When I was a young winemaking student, the Napa Valley grape harvest loomed large on my educational horizon. As I waded through chemistry and physics courses, I watched with envy as the more advanced students headed off to work the crush.
Finally, I was given the opportunity to flex my newly minted winemaking muscles at a Napa Valley winery. Any romance associated with the crush&emdash;when the grapes are harvested and made into wine&emdash;was quickly dispelled as the sweltering harvest days dragged on and I found myself weighing truckloads of grapes, dragging hoses and performing monotonous lab tests.
The mystery and allure surrounding the crush may have been lost on me, but I’m guessing it’s a powerful, sexy theme for food and wine lovers, as evidenced by the throngs descending on Crush 29 in Roseville. The 29 in the name refers to the highway running through the Napa Valley, and Crush sets up the expectation that your meal will be steeped in the romance of the grape harvest.
I quickly discovered that, while it works well as a theme, the crush doesn’t extend very far beyond the name and the gorgeous close-up photographs hanging on the walls. (A friend described them admiringly as wine porn.) You could imagine yourself in a Napa winery cave while in the restaurant’s cozy, stone-lined dining rooms, but, honestly, why bother? Crush 29, which opened in January, is snazzy, beautiful and refreshingly distinctive. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough of a reason to visit.
The restaurant is dominated by a curious circular dropped ceiling that looms over the bar. Encrusted with thin mica tiles, it looks like a bulky spaceship attempting to land. Fireplaces crackle invitingly in the wine cave dining rooms, and the brisk, electric activity in the bar is like a scene from Sex and the City.
And it is a scene. If I were the chef, I might worry that my food would be lost in the shuffle. But Irie Gengler, formerly of The Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, has assembled a restrained, solid menu.
The lengthy appetizer list ranges from crunchy coconut tiger prawns to lamb lollipops: skewers of marinated lamb tenderloin served with sweet-potato pure. The sesame-glazed artichoke was disappointingly
waterlogged, with an acidic roasted red pepper aioli that fought unpleasantly with the artichoke. More successful was the panko-coated calamari, plump
and crusty, served over colorful mixed greens.
I enjoyed Gengler’s crush salad, a tangle of spring greens tossed with lemony, caramelized apples and candied pecans and adorned with a spoonful of chunky, aromatic banana chutney. And the generously portioned honey chicken salad, though overdressed, was another flavorful option. My foray into the menu’s pasta and risotto section was also well-rewarded: Don’t miss Gengler’s complex rotisserie pork pad thai, laquered with a spicy, peanutty sauce and dotted with mung bean sprouts and scallions. The portabello mushroom risotto was unctuously earthy and satisfying&emdash;I loved the fat, silky chunks of mushroom buried in the creamy rice.
Crush 29 also excels with its stone hearth pizzas. Thin-crusted and pleasing, the pizzas range from the Santa Fe (cumin- and chili-crusted steak with roasted red peppers and corn) to the terrific roasted-eggplant pizza, piled with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and grilled asparagus and zucchini.
Gengler’s specialties include several fish entres, such as a macadamia-encrusted mahi-mahi and an ahi tuna with coconut-plum wine sauce. The enjoyable snap crackle salmon lived up to its name: Its pebbly, crunchy texture did remind me of Rice Krispies. The pistachio-crusted lamb, however, arrived so rare it looked as if it had just been pulled out of its packaging, and the drunken brandy flank steak, though delectably flavored with an intense wild-mushroom ragu, was very, very chewy. Next time I want meat at Crush 29, I might head for the kitchen’s plump bacon-avocado burger or the Swiss cheese-swathed grilled chicken sandwich.
A highly touted red Anjou pear and marzipan tart (praised so persistently by the waitress that I couldn’t bear to miss it) was a wet, heavy, doughy tart shell with whisper-thin slices of dry, flavorless pear and no discernable taste of marzipan. Both the Key lime pie and the toasted coconut cream pie (nontraditional attempts at two very traditional desserts) tasted noticeably stale, and the shredded coconut in the gelatinous coconut pie was so ropy and unpleasant that I pushed the dish aside after the first few bites.
I was amused to see how quickly the Napa crush theme fell flat when we asked our waiter on one occasion for a wine recommendation. After hesitantly suggesting two Zinfandels that he remembered liking, he mumbled, Well, I can’t memorize all these wines. There’s too many. At another meal, the waitress didn’t mention wine at all until we asked. However, the restaurant does offer a lovely selection of wines by the glass, and the markup on bottles of wine is only $15 above retail&emdash;a great deal.
If you’re expecting Crush 29 to transport you to the frenzied Napa Valley grape harvest, you may be disappointed, but I doubt you’ll be disappointed with what it does offer: an exciting and sophisticated new dining option in South Placer County.
Crush 29: 1480 Eureka Road, Roseville; (916) 773-2929; crush29.com
Hours: Mondayâ€“Thursday 11 a.m.â€“11 p.m., Fridayâ€“Saturday 11 a.m.â€“midnight, Sunday 11 a.m.â€“10 p.m.