Crush is one of several tasting menu restaurants in Washington State. Over the past couple of years, Blaine Wentzel has claimed much of the regional press for his work at Willows Inn, but Crush’s chef, Jason Wilson, boasts several high-profile recognitions as well, including the James Beard Best Chef Northwest award in 2010. He has also spent time in Singapore and Southeast Asia, but these influences are not pronounced in his cooking. More importantly, with its Capitol Hill location Crush was also perched within walking distance of my hotel (Willows Inn certainly was not), and so it was a logical fit for a nice Seattle meal.
When I read Crush’s website, it seemed as if the restaurant would be quite trendy and so I was surprised to find it reside in a two-story house. This wasn’t an Alinea-style townhouse that had been heavily renovated—Crush is actually set in a building whose floorplan looks and feels exactly like a home. To reach the second story, one climbs up a narrow staircase, which must be brutal for waitstaff executing extended tastings. As one can see from the top photo, the interior design showcases shades of white and off-white, similar to Blackbird in Chicago. I’m surprised that they went with this design scheme since it seems very 90s to me. It also contrasts with the quaintness of the building, but I suppose that is the point.
Another reason I chose Crush is that they allow the customer to customize their own tasting menu, with various sizes available. Crush offers 4-course, 6-course, and 15-course menus; that they are able to avoid an a la carte service reflects the popularity of this restaurant and Seattle’s capacity to support fine dining (one could order a la carte, but the portions would still be tasting-size and so the meal would be quite insubstantial.) Even though my reservation was for early in the evening, I was not up for the largest menu and constructed my own progression. Because the menu only included 1 dessert, I added a second one, tallying 7 courses in total. I’ll note up front that my choices were not the most Seattle-specific, but this doesn’t mean that Crush rejects local ingredients—salmon was on the menu, for example, but after having already had great salmon at Sitka and Spruce, I directed my gaze toward other selections.
I forgot to request a take-home menu, and the online menu hasn’t been updated since last summer, so I am working from memory. Some of the following descriptions will be incomplete and the ingredients are not always self-evident. This first dish, though, is indelibly fixed in my memory, and not for all the right reasons. Crush follows in the lead of several restaurants by opening with an item that one would normally find at the end of the meal; I think this practice first began at Manresa, but I have experienced it at Menton in Boston. This was a squid ink macaron filled with goat cheese. It is Crush’s signature canapé, but even though it was expertly prepared, this tiny item wound up compromising the meal, since when my server removed the lid, I was hit with a heady dose of pot smoke. I asked my server whether the scent was cannabis, but he stated that it was green tea, which apparently approximates marijuana when smoked. In theory, this makes for a fun opening dish, and it’s very much in the spirit of Seattle. However, what worked in theory failed in practice, as I wound up smelling this all evening when it was served to other tables. As unpleasant as this was, it did clarify the challenges intrinsic to making smell an active component of the experience. Simply put, there needs to be more distance between tables in order to get away with a trick like this. Many restaurants emphasize smell; for years, luxury restaurants have offered cheese carts, and Alinea often serves a course with a burning leaf. The spacing between tables at these restaurants, though, makes it possible for private smells to exist within the public space of the dining room. I can only imagine how this macaron affects wine drinkers. Chef Wilson should be more cognizant of the ways in which his dining room layout impacts the dining experience, and smelling this ad infinitum transformed a novel trick into a stale joke. I sympathize with the quest to emphasize scent, but paradoxically, this was so invasive that it had the opposite effect and masked the scent of everything else I was served.
Things got back on track with this bread plate which included pumpernickel and a crusty sort of biscuit. I liked the fleur de sel they sprinkled on the butter.
My first course was a foie gras torchon wrapped in nori. Underneath was pickled rhubarb, and honey circled the perimeter. This was exquisite and offered a more uncompromised glimpse into Chef Wilson’s talents. I will sometimes go months between restaurant meals and cold foie gras is one of the items I miss most. There really wasn’t any way of improving on this memorable preparation.
This next course was listed as asparagus a la plancha, but there was much more going on, including plump English peas (and pea puree), parmesan, and a piquillo pepper sauce. According to my server, this item was new on this evening and I was the first to enjoy it. Everything was excellent and I had fun mixing and matching the ingredients. These free-flowing vegetable dishes seem to be quite popular. One could point to Michel Bras as a progenitor, but also to the mushroom dishes that now populate fine dining menus (Atelier Crenn, Next, etc.) This dish made me wonder: what is the difference—or is there a difference—between a salad and a composed vegetable dish? Crush didn’t refer to it as a salad, but could one do so? Do salads generally contain more raw vegetables, such that cooking them on the plancha would preclude the salad designation? Are salads considered more generic, or less predicated on a titular ingredient? This seems unlikely, since caprese salads, for example, definitely place greatest emphasis on the tomato. In any event, I think this course reflected the impact that a title makes; the peas were emphasized as strongly as the asparagus, so perhaps the title should have reflected this. I wonder whether any changes to the composition or title were made as the spring season progressed.
