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At Cru, executive chef Shea Gallante's modern European restaurant and wine-lovers paradise, every tables gets four rounds of little snacks to start the evening off on the right foot.
On the night we were there, we were served petite ice cream cones fashioned from the sheer ruby red beet chips, and were piped with an earthy red beet puree, that was topped off with tart goat cheese crème fraiche. Then came the golden, grape-sized bacalau croquettes, and then two mini-grilled cheese sandwiches, skewered so they resembled grilled cheese lollipops. Each hot and crispy fontina sandwich was wrapped in prosciutto—a proper salty foil for the nutty cheese. The final snack was a tiny tart the size of a quarter. The pastry crust was made with Montassio cheese and was filled with a creamy whipped robiola mousse. Pop it in your mouth—the whole thing, yes—and you get this great wave of flavors and textures.
Shea Gallente, 31, Cru's young and devastatingly handsome executive chef, is not kidding around at Cru. This is serious, hi-brow, cerebral cuisine prepared from stunning ingredients, with flawless technique. Meals are careful, plot-driven dramas. This is not Reality TV, and Shea is not another Average Joe.
The list of first courses begins with organic white polenta and olive oil soup with burrata, lovage and hazelnut ($12). It is miraculous. But it's not really a soup as much as an ode to burrata. Skate, often typecast with lemon and white wine, is thrown into the role of Indie movie star here. Dusted in a light powder of crushed pignoli nuts ($14), the skate is seared just enough to give its flesh a little caramelization and to allow the meat to remain moist and sweet.
Another must have is the rabbit cotechino ($14). This is Shea's take on the classic giant pork sausages in hog casing served with mustarda, lentils, spicy mustard and salsa verde on Christmas eve in Italy. His pastas, all made in house, illustrate lessons learned at Felidia. The most brilliant of them all is the Vialone Nano Risotto ($14/$23)—a lush, rich risotto topped with west coast sea urchin, folded around a yellow tomato reduction. It tastes exotic, like a far off land, and seduces you—coating your mouth with the velvet brininess of the sea and the sweetness of summer's best tomatoes.
Gallante also knows his way around a fish. His technique in every dish we tried was flawless. Nothing was overcooked, nothing dry, nothing rubbery, and nothing chewy. If you are looking for a restaurant where technique is paramount and perfect, you will find it at Cru. Lobster ($36) was also exquisite—juicy, plump pieces of a Maine Soft shell critter served in a light stew of garlic-braised escarole with Corona beans, nuggets of fresh bacon and a bit of horseradish for a subtle mark of heat.
There are two wine lists—one for red, and one for white. Each leather loose-leaf volume weighs in at about 3 pounds. (If you care to lift some light weights in between courses, be my guest.) To the credit of Sommelier Robert Bohr, the 3-thousand strong list is fairly simple to navigate. (Prices range from $22 to $16,000 per bottle.) If you'd rather go by the glass there are 52 selections, available by the 6-oz. and 3-oz. pours ranging from $7-$150 for the full glass and $4-$75 for half.
And now, for the bad news. While I was so impressed with the food at Cru—really, Shea is reaching high here and from where I sat the other night, easily making his mark—I must say the design of the restaurant is quite dire.
Located in the space that was the sunny, airy Washington Park, Cru is the polar opposite. It is a library as restaurant—quiet, serious, and sedate almost to the point of being dreary. This space is notorious for restaurant failures. It is one of those cursed locations. So I am worried. I know people will come for Shea's food and for the matchless wine list. But the room doesn't give you vibe. It doesn't beckon. It is just sort of there.
Review By: Andrea Strong