Workday lunch breaks always depress me a little bit. The phrase alone conjures up images of hastily cleaned tables, long lines for a mediocre sandwich, or something from a bag that's no longer hot. Walking into Crush Bistro for an early lunch on a Wednesday gave me a new appreciation for the phrase. At Crush, the emphasis is on both the lunch and the break.
There was a pleasant serenity in the room. Music was low. The wait staff was pleasantly soft-spoken. People were eating and chatting. At the bar, a gentleman was sipping tiny pours of different wines, preparing for a sommelier test. In a corner, two people were talking business while eating sandwiches and sharing wine flights ($12) -- one white, one red. Talk about a break.
We chose a table near the window and took in our surroundings. Not surprisingly, the theme is wine. The walls are rich shades of purple, the tables are made from old marked barrels, wine bottles form a chandelier over the bar. The menu, charmingly, has pre-printed wine "rings" on them. Since I was "in Rome," I did as the Romans do and ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc. At 11:30 in the morning. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
The lunch menu is simple and appetizing: sandwiches, salads and a slightly heavier chef's special. We ordered the shaved sirloin steak sandwich with blue cheese crema ($14), an order of baked mac and cheese ($11), and the day's special -- a penne pasta dish with lamb ragout and garlic toast ($13).
The two regular menu dishes came with a choice of soup, salad or potato salad. The soup arrived first -- a vegan carrot -- and it simply wasn't to my taste. It was on the sweet side and, because it was vegan, not creamy, which is what I think all autumn soups should be. My companion, however, loved its gingery bite and its rustic, chunky texture. We both adored the potato salad -- a bright purple heap of perfectly cooked potatoes in a tangy vinaigrette that I could eat every day.
I was of two minds about the pasta dish. On the one hand, I found it to be a bit dry -- not quite ragout-y enough. And chick peas, carrots and root vegetables seemed a touch underdone -- too al dente. On the other hand, I loved the flavor profile of the warm autumn spices. The pasta, which absorbed the flavors beautifully, was perfectly cooked.
The steak sandwich was a hit. Lean, tender slices of beef with well-developed flavors, almost like a pot-roast, were layered with peppery arugula and a sophisticated but not overwhelming blue cheese spread. Straightforward and delectable.
The mac and cheese came to the table bubbling. It was rich, with assertive cheesy flavor, a hint of what I think was Dijon, and a definite cayenne kick. It was gone in no time and we were then reduced to picking the crispy bits of cheese off the side of the bowl. It was, without a doubt, one of the best mac and cheese dishes I've ever eaten.
Lunch had piqued my appetite and I was excited to go back to Crush the following Friday with my husband and a couple of friends who are enthusiastic eaters. My husband and I arrived half an hour early, and though the tables were mostly full we were invited to sit at one and wait for our friends. We ordered drinks but felt no pressure to place a food order. When our friends arrived we sat long over the menu and appreciated the relaxed pacing of the service.
When our friends arrived we shared some "bites." We ordered an appetizer-sized mac and cheese (because I had to be sure that it was one of the best I've ever had) as well as feta-stuffed dates wrapped with prosciutto ($5) and a truffled white bean pate ($5), both of which were fine but not memorable. We also ordered the arugula salad with poached egg and house-cured pork ($12). I'm often reluctant to order salads in restaurants because I always think I can prepare them at home just as well. Not so with this salad. Pleasantly bitter greens, lightly dressed, were studded throughout with soft, salty, hammy goodness. A perfectly poached egg garnished with fresh herbs came on the side and, when slid onto the salad, added a beautiful richness and texture to the dish. I only wish this dish were available on the lunch menu as well.
For our main courses we ordered lasagna Bolognese ($19), a pork, apple and hominy empanada ($9), the rustic Alaska rolled meatloaf ($22), and the day's special -- a grilled local pork chop with apple, arugula and fennel ($30). The lasagna was rich, stewy and seasonal rather than bright and tomato-ey (tasters detected a hint of Worcestershire). We enjoyed the surprise but the dish might disappoint a diner looking to scratch an Italian itch. The empanada's pork center had big flavor and the hominy was perfectly cooked, adding a pleasant starchiness to the mixture. The meatloaf was sensational. The complex, almost-sausagey meat mixture was served roulade-style around a filling of finely diced seasonal vegetables. The dish came with a side of roasted root vegetables which, again, I found a fraction undercooked.
The absolute scene-stealer of the night was the pork chop. Flavorful, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, the chops were so tender they were almost veal-like. The meat, we were informed, came from "yesterday's pig." In other words, fresh as fresh can be. The preparation was simple and allowed the beautiful quality of the meat to shine through.
There's something unique about Crush that fills an otherwise empty niche in Anchorage. It's not a formal, sit-down restaurant, not a bar, not a family joint. Crush's relaxed pacing, flexible, mostly affordable menu, unpretentious environment and serious food are, for me, the best qualities of a European-style cafe. I, for one, am delighted it's here.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent