Crushed Red in Clayton has a way with pizza and salads
April 19, 2012 9:00 am • BY JOE BONWICH • • 314-340-8133 | photos by Laurie Skrivan
Crushed Red is the latest idea to spring from the entrepreneurial mind of serial restaurateur Chris LaRocca.
We last saw LaRocca a few months ago at EdgeWild, a Chesterfield takeoff on a California wine-country restaurant. But LaRocca doesn't seem content unless he helps roll out at least a couple of new restaurants a year. This time, he's doing it in partnership with a pair of Panera/St. Louis Bread Co. corporate veterans, a lawyer and a real estate broker — a team that seems to presage plans for more Crushed Reds.
They call Crushed Red an urban bake and chop shop — the "bake" part signifying single-serving pizzas and the "chop shop" indicating salads whose ingredients are chopped together with an oversized two-bladed mezzaluna (a double-handled, crescent-shape knife).
Ordering is a bit clunky at Crushed Red, but once we got used to the logistics, we enjoyed just about everything about our meals. My wife and I are long-ago veterans of Clayton office jobs, and we mused that we'd be in Crushed Red several times a week if we worked (or lived) in the area.
Once inside the door, our first stop was an order-taking station for pizzas, soups and 'shareables" — a brief list of cheese dishes and dips. We were handed numbers that corresponded with our selections, then moved to a cafeteria line, where we could order from a list of salads or design our own by choosing from among three greens, about 50 added ingredients and a dozen dressings. After paying, we carried the numbers to our table, and our order was delivered to us. We stayed with house-designed salads — aka "urban crafted salads," ordering the mini size, which is two to three bucks less than the listed prices for the regular size. (A large size is available for $2 to $3 more.)
Workers behind the cafeteria line combine the salad ingredients in a bowl, pour them onto a cutting surface and then make several runs with the mezzaluna, chopping the food into pieces slightly larger than confetti. The result is a melding of all of the flavors into virtually every bite of the salad.
Cowpoke Smoke ($8/regular size) played off the affinity of beef and blue cheese, using chunks of the cheese and smoked beef brisket, with jalapeño straws adding a touch of fiery kick.
Chipotle BBQ Chicken ($8) balanced a similar kick from chipotles and pepper Jack cheese with the sweetness of roasted corn, while Emerald Coast ($8) had avocado, cukes and mushrooms bulked up with bacon and roasted shrimp. The shrimp was the only clunker we encountered, with an enticing smoky flavor but a texture close to mashed potatoes.
Health Nut ($6) lived up to its name with broccoli, edamame, carrots, garbanzo beans and almonds, with only the added sugar of dried cranberries diverging from the theme (but providing a necessary counterpoint to the cranberries' tartness).
One thing that occurred to me as we nibbled on the Health Nut was the need for easily accessible nutritional information to reinforce Crushed Red's stated claim of "healthy eating" for the entire menu. Dressings were another minor quibble: The salads weren't drenched, but quite a bit was mixed in during the final tossing.
Pizzas are oblong, cooked on a stone at 700 degrees and cut into six pieces, with close to a cracker crust except for an airy lip. Blistered Corn, Asparagus and Pesto ($7.50) was indicative of the well-thought-out concepts of some of the more unusual pizzas, with crisp asparagus and corn providing interesting flavor and texture accents to the more standard ingredients of basil pesto and tomato on a bed of mozzarella. Big Island ($7.50) successfully pushed the envelope on the time-tested ham-and-pineapple pizza by roasting the pineapple and using the dense flavor of prosciutto for the ham.
The Fresh Mozzarella shareable ($7), which several staff members kept referring to as the Caprese, was closer to the latter name, with five slices of mozzarella alternating with slices of Roma tomato and a pesto providing the basil component of a classic Caprese salad. The whole thing was dressed with a balsamic reduction.
A moderate list of beers, including gluten-free choices, is available in bottles, with several more on tap. About a half-dozen each white and red wines are available, ranging from $6 to $10 for glasses and $21 to $39 for bottles. These and other beverages are added after you select your salad, and payment is totaled at a couple of cash registers at the end of the L-shaped food line.
I felt validated in my view of the ordering process when several diners in line with us indicated their confusion even after an explanation from the staff. That said, I clocked a few people from their places seven or eight deep in line until they got to the cashier, and none of them took more than seven minutes.
The interior in the old Dick Blick art supplies building is modern and sleek — and easily replicated. Don't be surprised if you see more Crushed Reds sometime soon.