CRUSH (455 King West, at Spadina, 416-977-1234). Complete dinners for $80 per person (lunches $65), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $28/$17. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Blame Gordon Ramsay. It’s the fault of the foul-tempered, foul-mouthed TV chef that the Brits have gone positively bonkers for gastro-pubs.
His chain of massively successful restos – coming soon to Toronto in the 80-storey Borat building at Bloor and Yonge, if culinary scuttlebutt is correct – have spawned an industry revolution. Goodbye, stuffy French haute cuisine; hello, upscale comfort food reconfigured with locally sourced artisanal product.
Now that tapas are as passé as quiche Lorraine, gastro-pubs are right on schedule to be the next big thing. Even so, it’s a bit of a shock to discover that Crush Wine Bar has ditched Gallic gastronomy for nouvelle bangers ’n’ mash.
“Six years in, it was time to make some changes,” says Crush owner Jamieson Kerr. “We’re ready to take all that we’ve learned and move forward to the next stage.”
Along with a card from current chef Michael Wilson that now includes pork scratchings ($3), bacon sarnies ($11) and pork chops sided with bubble and squeak ($29), Crush also sports a stylish new redesign courtesy of Ralph Giannone (Bar Italia, Terroni). The room’s long stand-up bar is now flanked with red leather seats, and a floor-to-ceiling chalk-board wine list advertises more than 200 available vintages. Dig that cozy fireplace, too.
Seated in the more formal back room, we have a view of the open kitchen that’s partially obscured by a photographic scrim of scarf-waving footie supporters. We’re soon tucking into one of the most memorable meals of the season.
A starter of Dorset mackerel ($12) finds the expertly grilled sardine sibling plated over tender stalks of both green and white asparagus, purple-stemmed baby beet sprouts and a pool of parsley-fied salsa verde.
Chef’s charcuterie board ($15) groans with tissue-thin slices of Niagara Specialties prosciutto as well as a thick wedge of insanely delish foie gras, pistachio-and-prune terrine and a scoop of impossibly rich pâté. But since there’s no bread to spread it on, I wonder how its meant to be ingested short of spreading it on the cold cuts. By syringe, perhaps?
The oddly named London Particular soup ($9) takes its name from the famous pea-soup fogs that regularly blanket the capital. No Habitant out of a can this. Instead, find a deliriously minty vegetarian bisque thick with fresh spring peas finished with chives, crème fraîche and smoky slivers of optional pork hock.
The crisply golden crust of the pot pie du jour ($16) gives way to a gorgeously beefy gravy swimming with cubed steak, morels and other wild mushrooms, a salad of watercress and frisée in buttermilk dressing on the side. Knowing that many local restaurants refuse to make substitutions (that would be you, Edward Levesque), when I’m offered the choice of fries or salad to go with my house burger ($14), I ask if I can get a half-order of each.
Our otherwise charming server gives me a quick look that says, “You’re one of those annoying half ’n’ half people, aren’t you?” but smiles and replies, “Of course you can.” He even throws in a “sir.”
The burger itself is quite terrific, 6 ounces of quality ground chuck layered with double-smoked bacon and creamy Lincolnshire Poacher cheese. Served on an exceptional Fred’s bun, it comes dressed with dill pickle, ripe tomato and red onion, leafy wild arugula replacing plain ol’ romaine.
Back in the day, Crush’s take on steak frites was one of the more creditable in town. Now rebranded “steak and chips” ($19), other than a 10-ounce Kawartha Farms strip loin standing in for an unidentified hanger, the dish remains virtually unchanged – except that it’s now four bucks cheaper. But why pre-salt the fries when there’s a salt (and pepper!) mill on every table?
And who can resist dessert when it’s Sticky Toffee Pudding ($10)? Forget Crosse and Blackwell and imagine instead a cylinder of figgy date-riddled sponge cake infused with butterscotch and topped with gooey caramel sauce, house-made vanilla bean ice cream and a chocolate-streaked tuile.
Though it isn’t the first local beanery to jump on the gastro-pub bandwagon, Crush deserves credit for shifting gears and staying slightly, if ever so slightly, ahead of the pack. Does the name Cowbell ring a bell?