Almost overnight, Taste—chef-owner Ann Nault’s upscale addition to Belvedere Square—was gone, and local foodies were buzzing about what would become of the beautiful restaurant space. After several months—and many rumors—the new owner was confirmed: Daniel Chaustit, formerly chef/co-owner of Christopher Daniel in Timonium until he left there to pursue other food-industry business ventures.
With little fanfare, Chaustit’s new restaurant, Crush, opened in August in the spot that, before Taste, had been Hess Shoes, a landmark of sorts, where Baltimore baby boomers swooshed down a sliding board to try on shiny Mary Janes and get their hair cut by resident barbers. Today, the new restaurant retains Taste’s modernist aesthetic, staged on multiple levels. Handsome wood, interesting rope accents, black pinstripe banquettes, and red chairs are set off by flattering mood lighting and comforting beige walls. The dining rooms are hushed and peaceful.
The bar area, where you enter, has kept the grey-stone wall of earlier decades, an historic, eclectic addition to the window-bright, sleek room, which also has tables for noshing. In warmer weather, there’s outside seating at glass-topped tables. Our servers on various occasions were friendly and helpful, often running to the kitchen to answer our questions. We particularly liked Alphonse—college student by day, waiter by night. His engaging personality and sincere desire to please made for an enjoyable experience.
Some of the menu items will bring on flashbacks of Christopher Daniel’s food—like the lobster mac and cheese and lamb chops with cashews and hoisin barbecue sauce—but other dishes are Chaustit’s renditions. And what about the name? Is it monosyllabic cutesy or is there more? As it turns out, Crush refers to the winemaking season. Indeed, diners will find a decent selection of wines from various regions and accessible price points by the bottle or glass to support the moniker. The food, described as modern American by Chaustit, also offers choices. You can have a burger or a salad for under $10 if you want casual fare, or you can target the entrées for larger portions at main-dish prices, mostly in the mid-$20 range.
There are many high notes from the kitchen, so let’s get the disappointments out of the way. While we found excitement with the succulent grilled chicken sandwich dressed up with brown-sugar bacon, brie, and honey mustard, the plebian Kaiser roll was a big goof. This flavor combo calls for a much more interesting artisan bread. If ever there was a case for ciabatta, this is it. The unassuming roll, however, fit the fat, 8-ounce burger just fine. Cooked medium rare as requested, the juicy meat welcomed a gorgeous slab of tomato and green-leaf lettuce. (There’s a dollar extra charge each for bacon and cheese.) But we had to shake our heads at the pathetic skinny fries on each plate. These pale, uninspired specimens could have been shoelaces for all their flavor, or lack thereof. In this age of creative duck-fat, Old-Bay seasoned, and cinnamon-dusted sweet-potato fries, we think the restaurant could do better. A fresh, vinegary slaw compensated for the taste gaffe a bit.
Starters were more inventive. We relished the creamy tomato soup with teeny grilled-cheese-sandwich croutons (clever!) and the baby arugula salad, a generous mound of peppery lettuce, fork-tender poached pears, sugary pecans, and dabs of piquant blue cheese dressed in a subtle raspberry vinaigrette. On another visit, we cheerfully devoured the antipasti assortment of salami, prosciutto, blue cheese, fresh mozzarella, rosemary-flecked roasted olives, and marinated yellow-and-orange pepper slivers. We also did well with the crispy rounds of calamari with two dipping sauces: a pleasant basil aioli and a warm, spicy marinara.
That night, we had a hankering for entrée fare. The fish of the day was grilled rockfish, which always teases our Maryland sensibilities. The thick, white filet glistened with a classic beurre blanc sauce over tender, bright-green asparagus spears, snuggled next to a broiled, ruby-red tomato smothered with huge pieces of our beloved blue crab. It was a lovely, creative dish.
On the beef front, the 6-ounce filet delivered a tender plug of meaty flavor intensified by an elegant port-wine reduction. We found the spinach fondue to be an odd, yet delicious side. It was a flat splatter of finely pureed creamed spinach. Think of it as an artistic puddle of green cream. For lack of knowing exactly how to eat it, we swished our steak through it for an extra flavor boost. A ramekin of lobster mac and cheese completed the plate. It was a silky rendition of the old favorite, hinting of Parmesan and white cheddar. But where was the lobster? (Or was that the miniscule pink shavings sporadically unearthed amid the orecchiette?)
Clever desserts tap into happy associative memories. A fun root-beer float with cookies (macadamia white chocolate, Heath Bar, and peanut butter) reminded us of dad, who loved the fizzy beverage. A moist mini Jewish apple cake with vanilla ice cream reeled us back to Thanksgivings past for one of our favorite after-turkey finishes. A bite of the small pineapple-upside-down cake—and there was mom making the dessert in her cast-iron pan. The chocolate flourless cake? Okay, we were on our own with the seductively dark-chocolate wedge of pudding-like decadence that got even better with drizzles of chocolate ganache and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The sweet side of the menu is definitely worth sticking around for whether you’re there for a lighter repast or more formal meal. When Crush delivers, and for the most part it does, we can only be glad that this pretty, white-tablecloth restaurant has been resurrected under Chaustit.