The International Gourmand Club. Crush.
I realized long ago that Chinese people have a peculiar habit of discussing past and future meals at the dinner table. Before the appetizer arrives, they are already talking about how the atmosphere of the current restaurant is so completely different from the one we ate at last week, or where they should go next time. Bonus points if the next meal they are planning will take place in another country. Even my mom, who pretends not to be interested in food, can wax rhapsodic over a tiny new restaurant in Taipei or debate over whether the menu is more inventive at Lark or the Harvest Vine. In this way some of the best meals of my life have taken place in the company of my parents and their friends. They are a sort of international gourmand club, eating their way around the world (although not always together).
Tonight, we went to Crush, which none of us have tried before and which has apparently been noted as one of the top new restaurants in the region, or maybe in the country, or something like that. Personally, I have a profound fear and distrust for anything that is so effusively hyped, which I believe is a typical Seattle/Pacific Northwest trait, along with socks-and-sandals and fleece-vests-over-t-shirts (in winter). When I walk in, my fears are confirmed, as the female staff all have trendy haircuts, slim, tanned bodies, and chic outfits. (Still, this being Seattle, they are all very nice). Luckily, the black-clad waiters range from adorable to extremely good-looking. I am early, the first to arrive, so they make me wait at the bar, which looks into the open kitchen.
From my perch on a high stool I watch people come in for dinner; mostly expensively blonded women, tan and thin and of that indeterminate age that could be anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-five. Watching the action in the kitchen is more interesting, so I focus my attention there. Beyond the bar, there is a prep station where people chop things and assemble plates, and beyond that, the massive stove, one of those gas-fired behemoths that people with too much money install in their cavernous home kitchens in an effort to appear as if they knew anything about cooking. I spy a pile of seasoned lamb chops on a plate near the stove. In a corner giant heirloom tomatoes are stacked on a shelf. The chef is doing something to what looks like a giant piece of...some kind of meat, in a deep stainless-steel skillet. The waiters stand around peeling fava beens between ferrying plates and drinks to the diners. It all bodes well for an excellent dinner.
Crush is located in a rapidly-gentrifying part of Seattle. There used to be drug dealers hanging out outside the nearby mini-marts; now a fancy new Safeway and a big apartment complex has been built over what used to be a Planned Parenthood. A few blocks west and you have a Trader Joe's, a Madison Market, and more new apartment complexes. There is a neighborhood farmer's market on Fridays. As you head east towards Lake Washington you reach the Madison Park neighborhood, where blonde women wearing diamonds and color-coordinated jogging suits do the soccer-mom thing; some of the best restaurants in Seattle are here. Crush is at the halfway point between the Capitol Hill scene and the affluence that increases as you near the water.
The restaurant covers two floors of an old house; it is beautifully preserved outside but when you step inside, old meets new. The floors and staircase are dark wood and the windows have small panes; the bathroom fixtures have a retro look (that is, they probably aren't original, but they look as though they are trying to be). But the bar is a sinous curve of white corian; the chairs are Starck minimalism. The corian tables and molded plastic chairs (and the battalion of unusually shaped tableware, made by Villeroy & Boch) is all white; the walls are some pale indeterminate color. Upstairs, the eight of us are at a table set against a white leather banquette; it is like a cocoon of cream. It is not pretentious, exactly, but it is not as laid-back as most Seattle restaurants tend to be.
We start with a cool white wine, a Chablis, clear and sweet, with a faintly flinty echo as you swallow. We've ordered foie gras, rich and fruity with a blackberry sauce, veal sweetbreads, grilled octopus over a bed of beans, a salad of tomatoes, and another of beets. They are all wonderful, although I hesitate to call the foie gras 'the best in Seattle,' as the waiter claims. Everyone's main courses arrive except for mine, and I steal a slice of my mother's roast duck, a little of her perfect creamed corn. Someone passes me a bite of perfectly roasted pork tenderloin, and I have a taste of A.'s sweet black cod. And then my short ribs arrive, faintly perfumed with the seductive aroma of white truffles. They are so luscious and intense that the meat overwhelms the wine, a perfectly good Bandol that nevertheless is not quite up to holding its own against the rich beef. There is a buttery potato puree, and the most adorable baby carrots, not fat little ones as at Lark, but slender ones like tiny icicles. The entire dish is dusted with fresh parsley, bright green sparks against the weight of it all.
As I eat the raspberry tart, A. and I talk about Ruth Reichl's latest book, how the raspberries in the tartlets at Le Cirque actually became three times bigger when the restaurant realized a critic was in their midst. All throughout dinner, the conversation returns again and again to food, in-between temporary distractions of movies and politics and sports. This is how it is when you are at dinner with people who are serious about food, or rather, who are not serious, but who deeply care about food, who know what good food is, and why it is worth seeking out. My friend S. and I are the next generation; we talk about how to cook pork belly and debate over which restaurant has the best sweetbreads. I think it is time for our own International Gourmand Club.