This orange dish was carrot risotto with manchego and almonds. I’m not sure what the white gravy was, but it didn’t need to be there. I’ve never liked carrots very much, but I do like risotto and this sounded interesting. The almost cartoonish orange color is, I think, rather alarming, looking almost like Kraft Mac N’ Cheese. I think the prototype for this dish is the carrot risotto that Amanda Cohen served at Dirt Candy in New York, but it can probably be seen at other restaurants. The rice is cooked in carrot stock and one absolutely has to love carrots to embrace this preparation, since the potency of the stock drowns out the other components. The carrot flavor was too intense for me and a larger portion would have been impossible to handle.
While walking around the Pike Place Market, I spotted a sign advertising the start of the Alaskan Halibut season and so I was happy to see this same fish offered at Crush. The halibut was more than an inch thick and cooked to a nice crust, which to me is the ideal presentation. The fish was cooked properly and served with onions, taggiasca olives, and cauliflower. Cauliflower is my favorite vegetable and appropriate in this context, but I think there needed to be a sauce here, as things got dry quickly. Also, when I look at the photo below, I just see so much white: white plate, white fish, white onions, and white dining room. There is already so much white in the dining room that I wonder whether Crush doesn’t have a responsibility to include more colors in their plates, but serving this on a colored plate would have probably circumvented the issue.
My fifth course was a giant veal sweetbread wrapped in chicken skin. I don’t remember the supporting ingredients but there was white gravy, similar to the one that rested on the carrot risotto. The sweetbread was outstanding but none of the other ingredients satisfied. This black plate would have really enhanced the halibut dish.
The red meat was domestic wagyu striploin with tater tots, ramp puree, beet puree, and swiss chard. The piece of steak was much larger than it appears. The striploin is my favorite cut of beef and, I think, also the best for Wagyu—fatty enough to appreciate the marbling, at least. When I read the menu description, I was quite excited for the vegetable purees, and they were terrific and added some color. The beef, though, was poor, and in the image below one can see that there was almost no marbling. I asked my server about this, and he confirmed that it was intentional and that sous viding the meat masks any marbling, but that the meat should at least still taste marbled. After the meal, I did some casual research online and it looks as if sous vide may have this effect, but the meat didn’t taste marbled at all. I might as well have been eating a filet. This leads me to believe that perhaps the problem is not the sous vide, but rather the domestic sourcing. I have found in the past that domestic wagyu never approaches the level of marbling one finds with Japanese or even Australian wagyu and I won’t order it again.
An interesting palate cleanser of kumquat sorbet with candied ginger was served.
I couldn’t choose which desserts to order and so I asked my server to just bring his two favorites. For some reason, he understood this to mean that he should bring them at the same time. I don’t mean to insult him since he was otherwise a fine server, but why would he think that I’d want the desserts delivered together? I understand that Crush is not used to people having two desserts (even the largest menu only has one dessert), but this was a real error in judgment. He remedied the situation somewhat by removing the heavier dessert and (re)serving it after I finished the first one, and as an apology I was only charged for one of them. However, I’m pretty sure that the second dessert was not re-prepared but instead just sat around, since it was lukewarm and its syrup had coagulated by the time it arrived once again.
I can understand why my server gave this first dessert, a deconstructed key lime pie, his vote of confidence. I never order key lime pie but this was one of my favorite desserts of the year. The key lime bar on the left-hand side was pretty mild, a perfect complement to the intense lime sorbet on the right.
As I noted earlier, this last dessert was not in ideal condition by the time it made it to my table a second time. Peanut butter ganache and chocolate cake were served in a hollow bone marrow bone. I think the marrow and raspberry are intended to evoke a bone with blood. However crude, this is at least in the same jokey spirit as the macaron that opened this meal.
A chocolate macaron ended the meal.
Of the seven courses, about half of them were really outstanding. The foie gras, asparagus, and key lime dessert made this meal worthwhile. My exuberance for them isn’t off-the-cuff, either; this meal took place almost three months ago and my enthusiasm remains intact. The carrot risotto, while too intense for my palate, was also successful. I have hypothesized as to possible derivations for some of these courses, specifically the asparagus and carrot risotto, but this doesn’t mean that the cuisine at Crush is unoriginal. This meal wasn’t like Senza, where I found everything to be generic, and Chef Wilson’s personality comes through in most dishes. With the less enjoyable courses, I feel as if they could be substantially improved through tweaking some aspect or another, be it the main ingredient (beef), sauce (halibut), or supporting ingredients (sweetbread.) To my mind none of the courses were total misfires, but I’m not sure that Wilson has the tight command one finds with really elite chefs.
The squid ink macaron offers a paradox. Technically, it was a perfect macaron, but badly marred by the smoked green tea. Crush has been serving it for a long time, so it must not bother most of their patrons, but to me it just seems like the sort of puerile trick I would expect to find with Graham Elliot.
Based on this meal, I think one would infer that Crush has been around for 3 or 4 years—the cuisine is generally at a high level, but very young in spirit. So, I was surprised to learn that it has already been around for 9 years. This sustained success leads me to believe that what comes off as tacky to me must be embraced by his core demographic. We’ll see where his boyish humor takes him in the coming years.