“Crush’-ing it in High Point

by Brian Clarey

A sign that hangs over the door to the kitchen at Crush 1345 reads: “Artist’s Entrance.” That should tell you something about the way Ronnie and Noell Stevens regard the preparation and presentation of food.

I’ve been eating with and writing about them for years, so I don’t have to consult my files to tell you that Ronnie is a graduate of Johnson & Wales culinary school, that the couple created and ran Pomodoro in High Point’s Time [sp?] Square for seven years and that they have a flair for bringing haute cuisine to the practical palate.

The first time I ate at Pomodoro, the kitchen was larger than the dining room. And I had a lot more hair. Over the years they tripled their dining space, built a friendly, casual bar and amassed a collection of regulars who come for the tuna and stay for a drink with Ronnie after he closes the kitchen.

Crush 1345 occupies that same space on Main Street, with a fresh color palette, a new sign above the bar adorned with grapes and vines, and a concept that is not so much a menu as a testament to a modern style of dining out.

There are appetizers, described as “American tapas,” and salads, with a few interesting chopped items, and entrees, like the steak du jour, and desserts, baked by Ronnie’s mother each day.

But other headings on the menu give choices for those with smaller appetites, tighter budgets or pick-and-graze diners.

Crush plates are tightly portioned meals that leave room for appetizers or desserts. Smaller plates are side dishes that can be ordered a la carte or paired with an entrée. They offer open-faced sandwiches that come with fries. And they have pizzas built upon shredded-potato crusts that can be eaten as a meal or shared as an appetizer.

The items range from Southern home-style favorites like beef and sausage meatloaf, shrimp and grits, white cheddar olive nuggets, a fried oyster po-boy and a crab cake, to loftier dishes like brie and artichoke dip, scallops with raspberry balsamic glaze and fruit pico de gallo, and artichoke béchamel pizza.

Each month, Crush features a menu item designed by someone in the community, the prize in a contest open to all on the restaurant’s website. A dollar from each sale goes to a charity of the winner’s choosing. This month is Jill Carr’s beef tenderloin en croute for the benefit of Good Friends. Next month: breast cancer. Ronnie says he’ll paint a pink ribbon on each plate with a bit of sauce.

Thankfully I don’t have to choose what to eat. I don’t actually place an order when I visit Ronnie and Noell – the wife and I just sit down, order a couple martinis and just let dinner happen to us. We only pull this maneuver when we know we are in trusted hands.

We start with cilantro-lime ahi, a dish made from thin, rare strips of tuna with corn and bean salsa, flour tortilla chips and manchego and avocado queso. Okay: It’s nachos. But it almost seems wrong to tag them with that appellation. They disappear quickly.

Next, server Jay Hayes brings out a couple beautiful plates, each bearing a portion of eggplant fries with an aioli dipping sauce in an egg cup beside them, and a crab cake atop a bed of deep-fried spinach.

A word about crab cakes: I sometimes make fun of them because they are available in virtually every sit-down restaurant in the Triad, and people still treat them as this sort of exotic treat, as in, “So tell me… how are the crab cakes?”

The crab cake at Crush is a small piece of mastery, no bigger than a marshmallow but dense with crab and flavored with a delicate mirepoix, crisped in the deep fryer and finished off in the oven.

I could have eaten a dozen of them.

I am then served a filet mignon, sided with oatmeal-laced mashed sweet potatoes. My steak knife looks like a switchblade, one of Noelle’s flourishes that, like the egg cups, give the joint just the right dose of quirk. She says she bought all the plates from Harris Teeter.

My steak is the night’s special, an arrangement that allows the Stevenses to feature ribeyes, NY strips, skirt steaks and the like without being locked into a regular meat order. It is everything a tenderloin should be – tasty and tender, with grill marks so perfect the thing could have been cooked on a sheet of metal mesh.

My wife has before her a bowl of shrimp and grits, accented with a couple diver scallops. And although I feel similarly towards shrimp and grits as I do crab cakes, the few bites I try put me to swoon – shrimp that burst to the bite, savory butter sauce, a modest portion of cheddar grits that leave you wanting.

The broccoli casserole, as a side, had crispy bits of water chestnut within. After tasting it I added water chestnuts to my ongoing mental grocery list.

By the time we get dessert, a banana pudding layered with crumbled oatmeal-caramel cookies, the place is just about empty. Ronnie’s got a whiskey and Noell’s on the phone. I can’t wait to go back to this place.

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