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Fine Wining 

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
When you pass First Crush, or if you idly wander in, the first thing you notice is the lavish street-level wine bar, packed with bons vivants holding vividly colored glasses aloft. There is also a stairway leading downstairs. To the restrooms, you wonder? Yes, and to the restaurant proper. Food, you conclude, must be an afterthought here. This is gloriously not the case, but it's not the last such perplexing incongruity you will encounter.

First Crush has inherited a nice, plush, but minimally adorned space from Fumé, the luxe cigar bar killed by anti-smoking legislation. The dining room is in the form of a purplish mirrored corridor; the tables have white tablecloths. Loud jazz is playing, and the clientele is nicely dressed but casually deported. The restaurant's motto is "San Francisco's shrine to California wine," but the place feels more like a speak-easy than a shrine. Still, it's true: What this restaurant is all about is the wine. The food is moderately stylish, with American flavors that mix seductively with each other, but one is tempted to choose wines first and then pair them with appropriate dishes.

The wine list is long and impressively Californian, with approximately 300 different selections, including 20 half-bottles, emphasizing smaller bottlings both from boutique wineries and the designate labels of the bigger names. Markups are low, and daily wine flights offer a chance to sample by the glass. Thus First Crush is an excellent place to drink a lesser-known wine that you've always loved but rarely meet, or to discover a delightful one that you've never experienced before. The list is carefully compiled by Frank Klein, the owner, who also patrols the floor; he's willing to advise but is never pushy. (If your companion doesn't fancy wine, the bar makes a good cocktail, and in addition sells $2 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Not a joke.)

So it is pleasant to learn that the food is really very good. The menu, prepared by Rick Cunningham, features familiar flavors with an inventive twist. His sea scallop "sandwich" ($8.95) is outstanding, with a couple of plump, perfectly fresh scallops cooked just to the point of creaminess, sandwiched between two shells composed of crisp-fried potato strings, for an excellent contrast of textures. The light lemon butter sauce adds a complementary zing. A butternut squash soup ($5.95) surprises wonderfully: A sure sign of autumn's arrival is the appearance of the requisite thick, filling squash purée on menus, often made even more imposing by crème fraîche or heavy spices. But this version is translucent and very thin, the consistency of a miso broth, with rich vegetable flavors from the stock base almost drowning the mild squash flavor. It is lightly sweetened, possibly with maple syrup, and has a mellow chile bite that warms the throat. Thinly sliced salmon ($7.95) is cured with tequila and brown sugar for a lush but subtle edge that brings out the sweetness of the fish. The accompanying potato pancakes are crunchy but a bit oily -- this dish needs a crisp, refreshing wine to curtail its richness.

Traditional wisdom says artichokes should be enjoyed in the absence of wine, as their bitterness corrupts its flavor, so it is surprising to see a grilled artichoke ($6.95) on the menu. Still, its smoky flavor, tempered by the white wine it is cooked in, permits a full-bodied, fruity sauvignon blanc or semillon to ride right over it unscathed. The artichoke itself is straightforward, served with a cool lemon-cream sauce.

Freshwater trout is one of those foods that needs no seasoning, and that is how it's prepared at First Crush ($13.95). Pray that when you go the trout is the fish of the day -- the halibut, prepared similarly, is nowhere near as good. Grilled in its skin, the trout's white flesh is densely packed and wonderfully delicate, but it is served, unfortunately, with a rich, unattractive, soft bread dressing that's more like a savory bread pudding and does the fish no justice. Also enjoying the mesquite grill are an excellent meaty sliced Sonoma duck breast ($14.95) and a hanger steak ($15.95). The latter is a little grainy in texture, and not as perfectly tender as it could be, but makes up for that with intense, almost gamy, beef flavor.

One of the most intriguing-looking dishes on the menu is the dumpling turnovers with white truffle vinaigrette ($10.95). The dumplings, however, are disappointing. According to the menu, the two turnovers are filled with potatoes, cheese, onions, chives, currants, and sorrel. They are flavorful enough, but the pastry is somewhat tough and potato is the dominant note in the filling. The truffle vinaigrette dresses the accompanying frisée and apple salad, not the turnovers, and is tragically overtruffled.

There are many people in this world -- I used to be among them -- who maintain that the only imperfection possible as far as truffles are concerned is their absence. Truffles' wonderful flavor, though, is due in part to a high concentration of glutamic acid, a substance closely related to MSG. (Avert your eyes, romantics! You thought it was fairy dust?) When too large a dose of truffle is eaten, all sensation of discrete flavor is wiped out and replaced with a tingling in the sinuses and a pounding in the head; the taste is no more enjoyable than that of heavily oversalted food. (Those who have a severe allergic reaction to MSG should beware the truffle as well.) Presumably a course of progressive truffle-eating could be taken to build up a tolerance to high doses, but that would be both costly and unnecessary. Chefs: Moderation is a virtue. All that is called for in any dish is a small amount of perfectly fresh truffle or truffle oil.

As far as dessert is concerned, the only mistake at First Crush is the cheese plate ($7.95). A cheese plate can be a wonderful thing, particularly at the end of a wine-heavy meal, but this one, although prominently advertised on the menu, seems to have been thrown together on short notice from cheeses lying around for cooking purposes. There is a scoop of crumbly Maytag blue, a cube of Sonoma Jack, some shaved dry Jack, and a fetid warm goat cheese whose bitterness cannot be removed from the palate except by brushing one's teeth, and which utterly ruins any dessert wine or digestif that may accompany it. These uninteresting cheeses are served with grapes and slices of mealy pear. It is a shame to have the nastiest dish come at the end of the meal, as it quite literally leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Fortunately, the other desserts are quite good, particularly a very English custard (with a brûlée top) that conceals a layer of delicious berry compote in the bottom of its ramekin ($5). It is not particularly sweet, but very satisfying. Also good is the apple cobbler ($5).

First Crush's wine and food can be top notch. It is odd, though, that some other details have been overlooked. The décor is luxurious, until you step into the unappetizing bathroom area, where the carpet is suddenly replaced with grimy black industrial flooring, and there is an intense smell of cleanser and the general aura of a McDonald's. Another thing -- admittedly minor, though egregious if one has studied this kind of thing -- is the type design. The menus and wine list are distractingly, laughably hard to read as a result of random misplaced italics, sudden changes in type size, misaligned columns, quotation marks that open and never close, and similar lapses. With each subsequent visit to First Crush I feel sure staff will have fixed the menus -- and they never have. It just goes to show that there is considerably more to a restaurant than food, drink, and service. Still, despite the occasional dud or solecism, First Crush is put together with good taste, and, given delicious wine and food at reasonable rates, one can ask for little more.

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Paul Adams

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