Thursday, April 30, 2015

CRAVE American Kitchen & Sushi Bar Food Review

Roasted Chicken Breast

Westfield Montgomery continues its culinary metamorphosis with its best addition yet... CRAVE American Kitchen & Sushi Bar. It's so good in fact, I might even start shopping again (just so I can grab something wonderful to eat, before and/or after.)

Choices abound, especially at lunch; but fear not, CRAVE is miles above the restaurant chain options (Legal Sea Foods) you used to find at Montgomery Mall. Look no further than Executive Chef Joel Hassanali's six Signature dishes... a delectable mix of Kogi Beef Tacos, Soft Shell Crab BLTs and more. Even the flatbread pizzas are sophisticated, led by an addictive Duck Confit with fig marmalade for $14.95. More on that, in a bit.

Duck Confit Flatbread

All meals at CRAVE should begin with an ultra affordable Bread Basket ($1.95.) I counted five varieties in ours, including focaccia and rosemary. Served with olive oil on the side (be sure to add red pepper flakes, if you like a bit of heat) you have to be careful not to finish each piece. Why is obvious: CRAVE makes some killer starters, including Crispy Chicken Sliders ($12.95) with Asian slaw and house made pickles. My friend and I decided to splurge instead on a gorgeous plate of superbly seasoned Jumbo Shrimp and the aforementioned Duck Confit flatbread.

Bread Basket

The shrimp are a wee-bit pricey ($16.95 for five) but each one packs quite a punch. For starters (no pun intended) they're flash-fried, and lightly battered... so you can actually taste the shrimp first and foremost. The seasoning is dynamite, a blend of Middle-Eastern spices with a cool tzatziki sauce on top. It's also one of the nicest looking plates (out of many) on the menu. As for the pizza... Mamma mia! Look for tender duck, pencil-thin crust, crunchy pistachio and pickled grapes (A for creativity.) Sauce and cheese is appropriately minimal, allowing the duck to take center stage; and a generous sprinkling of arugula adds much-needed color.

Jumbo Shrimp

In between courses, we came face-to-face with the prettiest dish of sushi in the great state of Maryland. It's called a Caterpillar Roll, and features alternating wedges of creamy avocado, cucumbers and mango with spicy tuna for kick. The expertly-sliced apple is enough to make a grown man cry... and dash across the mall to Macy's Home for a new, extra sharp knife. I've never been a big fan of sushi; but my friend Jill swears by it, and she's not easily impressed.

Caterpillar Roll

Speaking of impressive, I understand why Hassanali features tacos as one of his signature items. At least these particular tacos (Kogi Beef, $14.95.) You get three in total (beef short ribs, kimchi, Asian slaw) served alongside a generous side salad featuring poblano peppers. Expect tons of flavor, and incredibly tender beef. Even the tacos themselves were more tender than usual. While I'm at it, lets have a round of applause for kimchi... the final piece of this most effective Asian-styled taco.

Kogi Beef Tacos

On to the main event course... Hassanali's Trinidadian-inspired Roasted Chicken Breast, served over a bed of coconut jasmine rice (only $14.95, don't ask me how.) The chicken was literally glistening (jalapeƱo-infused orange glaze) when it arrived at the table, further enhanced by a glorious looking (and tasting) pineapple relish. This simple plate of food has everything you need for a perfect dish... heat, sweetness, crunch and good old-fashioned island love. If you haven't lived on an island at some point in your life, don't try making this... We can tell what's real, and what isn't. This is as real as it gets. P.S. The chicken is (predictably) moist and delicious. As if...

Crave Miniatures

CRAVE's success extends fully into the dining room, as well. Spacing is terrific, and it looks and feels more luxurious than nearby Cheesecake Factory. CRAVE has several locations also; but it manages to convey its own identity a lot better. Noise levels were surprisingly low, even though the restaurant was at half-capacity (I love late lunches.) Then there's Gary, one of the nicest servers I've come across in quite a while. He was attentive, appropriately laid-back, and most importantly... instinctive. Should anyone assemble an all-star wait staff in the near future, save a spot for Gary: He certainly looks and plays the part.

Let them eat cake... The "Original" Coconut Cake

Lest you think we're all done, think again. There's still hot tea and dessert(s.) The tea is smartly presented (six choices) and delivered in a cool-looking pot with built-in infuser (no mess, no fuss.) As for desserts... You might want to sit down: This could take a while. The "Original" Coconut Cake is good enough for most, certainly yours truly. It has tons of coconut (no holding back here, that's for sure) with moist yellow cake and a generous dob of real whipped cream.

Great Tea Presentation

Perhaps I'm a slow learner; but one delicious slice of cake didn't seem to be enough. Before you accuse me of being greedy, what would you do in the following situation? Choose one of six individual miniatures for $3.95, or all six for $19.95? All six, right? Seems like a no-brainer. Just be careful; because there's nothing mini about these GIANT shot glass sweets. Stay clear of Salty Caramel Mousse (way too salty) and Brown Butter Cake (too dense for its vessel) but feel free to double-up on Tiramisu (lots of espresso, mascarpone cheese) French Silk and an off-the-menu Lemon Meringue, which likely won't be off the menu for too long. If you like cheesecake, odds are you're gonna love CRAVE's Blueberry Cheesecake, which has tons of blueberries and tender graham crackers. Truth be told, it deserves to shine on its own plate (perhaps a new Signature... Who knows?)

For mall dining, CRAVE qualifies as award-winning. There's even exterior seating in the mall concourse, which looks surprisingly intimate (especially on a quiet weeknight/Sunday.) Chef Joel's menu is adventurous and well-executed; and worthy of becoming a destination restaurant... something I wouldn't have dreamed possible a year or two ago. Big flavors play a large part; and I hope the kitchen continues to produce them. One last piece of advice: Seek out Gary's section... You like great service too, don't ya?