Crush Bistro: Liberating dining hard to resist [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

Crush Bistro El Segundo
Crush Bistro in El Segundo. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic (AlexandraMandekic.com)
el segundo restaurant

Crush Bistro in El Segundo. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic

Some restaurant meals invite introspection, even demand it; when a chef has sculpted some ornately garnished tower of unlikely ingredients, and served it forth, you don’t just toss it back and see what’s next. It would be like sprinting through the Louvre, glancing briefly at the Mona Lisa as you sped by.

This, in a nutshell, is why some people don’t like some artisan restaurants. While the effects are carefully crafted and spectacular when they work, a certain joie de vivre is missing. There are days when culinary Da Vincis and Titians don’t satisfy us, and we hunger for vigor and broad strokes – the food equivalent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, perhaps.

Crush Bistro, the new-ish restaurant onMain Street in El Segundo, satisfies that craving with stylish but not fussy food in a modern, hip atmosphere. The food is good and inexpensive, but most important, it is fun. When this was Kip’s, there was a self-conscious artistry at work, a studied attempt to reinvent Southern food. New owner Alvin Ching took the place in an entirely different direction, with both a full and self-service wine bar and a menu stocked with inexpensive small plates.

When we arrived on a midweek evening, it was an interestingly varied scene. Dating couples were at tables, a table of hipsters sat in the back experimenting with the self-service wine machine (about which more later), a few serious people in suits talked business, while in one corner a group of women with small children chatted while their kids burbled to each other or played with toys in their strollers. The lively multi-generational atmosphere was charming, like a real village bistro where everyone comes to drink and dine. The short menu of small plates had a mix of American and Asian dishes, all modestly priced – not a thing was over seven dollars. Our server said the specialty of the house was crostinis, so we ordered two – one with smoked salmon and one with homemade pate, and turned to the important matter of what wine to have with it.

I had been to self-service wine bars before in San Francisco, places where you are issued a mag-strip card that you use to obtain measured pours of various wines. You put a certain amount of cash on the card, and then are free to sample everything in two, four, or six ounce pours. The theory is that the wine is fresh in a nitrogen-sealed system and at the perfect temperature, and you have the option to sip your way through a wide selection. The flaw is that for this to work, you have to either know the wines, or have them very well described so you have some idea what you are getting – otherwise it’s vino roulette. Unfortunately there were no descriptions at all posted, and I was only familiar with two of the sixteen wines on offer, so I had to go to the bar to ask. Since I actually like talking about wine with people who know and like it, this was no great chore, and I ended up with a glass of 2009 Flying Nymph Rhone-style blend from Paso Robles. (I was told that the descriptions will be posted on the wine machines real soon now.)

By the time I got this back to the table the crostinis had arrived – most things arrive quickly here since they are not time-consuming preparations. Crostinis are the universal cocktail party canapé, something tasty on toast garnished with something else, and they’re fun food even when they’re on a tray that’s being passed. These were better than party standard, smoked salmon with a lemon-dill cream, shaved radish, and sprinkling of dill; and duck pate with pickled grapes and chives along with dabs of yellow and red beet relishes. I preferred the salmon slightly, because the beet relishes were tasty but somehow unconnected to the pate, which was good by itself. We asked for more bread to mop up the relishes.

We continued with Crush’s version of a wedge salad, which was the only item of our meal that was not well thought out. This is usually made with a literal wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with chopped tomato, bacon, and blue cheese crumbles, with blue cheese dressing. Crush uses green leaf lettuce and strong pickled onions along with whole cherry tomatoes, and offers several homemade dressings so it doesn’t look nor taste like any other wedge salad I’ve had. I think I might have liked it better had it been differently named, because this set up expectations that weren’t delivered. The two dressings we sampled, homemade blue cheese and turmeric, were both good, but the strong onions didn’t come together with the other ingredients.

We ordered two more plates as main items, Vietnamese-style summer rolls and a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and I went in search of a glass of wine for my wife. She had liked the Flying Nymph so much that we decided to try their white blend, and the owner graciously gave her a taste. It passed with flying colors and she ordered a glass, which like all others was modestly priced.

The mac and cheese wasn’t my style but pleased my wife greatly – it was in a cream sauce with a mild white cheese rather than the heavy, cheesy cheddars that I favor. The brief time in the broiler after sprinkling with breadcrumbs gave it a little texture and interest, though I’d prefer a bit of something else added, perhaps a bit of onion and bacon or ham. The Vietnamese summer rolls are offered with tofu, chicken, or beef, and on this evening I opted for plain tofu. The rolled crepe stuffed with herbs, noodles, lettuce, cabbage, and tofu was served with what was described as a spicy peanut sauce, in actuality somewhat mild; I’d have liked a dash of chili oil to jump it up. It was pleasant and fresh, a healthy and tasty main item or shared appetizer.

Dessert options were limited to ice cream, which didn’t interest us – I assume the typical customer decides to have a dessert wine or another glass of whatever worked well at dinner. When we totaled the bill it was just under forty dollars for a light but enjoyable dinner for two with three glasses of wine, which is a bargain any way one looks at it. On another visit at lunch I tried their Vietnamese sandwiches, baguettes with meat and a mix of fresh and pickled vegetables, and I found much to like even without wine.

Crush is new in town and they’re still tinkering with the menu, but the lively atmosphere, modest prices, and unpretentious but creative food make the place one to watch. This space on Main Street has been several restaurants in the past few years, all of which had high concepts and prices to match. Crush offers style on a budget, and it’s a combination that I predict will succeed – there’s certainly nothing else like it in town.

Crush is at 403 Main Street in El Segundo. Open midweek for lunch and dinner, Saturday dinner only, closed Sunday. Beer and wine served, wheelchair access good, kids OK, street parking only. Website at TheCrushBistro.com, phone 310-335-0414.

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