Sunday, July 19, 2015

Crushed Red

Urban Bake and Chop Shop

11635 Olive Blvd.
St. Louis (Creve Coeur), Mo.

On the Web.

So I got invited to a media event at a new location for a St. Louis based, growing family of restaurants.
Stop laughing, I am indeed, by every modern definition, a living, breathing, member of the local food media. . .Seriously, I am.
I get these invitations occasionally, mostly I ignore them. No, I just do not want to drive thirty extra miles to sample some freakish chocolate/bacon/beer concoction. . .
This one caught my eye though, mostly because of time of day and location. 6 P.M. about three miles from work, in the direction I go anyhow. Plus, pizza and salad.
Sure, why not.
I asked Amanda if flash photography was allowed, she responded affirmatively almost immediately.
In kind, I responded with my acceptance.
On the day of the event, she even pinged me again. . .
Amanda works as an Accounts Coordinator for Fishman PR. A public relations firm. She's the one who invited me.
I left work at around 5, found the place pretty quickly and had to find a way to kill about forty minutes. Not so hard, the shopping center hosted a Creve Coeur Camera. I parked between the two and . . oops. . . This location of the camera shop was vacant. Only thirty five minutes to kill.
So I walked around the shopping center, that ate up about five more. Fortunately I stumbled across a Crown Vision Center.
Yeah, Angel's been nagging me to get new glasses. My prescription ran out about a year and a half ago. . Since then, almost daily I am told, I complain about it to Angel. So she nags me about it.
The problem with glasses is that they change your appearance. Unlike underpants, socks or ascots, people will notice your glasses. I don't like being noticed.
I browsed around a bit, tried few frames, but was generally dissatisfied with the choices. It did though, burn up some time.

The Place;
An upscale shopping center on busy Olive Boulevard, near I-270.
The place looked nice. Well laid out, nice floors, walls ceilings, matching furniture, the sure sign of a significant front-end investment.
Another man was asking the available staff person about the 'event'. I joined the discussion, we were shown to the back. I spotted Amanda before she spotted me. She apparently hadn't looked up my Linkedin profile as some people might routinely do when they are about to meet someone for the first time. . . Is that stalky? When we did meet, she checked me off her list and offered to get me something to drink. Sure, water.
There were a few others mingling around, one lady seemed friendly and curious so I sat across from her while scoping out for better options. I'm a guy, it's what we do.
Robin was with I-Heart Media. A company name I recognized from a few local radio stations. I-Heart owns about 850 radio stations. KLOU in St. Louis is one of them. I assured Robin that I would listen sometime, if I could remember how to change the station on the car radio.
Shortly after we sat, a handsome younger man stopped by and introduced himself as Powell Kalish, a name I recognized, but Robin did not.
I had done some advance research. This was one of the founders/owners. Powell, his late father, Ralph and Chris LaRocca, a man with many, many successful restaurant ventures under his belt, started the business and concept a few years back.
Robin was a true people person though, quite a bit more charming than I, so he spoke mostly to her. After one question about the 'theme' of the place, he went through a few catch phrases. I added one that I'd read on the place's web site earlier. "Artisan-fast." He seemed pleased.
I wasn't worried about Robin as a rival, or competitor. As soon as she showed me her business card I knew we were there for entirely different reasons. I was there for content for my silly blog, she was looking for potential advertisers.
She'd brought along Cindy Collins, on-air talent for KLOU. Cindy introduced herself as a DJ.
Chris, Cindy, Candace
"They still make those?" I asked.
You see I don't listen to music on the radio if I don't have to. I have nothing against music on the radio, it's just that I cannot control it and I rarely enjoy enough of a particular genre to stick to one for more than a song or two.
I will try to find the station though, I don't mind living on the very edge occasionally.

