Crush Groove

No head chef? No problem!

Forget, for a moment, where you are sitting. Forget the room--the perfect white-on-white blankness of the canvas, the accents of richly polished black wood, the carefully arranged flowers and tables laid with clean, spartan cool. Forget the crowds that surround you, the money being brought to bear by top-of-the-hill swells in their fancy shoes and watches that cost more than your first car. Try to forget what dinner here is going to cost you.Forget the menu. Forget that the menu you see today is likely different, in subtle ways, than the menu you would've seen last weekend, and different, in significant ways, than what was being cooked last month. Forget the truffles. Forget the local this and heirloom that. Forget, if you can, the foie gras, sectioned in its own little space on the board—two different preparations of the stuff, a torchon with spiced pears and a seared piece cut from a whole lobe, served with an almond financière, touched with huckleberries, both lavished with singular and individual attention by cooks who understand the unique power and luxury of the swollen livers of ducks and geese.Forget the awards that have, both lately and historically, been lavished on this kitchen. Forget the softly ringing phone at the host's stand by the door and the smooth progress of the service staff in their black house livery, cutting courses across the floor like quiet submarines that leave no wake.Forget everything that came before this instant and everything that might come after, and, for just a moment, sit and watch the kitchen. And listen—really listen.Can you hear that?Silence.The guys in Jason Wilson's kitchen at Crush don't talk. Almost at all. There's no shouting of orders, no yelling for fires or dropped checks or replates. There's no music playing, no hard talk, no discussion of the blonde on 14 or panicked conferences on how to stretch the short demi that the brain-damaged prep cook didn't bother to stock across 57 tables.Sitting at the bar overlooking the action in one of the city's smoothest kitchens, you can actually hear the music of shallots dancing in the pan, the sizzle of a saucier coming out of the oven. No one is banging oven doors open or closed. No one is slinging dirty gear into the pot sink. When someone sets a plate on the rail, they do so quietly and with the reverence of a priest handling a communion wafer. Not only can you hear the rasp of a pan scraping against the iron of a burner, but most of the time that's the loudest sound on the line.When the cooks do speak, they do so quietly and with a shorthand so abbreviated that it's not even slang but more a distilled essence of language. Single words, or even just a gesture, will suffice. There and Now and Here and Wipe and Oil—not whispered, exactly, but soft. Gentle. Spoken with a turn of the head, a dip of the chin, as if to sully the smooth operation of the galley machine with ancillary directions or clarification would be somehow shameful and wrong.Watch them long enough and you get the impression that, in a perfect world, Crush's crew would go an entire night without ever making a sound, without ever raising their heads from their appointed tasks, without ever straying from their positions before the stove, the burners, the garde manger station, or the expo table. You get the impression that all of them would like very badly to achieve this.On Friday night, they worked to do all these things. I'd already polished off an exceptional bowl of handmade tagliatelle twined around bits of duck confit and fresh morel mushrooms so good and so fresh that they tasted like big, bloody bites of the heart of the earth. It was a dish that had flitted onto the menu like a butterfly, that would be gone again as soon as any of its parts (the duck, the morels, the green English peas, the urge to craft pasta) had passed their peak of availability or fascination to the cooks or customers.I'd already eaten all the bread brought to me (beautifully dense rounds of baguette and softened, salted butter—each served in their own unique vessels) and devoured the amuse-bouche (gougères, topped with a snowfall of Parmesan, scooped from a plastic tub of them above the fryer station and, unfortunately, not as great as they ought to be because they were the one thing in the kitchen that appeared to be pre-prepped rather than assembled à la minute). I was doing nothing but sipping a glass of ice-cold Japanese beer and waiting for my next course, so I had time for a little culinary meditation.From my seat at the counter, with only the quiet prattle of the bartender—who, unlike every other bartender everywhere, actually works from inside the kitchen because his post is set on the opposite side of the white counter that divides the European line from the dining floor—and the occasional word from the host behind me as distraction, I listened, observed, and was duly impressed by the unusual, almost impossible tranquillity of the Crush kitchen.And the only thing more impressive than the work of the cooks and the food they were producing?The fact that, on a Friday night, in the middle of the rush, chef Jason Wilson wasn't even there.A common fallacy about big-time chefs holds that the food at any given restaurant is made each night by the guy whose name is on the sign—or attached to the menu or whatever.You eat at Daniel in Manhattan, you eat dinner cooked for you by Daniel Boulud. You eat at Per Se, you eat food made by Thomas Keller. Drop a chunk of change at Jean Georges and Mr. Vongerichten will not only be prepping your red snapper and searing off your entrecôte, but coming into the dining room when you're done to give you a massage and lend you a pen for signing the credit-card slip.That's the lie.The truth is that what you're eating is not food prepared by the name chef attached to the restaurant you find yourself in, but his or her cuisine.And that's a big difference.A chef is different from a cook in one