John On Wine – Crush Italian Steakhouse kicks off special dinner series

By John Cesano

I received a media invite to the first Chef’s Wine Dinner Club event at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah at the end of May. I shared with Jen Dalton, who invited me, that I would use the experience to help me write the section on Crush in a larger column on wine-friendly restaurants I had planned to write.

That column on wine-friendly restaurants will have to wait until another day. The dinner experience at Crush was so outstanding that sharing the night’s food and wine offerings, and letting you know about future wine dinners at Crush is more than merited.

For this first Crush wine dinner, owners Doug and Debbie Guillon couldn’t have provided a better exhibition of how to put on a special wine dinner if they had planned for years.

The evening’s food was paired with three wines from Saracina, with winemaker Alex MacGregor and tasting room manager Cassandra Mortier doing the pouring.

Limited to 46 diners – the number of folks that can fit comfortably at one long table in the private dining room at Crush – the cost of $50 was a spectacular value.

It seemed like a chef’s dream night, almost as if Crush Chef Jesse had been told he had free rein with only one goal: impress.

Dinner started with two passed appetizers; giant cocktail shrimp and oysters on the half shell. I love oysters when they are good, and these were great, made even more delicious by a classic and perfect wine pairing, the 2011 Saracina Sauvignon Blanc made from old vine grapes off a 55-year-old vineyard. The bright minerally lemon-lime citrus zest notes of the Sauvignon Blanc made me want to come back to Crush and get a dozen of these oysters just for myself, they were just so good together. As it was, I skipped a taste of the shrimp for a second oyster.

Dinner was served Italian family style, with large plates of food brought out for guests to serve themselves. Each of the two courses had four different dishes. Over the next two hours there were many “oohs” and “aahs” of happy eating enjoyment as each dish hit the mark.

The first course featured Lamb Tartare, Stuffed Arancini, Lambs Leaf Salad, and Roasted Lamb Meatballs.

Years ago, I ordered the Omakase menu at Morimoto in Philadelphia and it began with Toro Tartare with crispy shallots, caviar, and dashi; melt in your mouth amazing. Chef Jesse’s Lamb Tartare with Meyer lemon aioli, feta, olive infused oil, shallot, and micro green was so good that it tied this dinner to the best I’ve ever had.

The Arancini, or risotto balls, were stuffed with lamb Bolognese, and developed a perfect shell through deep frying. Best Arancini execution ever.

The salad was very good, but it was a salad – so moving on – the Roasted Lamb Meatballs were fantastic, but the real star of this dish was the pomodoro sauce. More than one diner commented that they wanted to scrape any remaining sauce off the plates and take it home.

I enjoyed my first course quartet of dishes with a glass of 2010 Saracina Pinot Noir, Klindt Vineyard. My May 30, 2013 column was all about Saracina, and I loved all three of the Saracina wines poured at Crush as much with dinner as when I tasted them for my column. Gorgeously feminine, dry cherry noted, with soft earthy herb, this wine goes with almost anything – or I can make it go with almost anything by choice.

The second course featured Roasted Rack of Lamb, Lamb Shank “handmade” Ravioli, Creamy Mushroom polenta, and Roasted Root Vegetables.

The stars here for me were the Rack of Lamb with a sage apple gastrique and the polenta with truffle roasted mushrooms, balsamic, and chive. My wine for this course was the 2009 Saracina Old Soul Red, a blend with Zinfandel off 74-year-old vines, Petite Sirah off 75-year-old vines, and Syrah off 114-year-old vines. The lamb was delicious – exactly as it should be – simple and perfect. The polenta was so good, the earthy mushroom providing the night’s strong not-lamb note. Saracina’s Old Soul Red stood up to the big flavors, with big rich berry and cherry notes of its own.

Alex MacGregor dubbed the evening “Lambapalooza.” It certainly was a celebration of lamb.

The evening’s final course, dessert, was a Passion Fruit Panna Cotta with coconut, strawberry, and raspberry. This was a brilliant dessert, not overly sweet, with some actual tart notes to cleanse the palate after a rich and full meal.

Chef Jesse plans to “explore four to five regions of Italy” with his next Chef’s Wine Dinner Club meal, and introduce Brewmaster Dinners as well.

Doug Guillon believes “there is great opportunity (for Crush) in the Ukiah area.” He sees “a great business crowd during the week,” and evening traffic as he is “fortunate being next to two hotels”.

Crush Italian Steakhouse is located at 1180 Airport Park Blvd in Ukiah. To receive notices of future Chef’s Wine Club Dinners, call (707) 463-0700 and tell the hostess that you want to join the Chef’s Wine Dinner Club, then give her your name and email address

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John Cesano has heard that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so he feels very fortunate to have enjoyed a free wine dinner.

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