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Love at First Bite

[whitespace] First Crush
Stomping Toward Success: First Crush's reliance on wine and food's inherent romance raises the stakes (and the steaks) to a new level.

First Crush's vinocentric menu is an equal blend of the complex and the clever

By Michael Stabile

Food designed around a wine list may be nothing new--the well-respected restaurants of Napa County have long dominated the market. In recent years, however, during the microbrew microrevolution of the late '90s, trend attention focused more on hops and barley food matches, and the importance of grapes was taken for granted. Soon after, all epicureal hell broke loose, and every type of distiller--including Tanqueray, Johnnie Walker and El Tesoro--began offering tasting classes and predictable cuisine pairings (tequila with Tex-Mex? How original!) for various alcohols.

First Crush, located on an all-too-short block of Cyril Magnin in Union Square, reclaims the importance of wine for well-executed menus. The resident wine cellar houses a decidedly American array of fish and vegetable-friendly whites and robust reds suitable for the overwhelming amount of domestic game such as venison and quail. Frank Klein, managing partner of First Crush, found a way to overcome the San Franciscan reliance on the diner's opening cocktail with innovative "wine flights"--multiple selections of two or three half glasses of wines of varietal similarity--through which connoisseurs both novice and know-it-all can ponder the differences while perusing first and second courses.

Although many food theorists have debated the validity of a generalized American cuisine, it hasn't prevented local restaurateurs from coining phrases and reconstructing ingredients in hopes of staking the first claim in a new culinary movement. When Indigo opened a few years back, it described its blend of Creole, Pacific and Southwestern influences as "New American"; the comfort-chic-oriented Slow Club has adopted the moniker "Contemporary American"; Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn serves "Traditional American"; and, finally, countless knockoffs proffer "Floridian New World" cuisine. First Crush's executive chef, Rick Cunningham, has chimed in with his attempt at a slightly underdefined "Progressive American." Semantic cattiness aside, Cunningham's mixture of regionally specific (New York steak, Alaskan true cod, Georgia quail), but creatively prepared, dishes works.

The Wine Lounge menu, available in the casual first-floor bar, mirrors the first courses offered in the more luxurious, if stifling, downstairs dining room. The American country terrine ($5.95) is a decadent pâtélike combination of duck liver and smoked chicken whose heavily rustic slant is offset by a light date-pear chutney. The slow re-emergence of meat terrines may be the best thing since sliced bread--which luckily happens to be their standard accompaniment. The house-cured tequila and herb salmon ($7.95) was justification enough for the wine flights, since matching the correct white with a dish that includes both horseradish cream and fried lemon is as much a matter of trial and error as it is one of personal taste or the acumen of experience.

Entrees burst with the power of a hunter's sawed-off shotgun. The peppered grilled leg of venison ($15.95) is rare and rich, but lean and tender without being wildly gamy. Herb dumplings float in wine reduction bordered with a semisweet sun-dried blueberry sauce. The dish is as composed as a society matron and counterpointed in the right direction, even if the end result is a little too challenging for a relaxed palate. The Sonoma duck breast ($14.95) is simpler but equally pleasing; it is served with an easygoing squash and wild rice timbale that accents the meat without overpowering it. The horseradish-crusted Alaskan true cod ($12.95) was a minor disappointment due to the soft and bland fish, which was lost behind the biting breaded crust, lemon-parsley potatoes and housemade chive-infused oil.

To both its advantage and detriment, First Crush's dining is tied to the presence and quality of wine. The correct choice can mellow the edginess of a challenging dish or bring out hidden flavors in a seemingly casual one. Like love itself, a good wine has the power to disguise the flaws and highlight the virtues. Approach your evenings out in the same way.

First Crush, 101 Cyril Magnin, 415.982.7874.

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From the April 26, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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