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Big-Ticket Beef 

by LAUREN MCALLISTER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & hurchill's aims to do one thing: provide you with the best beef you've ever tasted. That's not to say that your dining experience is neglected in any way. The restaurant's interior harks back to the turn of the last century, with a pianist on duty at the shiny baby grand in the entryway, which is lit by an enormous crystal chandelier. The view from the front door affords a peek into the movie-set-ready white-tiled kitchen with white-coated workers striding about. Crisp white tablecloths and folded napkins recall a bygone era. High, straight-backed booths around the dining room's perimeter promote that notion that, at Churchill's, dining out is serious and elegant business. Servers whisk about in tuxedoes with brocade vests, carrying discrete wallets to flip out and record your order.





But on to the star of the show. The menu describes the process by which the restaurant's USDA prime beef is aged in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment and laboriously wrapped and rewrapped each day in cheesecloth, until finally it is ready to be portioned by Churchill's own butcher. This is a restaurant that is proud of its beef. To further underscore that point, soon after we settled at our table, our server arrived with a large platter with cuts of beef to show us exactly what the filet mignon, T-bone, Porterhouse and the rest look like before they're cooked. All this may be a bit much for those who prefer some psychological separation from the animal they're eating, but it's all part of the experience at Churchill's.





While the menu does list one chicken dish as well as lamb, pork and several fish choices, it's clear that beef is the restaurant's raison d'etre. And all the beef at Churchill's is prepared the same way -- seared in an 1,800-degree broiler to seal in juices and lock in flavor. Our job was to choose a cut and to tell the chef how we'd like it cooked.





While we tried to decide, my companion ordered the mushroom soup ($7). The soup arrived with a flourish, as the lid was lifted to reveal a swirling design of cr & egrave;me fraiche on top. The texture, however, resembled congealed oatmeal -- mushrooms were partially pureed into a gray-brown half-soup with no hint of flavor beyond the taste of mushrooms. Not surprisingly, the addition of salt and pepper offered no relief for this inexplicable creation.





Somewhat more successful was the butter lettuce salad ($7) I ordered. The salad was pretty, with the leaves left whole, forming a bowl with shredded beets, candied walnuts and goat cheese. Unfortunately, there was too much creamy vinaigrette, making it too acidic for the delicate sweetness of the butter lettuce and beets.





The16-ounce New York strip steak ($34) was my choice, while my companion went all out with the 24-ounce Cowboy steak ($49) -- that's right, a $50 steak. (And it's not even the most expensive cut on the menu.) On a different occasion, I also tried the tournedos of beef Oscar ($38) -- medallions from the small end of the tenderloin, topped with crab meat, steamed asparagus and hollandaise sauce, as well as a side of saut & eacute;ed spinach with shallots and bleu cheese ($7). Plates come with snap peas and garlic mashed potatoes, but you can upgrade to stuffed baked potatoes, creamed white corn or saut & eacute;ed asparagus with balsamic syrup, among other offerings, all $7 and enough for two to share.





We ordered our steaks medium; I even went so far as to describe my exact definition of medium. Yet when our plates arrived, we were instructed by our server to cut into them immediately, so we could make sure they were cooked properly. And at first glance they appeared to be. In fact, we each agreed that the first bite of steak was swoon-worthy -- sumptuously rich and impossibly tender.





However, it soon became clear that my companion's Cowboy steak might still recognize the last cowboy it had seen. A thick cut of meat, it was purple in the middle -- a.k.a., rare. My steak was also underdone, but owing to the thinner cut, it was more palatable, although I did not care for the topping of compound butter on the already rich steak. (You can have them leave that off if you prefer a simpler preparation.) The beef tournedos, while quite tasty, were similarly undercooked.





For $40 to $50 a plate, we should expect the meat to be cooked perfectly the first time. If someone has to send their steak back to the kitchen, their meal is disrupted. At Churchill's, it's all about the elegant experience, and people out for, say, an anniversary would prefer to eat at the same time.





Desserts are made by the owner's wife. I sampled a very nice four-layer carrot cake ($7), with lots of walnuts and copious amounts of rich cream-cheese frosting. The four-layer coconut cake ($7) was similarly decadent and buttery.





The owners have done a beautiful job in transforming the old Joel furniture/gift store into a sumptuous hangout for well-heeled Spokane. Their basement bar looks especially comfortable, and coming soon, we're told, is a cigar bar with a high-tech ventilation system. Located just a block from the Davenport, and with a bustling crowd the night we dined, Churchill's is doing a lot of things right. The servers were exceptionally knowledgeable and efficient, and we enjoyed the efforts of the pianist in creating a romantic, sparkling atmosphere. But a special-occasion restaurant, with prices in the big leagues, needs to offer perfection on the plate as well.

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