Nov. 7 2011 05:46 PM

Solana Beach spot offers awesome polenta and tasty budino

Crush’s polenta: almost as good as Grandma Irene’s
Photo by Jenny Montgomery

Crush feels quite posh. Not in an overly fancy, white-tablecloth sense, but posh like a well-oiled machine. On a recent visit, there was a professional, fast-moving staff; a pretty, homogenous and well-heeled Solana Beach crowd; and live jazz in the corner (plus one poor 9-year-old wearing his fanciest sweater vest at dinner with his parents).

The dining room is expansive and crowded with people eager to check out the Italian fare on the menu. If you just want to lounge and peruse the wine menu, you'll find ample seating in the front of the restaurant, including a number of beautifully organic chairs crafted out of wine barrels by local artist Gustaf Rooth.

Even in late fall, one menu special was the panzanella salad filled with explosively juicy tomatoes the color of sunshine and hunks of ciabatta that soaked up the oily dressing without turning into limp sponges of dough. 

My mother always reminds me that when she was growing up in the Rust Belt in the '50s and '60s, polenta with maple syrup was her mother's humble dessert for her three kids. I always send Grandma a silent apology for being wasteful when I pay nine bucks for a fancy mason jar filled with the lush cornmeal. But even Grandma Irene might approve of Crush's decadent and steamy appetizer version of the ultimate peasant food. The quaint jar arrives at your table snapped shut, but once opened, it emits the earthy, fecund smell of truffled mushrooms. There's a touch of sweet balsamic and salty parmesan, and before you know it, you're scooping and scraping every last grain from the bottom of the jar.

Though they claim they're known for their house-made pasta, the well-edited menu doesn't give you as many choices as you'd expect—only three or four. I went classic and ordered the tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce, as the menu claimed it was an “old school 6 hour ragu.” I wasn't in the kitchen with a stopwatch, but the meaty ragu was both rib-sticking and delicate. Everything was broken down into a tender, caramelized, hearty sauce that still managed to balance beefy heft with the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes. The noodles themselves were toothy the way only fresh pasta can be. With fresh ricotta and herbs, this classic dish never gets old if done well.

Another classic that Crush knocks out of the park is the Chicken Picatta. The key is to pound that darn chicken until it's flat, submissive and fork-tender. I haven't tasted a picatta this delicious in awhile. The sauce runs right up to the creamy line without turning into a cloying béchamel, and the enormous caper berries garnishing the plate are a fun way to get a burst of brine in your mouth.

When discussing dessert with our server, she gave us some interesting feedback on the Butterscotch “budino.” The first thing she did was reference another restaurant's butterscotch pudding (the outrageously perfect version at Blue Ribbon Pizza). She humbly said Crush's version was “almost as good.” I appreciate the honesty and humility but also wanted to give her and the budino a pep talk. But, as it turns out, she was right. Crush's version is quite good, and beautifully presented, but once she put the memory of Blue Ribbon's butterscotch delight in my head, all I could do was compare. Next time I'll be sure to check out Crush's Sticky Toffee Pudding.

As the weather starts to cool, put on your slickest sweater vest and enjoy a perfect date night. Or, just settle in for a glass of vino and some nice-tasting nibbles.

Write to and Follow Jenny on Twitter @jennymontyinsd.


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