A new chef and an eclectic new menu have revitalized a pioneering neighborhood gastropub
When the Crest Tavern — an old Clintonville dive bar— was replaced by ambitious and unaffiliated the Crest Gastropub about six years ago, it signaled a sea change. Some locals might say it signaled a “C’ville” change, because the neighborhood hasn’t really been the same since.
Once a largely “dry” section of town, Clintonville is becoming awash in a stream of trendy bars, brewpubs and alcohol-serving restaurants (and an influx of young professionals and skyrocketing housing prices — but that’s another story).
When the completely made-over Crest premiered with a high-energy, industrial-farmhouse-style dining room and two patios — one heated and enclosed — plus a whopping beer selection to complement a fashionable menu that championed local sources, it stood out as a pioneering neighborhood establishment.
But most of those attributes have since become commonplace in the area. And the Crest has had consistency issues. In short, the Crest hasn’t always lived up to its trailblazing early promise.
That’s been changing with the release of a provocative new menu and the recent hiring of a new chef, Ben Kanavel. At the Crest, Kanavel — who helped launch stylish Comune, a vegetarian hot spot that was among last year’s best new restaurants — displays his flair with vegetables alongside alluring, meat-based creations.
The Mac ($12) is so good, you might not care what it’s made of — but it’s a vegan preparation. An impressively “creamy” and tangy cashew-based fake cheese sauce lends distinction to the oven-browned, entree-sized dish. So do crisped mushrooms, scallions, campanelle pasta and Fresno chilies.
If the sizable daily soup offering ($9) is Vegetarian Chili — it has been lately — get it. Chickpeas, carrots, peppers, squash and lima beans contribute nuance to a zippy tomato base; crunchy tortilla strips, cilantro and cheese sprinkles are the on-point garnishes.
From its title, I’d never have guessed how attractive and dynamic the Delicata Squash ($13) is. Creamy stracciatella cheese forms the base of a layered composition topped with sliced kumquats, toasted hazelnuts and frisee, which plays off drizzles of fig syrup.
Just a snack? The assertive house Pickles ($5) — root veggies and plenty of celery — make a nice match for a beer or cocktail. Note: Each house cocktail — such as the recommended spiked-punch-like “Ebb & Flow” ($12) — is elaborately profiled in a tableside booklet.
Entrees often riff on popular dishes and tend to be quite hefty. This description fits the Veggie Burger Double ($15), a bigger Big Mac-like veggie burger — mine could’ve used more Mac-style flavor — served with lots of good, stubby fries.
The Elk Steak Frites ($32) is an extra-hearty reworking of the bistro classic that could easily feed two. A pair of frenched, sous-vide-cooked and then grilled elk chops — think lean beef with an intriguing, earthy finish — make great plate mates with crispy whole fingerling potatoes and an addictive maitake mushroom sauce with fruity and cooked-down-onion notes. Fermented horseradish, pickled jalapenos and a large, flawless green salad supply refreshing contrasts.
The Whey-Braised Pork ($25) is also formidable. Conjuring a nouveau New Year’s meal, it features hunks of flavorful meat, sweet-and-sour apple kraut, semi-creamy butter beans and a butternut squash puree. A mustardy barbecue sauce, ostensibly made with pawpaws, teams well with the lean — if marginally dry in spots — pork.
Although not perfect — the veggies and fungus would benefit from extra grill time, and the curried grits were stiff in places — I loved the bold flavors, healthfulness and creativity offered in the King Trumpet Mushroom ($23). With its “meaty” and delicious mushrooms, pebbly “zhong croutons” and free-form ratatouille made with an intense smoked tomato sauce and kebab-like veggies, this sort of dish is again separating the re-energized Crest from the rest of the C’ville pack.