Most Likely to Succeed

Crush has everything it takes to get ahead in life.

Jason and Nicole Wilson's Central District restaurant is called Crush, and the name is meant to reference the crushing of grapes for wine, but one can't help thinking of puppy love. Yet on my first visit, I didn't feel anything so pure as that. The place is just a little too perfect to be adored that unconditionally. It has everything I always wished I had more of: looks, stylish friends, talent . . . it's like the high-school beauty queen I wanted to hate but couldn't, because she was too genuinely nice to me. There's so much to like about Crush, and so much to envy. For instance: It's beautiful. The Wilsons took a dilapidated, 1903 house on 23rd and Madison and completely overhauled it. Retaining its good bone structure—a grand staircase, the original wood trim, everything's been given a veneer of glossy black (floor, banisters) and bright white (chairs, tables, bar). It's small-scaled (with just 41 seats), but cool and racy, like a vintage sports car. And the details are well engineered. Take the molded plastic chairs: They look much too mod to be comfortable, but the moment you sit down in them, they cradle you lovingly. It's popular. Crush is close to both Madison Valley and East Capitol Hill, and it's obviously made many friends in those tony neighborhoods. After calling three times (the last two weeks in advance), I finally reserved a table at 8:30 on a Saturday night. When we arrived at 8:20, the tiny foyer was packed body to body. It was 8:45 before we were seated at the coveted four-top. We were all set to be miffed (why can't the beauty queen ever show up for a study date on time?), but we were disarmed—first by those yummy chairs, then by the service. To compensate for the wait, servers brought complimentary champagne and a "tasting" of a dreamy puree of celeriac and sunchoke soup (normally $7 a serving). How could we stay mad? It's rich. And I'm not just talking about the patrons, though they do look extraordinarily well heeled. It's the food: The Wilsons call it "modern American cuisine" which seems to suggest something plain and streamlined, but everything we tasted was complex, novel, and intensely flavored. The starters signaled an extraordinary meal. Warm Dungeness salad, with celery root remoulade and shaved fennel ($13), fulfilled the tantalizing promise of crab: divine shreds of meat in a creamy sauce. Pomegranate-grilled quail ($10) was among the best grilled fowl I've ever eaten, tender and savory. And the Amish blue cheese tart with fresh pears ($11) was deliciously decadent—like eating dessert first. Maybe we should've stopped there, because the main dishes, while equally artful, were too much of a good thing. Braised short ribs (exceedingly supple) were paired with potato gnocchi, and served with buttered carrots and horseradish parsley ($22). Tuna au poivre and crisp pork belly were sauced with brown butter and sherry ($19). Seared scallops came on a bed of oxtail risotto, with roasted quince, cress, and duck lardo ($19). It was the duck lardo—shavings of cured duck fat—that put me over the top. Imagine a smear of butter infused with essence of duck, adorning a heavily perfumed dish of scallops and risotto. Although the desserts were beautifully crafted (including my choice, the pumpkin crème brûlée, $7), by the end of the meal, I craved only relief. But can a restaurant be faulted for being too good? The Wilsons have put their thoughtful mark on every detail—from the extensive wine list (ranging from $26 to the higher altitudes), to an array of housemade chocolates, to the elegantly remodeled bathrooms. They're certainly not to blame if Crush and I aren't destined for a great romance. Put it down to those old high-school insecurities: I just can't help feeling like Crush is way out of my league—easier to admire than to love. Crush, 2319 E. Madison St., 206-302-7874,, CENTRAL DISTRICT. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

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