I have long been a fan of Crush, with its creative, modern dishes and playful, wine-centric atmosphere. I have also been a fan of Sacks Cafe, which served reliable, upscale cuisine in Anchorage for decades. But Crush, at its previous Sixth Avenue location, had to limit its culinary aspirations according to its too-small kitchen. And Sacks, in recent years, came to seem a bit outdated to me and in need of some new inspiration.
So I was thrilled when I learned that these two appealing restaurants were going to merge. They needed each other. Sacks needed a modern makeover and updated attitude while Crush needed room for growth. This was both a marriage of convenience and – more, romantically – a relationship of the you-complete-me type. I know, I know, I've been watching a lot of rom-coms lately. Blame St. Valentine.
I had been waiting for an excuse to pay the new Crush a visit, so when my niece Paloma, a California native, came to Alaska for a birthday visit, we headed over to mark the occasion.
We arrived rather late-ish (after 8 p.m.) on a Thursday, and the dining room was jumping. We were seated quickly and brought water, menus and cocktails in short order (the new location now has a full liquor license). We then toasted, drank, and addressed the menu. It's a mouth-watering read: unexpected flavor profiles, globally influenced dishes and updated classics made for rather agonizing decision-making. I flipped. I flopped. I flipped again. Everything looked exciting and appealing.
In the end, when it came time to order starters, we opted for the deviled eggs ($6 for three), creamy polenta with broccolini ($13) and the Brussels sprouts salad ($14). We chose well. These dishes were three for three. It was the strongest start to a meal that I've had in a long time.
If you think of deviled eggs as the humdrum, second-tier choice at a potluck buffet, rest assured: these are not those. Packed with a tangy, mustardy punch, this dish perfectly combined creaminess with acidic brightness – a culinary anachronism that I personally love. A thin slice of caper berry added a slightly floral note, and a sprinkling of crisp chicken cracklings stood in where you might look for bacon bits. But my favorite part was the unexpected earthiness of oregano that toned down the acid and lingered on the palate after each bite (shout-out to Paloma for identifying this unusual placement of a commonplace spice). It was a surprising and thoughtful touch.
I don't often order polenta because I sometimes find it unpleasantly grainy. But my husband loves it, so we added it to our order. I am so glad we did. It was sublimely creamy. Blanketed in thin shavings of Parmesan cheese and topped with a truffle-oil poached egg, this was a rich and nuanced dish. I liked the wilted-but-still-juicy broccolini, though I had to agree with my husband who pointed out that it was overly salty. And while I'm rarely put off by aggressive salinity in a dish, it seemed like a seasoning error.
As for the salad, it was a showstopper. The Brussels sprouts were crisp and well-charred in a light but savory dressing. It's not often that my family's culinary battles involve Brussels sprouts, but there we were – all of us trying to sneak more than our share off the communal plate and onto our own. Blood may be thicker than water but anchovy vinaigrette seemed to trump both.
I'll pause here to say a word about the service. I'm pausing here because this is where there was a pause in our meal. Our appetizers arrived and were eaten before our server came back to take our entree orders. We weren't in a hurry, but this created a lull in the meal which was made worse by the fact that our glasses were empty. Much can be forgiven when you have a full glass of wine. I could see our server moving about the room, but he was inattentive to our particular table.
Our entrees arrived and the service problem was compounded. We were sharing our dishes – which was clear to our server since I ordered them all myself, and he placed them randomly on the table — but we weren't offered any extra plates. We continued to use our small appetizer plates bearing the traces of polenta, egg, and anchovy. Then, once we put a sauced meatball on our plate, everything else we tried was accented with a smoky tomato sauce.
In addition, there were no spoons on the table. This made sharing our dishes difficult, but also meant that pools of lovely sauces went untasted at the bottom of each plate. (Bread and butter can be ordered but is not complimentary.) This was a real disservice to the saucier in the kitchen.
In short, the mechanics of the dining room weren't as thoughtful as the dishes coming out of the kitchen.
Which brings me – happily — back to the food.
When it came to the entrees, there was only one disappointment. While the lamb tagine ($19) looked beautiful, it tasted muted and a bit muddled among the other assertively seasoned dishes. The meat – while tender — was a bit mealy and didn't deliver the earthy flavor I look for in a lamb dish. The smoky beets were mellow and lacked impact. And the sauce – an apricot reduction – promised more flavor in the menu description than was delivered on the plate. It was served alongside a cold couscous and olive salad that would have been better served warm. In the end, the olives took over the dish.
By contrast, the pork and ricotta meatballs ($15) handily surpassed our culinary expectations. Meatballs are a humble dish – well executed in red sauce spaghetti houses around the world and well executed in my kitchen. But these, served in an intensely smoky tomato sauce, were next level. I was not expecting the intensity of flavor that this dish delivered. And, truly, I don't quite understand it. "It's not trying to be anything but a meatball," my niece observed, "but it's trying to be the best meatball." She nailed it. I look forward to her future career in food writing.
The lasagna ($18) was also a hit. This dish was a far cry from the heavy, gooey casserole we've come to expect when we think of lasagna. Rather, it is presented as a light, almost airy Napoleon. An earthy, buttery layer of shitake ragout nestled up against a layer of softly cooked spinach, enlivened by yet another layer of savory pork sausage. The whole construct rested lightly on a creamy but delicate sauce (a sauce that I would have dearly loved to have spooned up with my non-existent spoon).
The kitchen at Crush is, well, crushing it. The chefs are turning out dishes that are inventive and playful yet elegant and approachable. The dining room, however, has a few kinks to iron out. More attentive and equitable service would have enhanced our experience. And, well … my kingdom for a spoon.
Despite the hiccups, we were already making plans to return as we walked out to our car. It's early days for this particular culinary marriage, but as a hopeless romantic, I remain blissfully confident that the new Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar will live happily ever after.
Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat. and 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday (brunch only)
Location: 328 G St.
Contact: 907-865-9198 and crushak.com