Chris came by and chatted for a bit. Once again, Robin's people skills proved more charming than my own dour expression and steno-pad note taking. I actually enjoyed her company.
Robin, if you are reading this, my long time fans can tell you that that statement is quite a compliment. I'm not a people person.
The back area was filling up, business cards were being swapped among strangers as furiously and freely as STD's in the 70's. Yes, I have business cards. Because I'm a member of the media.
Chris then called the buzzing group to order and led us out for a tour of the kitchen area. It was easy to find, completely exposed to the front area as it was.
I was eager to see that custom-made pizza ovens that he had helped design. The temperature displays on the sleek, modern devices were flickering between 625 and 635 degrees. That's hot enough to melt lead (Pb). It's a temperature you'd expect on a more pleasant day on the planet Mercury, but for we water-based life forms, this is pretty hot.
The stacked ovens run on gas and had rotating stone trays inside, like a microwave.
He explained that this was an innovation unique to Crushed Red. This oven made it possible to fully cook a pizza in ninety seconds.
Of course, one of the problems for lunch crowds for a pizza place, is that traditionally, pizza takes a long time to prepare and then cook. A pizza joint, other than those disgusting pizza buffets (you know which ones) is not often a viable spot for a busy, cubical-dwelling worker bee to have lunch.
Speed up the process though and you may be onto something. Of course, the dough is vital to this process as well.
When they opened up, they hired a guy from Panera Headquarters. He happened to know a few things about dough. Crush Red developed a dough recipe that would taste good, cook fast while maintaining a quality texture. I would have to see for myself.
The front line though, was the salad prep line. Crushed Red serves pizza and chopped salad. That's pretty much it. I don't mind this. I find it quite appealing.
And the chopping is actually the thing.
We were given a demonstration by Candice, the operations manager. She showed us the custom-made mezzaluna knife. Mezzaluna means 'Half Moon' in Italian. ('Halve Maan' in Dutch.)  It is a curved knife, in Crushed Red's version with two blades.
We have a smaller domestic version at home, it was sold 'As Seen on TV' as an 'Ulu' chopper. We love the thing for finely chopping onions, peppers, fingers, etc. So I understood the concept.
Crushed Red uses a customized, limited edition model, only available to the public once per year. There's a waiting list. You can get something very similar, without the engraving, on line and at fine cutlery shops.
Candice was a pro, a true knifing artist as she walked and deftly rocked the tool over greens spread out on a flat chopping block. Amazingly fast. The demo was short, she filled a bowl in no time, then added some un-chopped toppings, turkey, toasted seeds, dried fruit, etc. It looked really, really good.
The salad she made had apple in it.
Chopped greens+apple? Wrap it up and call it a Dennis Salad. When I make my own salads at home, three or four times a week, I chop the greens and add an entire chopped apple. Then maybe some protein, cheese, etc. Robin and I discussed this, we were of the same mind on this. We hate getting a salad at a restaurant that needs further fussing with. Of course, if you chop greens, you can't leave them setting around very long. So if you have a salad bar, you have to leave things in larger chunks.
We then were told to line up and order our food.
They have predefined salads and pizzas, but they also allow you to build your own, if you have that kind of confidence.
I don't.

