire, mayonnaise, ketchup and pickle brine), onion (deftly caramelized) and pickles. Or frying buttermilk-soaked chicken thigh until the crust develops a furious crumb over a still-moist interior, then cutting through it all with a mop of honey vinegar.
There are other evocations of chicken, too — in wings, rubbed with a smoky marinade (serviceable); and a $32 roasted half-chicken (sensational) brined for 24 hours and dried for another 24 so each piece of breast and leg is unmistakably juicy.
And there are other crowd-pleasers, like an artichoke dip that doesn't taste like a bowl of grease, and arancini fried to the color of malt with an appealing, resistant chew.
The food is all in good fun, mostly. But like a closet math olympiad purposely fumbling over an equation at the whiteboard, Churchill, too, might be downplaying its smarts to appear one with its athleisure crowd. For under its laid-back vibe — Churchill was once a hardware store before it was transformed into its sun-drenched, loft-like environs with inviting deep-set booths — lie flashes of brilliance.
Consider the risotto, which departs from the rest of the menu in styling and technique. Al dente Arborio rice is eclipsed by a cracker-thin tuile, as big as a record, surrounded by a weightless yet lush espuma and English peas that taste very much of summer.
Consider Marthaler's take on walleye, which turns the overrated lake fish into a worthy dish. It's cooked right up to the point where it just flakes (rebellious) and the browned edges accumulate, and is served with a summery take on succotash along with a textbook beurre blanc humming with basil.
And his chickpea fritters, which are like quenelled falafel — somehow dense yet airy. A crimson sauce redolent of harissa, along with pickled cauliflower in Rothko-esque gradations of yellow, elevate them further.
Or his kitchen special, the ricotta gnudi, creamy spheres set in a triptych of slivered tomatoes and a bright consommé as clear as juices that are extruded from tomatoes. In fact, they are: heirloom tomatoes, garlic, basil, aromatics and a little vinegar are pressed and squeezed through a cheesecloth until a clear liquid leaks. It's as precious as a potion.
I've never had a cheese-forward risotto that I still think about, walleye that I liked, falafel that sparked joy, or a play on caprese that I still think about, days after I've eaten them. But here we are, just north of the Twin Cities.
Yes, there are letdowns, but they range from quibbles — pieces of wings that were overdone; pieces of confit potatoes in the chicken dish that were too salty — to forgettable infractions, such as limp squash buried under an overpowering chimichurri; a tomato soup that distilled the peak fruit too aggressively; a chicken salad that could use livelier seasoning; and brunch staples that may not immediately warrant a return visit except for the pancakes, which are fluffy and crisp with an underscore of bacon fat and smoked butter.
Brunch is the busiest time for Churchill, but no matter when you visit, there's always a crowd — even in the afternoon, when a smaller, happy-hour menu awaits. My favorite among the snacks is the housemade focaccia, gnawy and gritty with rosemary studded in crevices. It's paired with a relish that sings of preserved tomato and garlic, encouraging you to dip away.
"This is weird to say," my dining companion says, as I pry the loaf apart, hiss and crackle in tow. "But it sounds good."
To me, it sounds more like a destination restaurant in the works.
⋆⋆⋆ highly recommended
Location: 4606 Churchill St., Shoreview, 612-466-2596, churchillst.com
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Brunch is served 9 a.m.-2 p.m., happy hour from 2-5 p.m. and dinner from 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Brunch ranges from scones ($3) and hot cakes ($13) to breakfast sandwiches ($14) and chipotle hash ($14). At dinner, the starters ($8-$19) could stand in for a meal, but don't miss out on the sandwiches ($14-$17) or entrees (top entree is $32).
Beverage program: Bar director Michael Lindgren keeps a well curated list of craft cocktails, both full-strength and zero-proof ($6-$12) and a respectable beer and wine list.
Worth noting: Churchill Street adds a 15% service charge that's equally distributed among employees, but there's still a tip line on the bill. Wrestle accordingly. There's also a charming market at the entrance to scoop up soups to go as well as other food and goods.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.