vital way. While cooks cook, from the lowliest morning prep donkey up through the exec sous and chef de cuisine, a chef leads cooks—the boss of bosses, the brains behind the operation, the man or woman to whom most credit is given and on whom all responsibility ultimately falls.And while Crush in Seattle is not Per Se and Wilson certainly not Jean-Georges Vongerichten with his manifold and far-flung operations, it can still be said that the measure of any chef is how his crew performs when he's not in the house.Why? Because he trained them. Because he writes the menus and sets the tone and culture of the line and sees the big picture better than the guys down in the trenches. Because a cook on his own, in the best possible world, is supposed to operate like a machine—flawlessly executing the vision of the chef, a hundred times a night, 300 nights a year, without any civilian on the floor ever having the least suspicion that it's not Keller or Boulud or Jason Wilson wiping the plates and sweating over the precise placement of the scallops in the pan.Yes, on many nights Wilson himself does stand in the perfect calm and quiet of his open kitchen, with its battered gear and lovingly polished little copper saucepots that home cooks go all weepy over when they see them in the Williams-Sonoma display. Even with his freshly minted James Beard Award (as Best Chef Northwest) and five years in this location, his trusted crew of silent automatons and the almost unbelievably smooth ballet of creation that goes on here, Wilson does still stand post in his own kitchen and cook. Early in the week, he preps—getting his hands into the base components of every dish on the menu. When business ramps up on Thursdays and across the weekend, he stands at expo. On Sundays, he puts on a snap-front jacket and washes dishes to give his dish guy a night off.But because Wilson recently ended up in the hospital and lately has been recovering at home, he wasn't there the Friday night that I was. And it didn't matter a bit. Every cook in that kitchen worked as though the ghost of Jason Wilson was hanging over their shoulders, whispering terrible threats—or words of loving encouragement—into their ears.If I had to say something bad about Crush, it would be this: The seats at the counter/bar, looking into the open kitchen, are too short.Seriously, that's about it. I don't love the kind of Woody-Allen-in-Sleepers chairs in the main room (all swirly and white and artsy), and sometimes the service can feel slightly stilted, though less so than one might expect considering the price tags on most of the food. But the overwhelming sensation you get when eating at Crush is that you've been folded into an operation where every opportunity for something to go wrong has already been anticipated, contained, and quietly dealt with five minutes before you arrived. There is a sense of expertise here that is incredibly rare in even the best restaurants.But when I was first shown to the worst seat in the house on my first visit (at the counter, yes, but around the elbow of it, looking at nothing but the arrangement of white orchids and the set tray of handmade chocolates ready for passing), I felt like a kid accidentally seated at the grown-ups' table. The counter edge hit me squarely in the chest when I leaned forward. My arms were up around my shoulders. It was as if I'd suddenly been turned into an Oompa Loompa, frantically trying to shovel bites of gorgeous, citrus-shot hamachi crudo into my mouth—a throwaway dish, the only one on the board showing a less-than-pure heart and throwing off a sense of obligation rather than inspiration—or to eat the short ribs that probably one out of every three customers at Crush order on any given night: simple, dark, and tender braised ribs, laid over a cloud of puréed potatoes with baby carrots and parsley pistou. The short ribs are so good that Wilson can't take them off the menu. Ever.It was such a simple and stupid thing (and, in fairness, not even really the restaurant's fault, because had I been a few inches taller I would've felt just fine), but it stands as a benchmark of how well everything else is done. One seat at the bar is too short: the sum total of my criticism.On Missing-Wilson Friday, while I amused myself watching the clockwork actions of the kitchen staff building entrées, wiping plates, working six small copper pots of sauce at once without ever losing track of which was meant to go where, a waitress quietly delivered my final course. It was not simple, exactly, but controlled—a white plate of black cod, the meat a perfect square of flesh, served with a second square of pork belly that'd been lacquered and slow-roasted and served with a drizzle of green-scallion glace.No vegetables were in evidence on the plate, a bold departure from the protein/starch/veg tradition of the American dinner plate. It instead presented a study in fatty luxury—first the cod, ideally cooked with the skin left on and crisped, the flakes of meat all oily and tasting of nothing but salt and fat and the sea; then the pork belly, ultimate indulgence of the pig-obsessed. Everything else on the plate served only to point up this dramatic excess of soft, slick, and fatty pleasure.This, then, was the Wilson influence: a surfeit of luxury, restrained only by the hands of the cooks whom he'd instructed, balanced against some hypothetical eater's potential tolerance for fatty indulgence. Though the tagliatelle that'd come earlier was perhaps more affecting, and the other plates of tuna, short rib, foie gras, or fried octopus more standard and beloved by Crush's regulars (of whom there are many), it was this one plate of pig and fish—so perfectly paired, so perfectly goofy together—that showed where chef Jason Wilson's mind is today, what chef Jason Wilson can truly do.Even when chef Jason Wilson isn't in the kitchen.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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