The Food:
I scanned the prominent electronic menus/ordering kiosks. The pre-defined salads and pizzas were
simple enough to choose between. I was going with standards, nothing fancy. I asked for a Farmers Market salad, small, much like the one Candace had chopped. Pizza was a little tougher, but I finally decided on the sausage pepperoni and mushroom option. This would make comparisons to other pizzas easier.
The folks behind the counter took over. The chopping began in earnest. The crew was obviously well trained and disciplined. The owner had referred to this as 'the show' which means he taught his staff to prepare food while being on display to customers.
We were offered a wide selection of wines and beers, I passed. I shouldn't be allowed to drink and blog.
Some folks from Modern Brewery were there for the event, passing out samples. I had to refuse. I simply don't have a trained palate for beers. I didn't want to taste it and then have to write that it was eerily reminiscent of opossum urine. That's pretty much what most craft beers taste like to me. Non-craft beers taste worse. But that's just me.
I rejoined Robin at the table. We had chosen the same salad.
During the demonstration, the owner had mentioned 'house-made honey mustard dressing'. When queried about my choice of dressing, I almost chose an off the shelf standard, but decided that even though 'honey-mustard' sounded a lot to me like 'fish- ice cream' I once again manned up and picked it. YOLO.
The salad was absolutely awesome, including the dressing. Flawless, perfect. Fresh, chopped perfectly dressed. Robin agreed, this was exactly what we wanted when we went out for a salad.
The pizza took a bit longer than I thought it would, but still in much less time than a typical pizza parlor. Part of the delay, in my opinion, is that there were a dozen or so pizzas being made and delivered, but there was no connection between the pizza and the person or table. The servers had to go from table to table asking everyone if they ordered the one they were carrying. I'm not sure if this was an 'event' issue or if this also happens in the front with non-VIP's. (Yes, I was considered a VIP, I am a member of the media, you know.)
It was worth the wait though. Roughly the size and shape of a fully deflated football. It may have only taken ninety seconds to cook, but the crust and toppings were done perfectly. A crispy, but not burnt or doughy crust, the cheese all melty, the sausage still sizzling.
The size was single serving perfect as well, plenty there, but little to waste. It had that 'artisan' look and taste. This was not discount, plain-label meat. The pepperoni and sausage were spicy and fresh. The mushroom flavor I never discerned, but for me, that's not a bad thing. I like a little mushroom, but, as with green peas, too much just overpowers everything else. I asked Robin about hers, first about the crust.
"It's like a thick flatbread, fluffy on the inside but not at all heavy."
I then asked her about the taste, whether it was yeasty. "I don't know what yeast tastes like. I can't identify that." She answered, seemingly baffled by the admission. I agreed that it was what she said, but I can taste/identify yeast, and it was there, but subtle, which for me is a very good thing.
For a simple, single serve pizza, it was as good as I've had anywhere, anytime. I was equally glad it was not St. Louis style.
A small salad, a tasty pizza, a wide range of wines and beers, I can see why this young enterprise is thriving and expanding. (In a few months, the lucky folks in Denver, Colorado will be able to enjoy it as well!)

Earlier in the evening we had been handed VIP cards, individually numbered. We were told there would be a drawing. It was time. I had seen the table with the swag bags. In front of the bags was a nice basket chock full of interesting things.
Two bottles of wine, some jars of crushed red and pickled peppers and a box that I assumed held a Crushed Red mezzaluna.
I couldn't tell what was in the swag bags.
Chris drew a number, of course I didn't win. I'm not much of a winner when it comes to winning things.
They handed out the swag bags though, that was cool.
I bid Robin a kind farewell, she was getting ready to leave as well.
When I got home I spread out the swag. Not bad, not bad at all. A bottle of Edge Wild crushed red wine, a plastic thermos mug, a key ring/bottle opener from the beer guys, a beer koozie, and a $15 gift card.
I gave the gift card to my co-worker Tim. He'd expressed an interest in the place after I told him about the media event. His wife liked it too when he told her aboutit, the 'Artisan Fast' catch phrase seemed to be the ticket. I've never met Tim's wife but I have heard him talk to her on the phone a few times. At first Tim didn't want to take the card. I assured him It had cost me nothing so it was like the restaurant giving it directly to him, I was not planning to go back for several months and would likely forget about the card by then.
I don't remember what happened to the wine.
I am under no obligation to Crushed Red, FishmanPR, or anyone else to say nice things about the place. There were no strings attached, no questions asked and no conditions listed, whatsoever. Nor does a free meal and a swag bag really influence my opinion. I can afford meals out and half the stuff in the bag will end up in that one kitchen drawer. You know the one.
Places take a big risk blind-inviting bloggers to events such as these. I am perfectly willing and capable of giving a bad review when it is deserved.
But I just can't this time.
I really liked the place. I liked the concept, the green-ness of the operation, the owners, the staff, even
the young man that bussed the table. (I asked him how he liked working there. "Best restaurant I've ever worked at." Was his instant reply.)
The menu, single serving pizza and chopped salad? Sold! Faster, yet fresh food? Brilliant!
If I lived closer to one of the locations I'd definitely consider going there more often.
It was modern, efficient, clean, and the food was definitely A+.
Highly recommended!
There, the media has spoken.

Oh, and special thanks to Robin. She was fun, funny and a seriously decent person for letting me impose. She even let me take a photo of her!

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