Crush could be up to the task of double duty

Would-be restaurateurs could take notes from Daniel Chaustit on how to open a new restaurant on time, pretty much when he said he would.

Of course, it helps if you start with a space that looks good before you ever lay a finger on it. But you have to be smart enough to know not to repaint the persimmon walls, or redo the striped banquettes, or take down the unusual rope design on the ceiling. The building, once a Hess shoe store in Belvedere Square, was transformed into a handsome, contemporary restaurant called Taste. Now it's a handsome, contemporary restaurant called Crush.

Similarities end there. Taste's owner seemed to want a fine-dining restaurant; the neighborhood wanted, well, a neighborhood place. People complained about service; they weren't always kind about the food, either. Taste never seemed to get over a shaky beginning and, after four years, it closed.

Chaustit, the new owner/chef, was the Daniel of Christopher Daniel in Timonium before he decided to open a place of his own. His background is upscale cuisine; previously, he was a chef at Linwoods. The setting he's inherited is definitely high-end. It remains to be seen how much he will be willing to turn Crush into a neighborhood restaurant, if that's what it takes to succeed in this location.

The name Crush is one clue. The one ambiguous, intriguing word says, "I'm cutting-edge." And the fact that it refers to the winemaking process, as in "first crush," suggests that wine will be a priority. Sounds like a destination restaurant to me.

The menu is quite straightforward, though. The entrees aren't cheap, and they come with embellishments like port-wine reductions and truffle fries; but Chaustit has included dinner salads, sandwiches and small plates among the entrees. And the steaks come in both larger and smaller, less-expensive cuts.

It's a balancing act. But if anybody can pull off the destination restaurant/neighborhood place dichotomy, I think Chaustit can. It would help if something could be done to make Crush less noisy, but that's probably too much to hope for.

Most good restaurants base their menus on local, seasonal produce these days, so I'm sure the current menu will change soon. That's too bad, because then the fabulous tomato soup will probably disappear. You need vine-ripened tomatoes to make a puree that tastes like the essence of summer. The soup sounds so pedestrian you might not think to order it, but don't make that mistake. I hope the little crisp, cheesy croutons reappear on some wonderful winter soup.

Maybe Chaustit's plan is to take ordinary foods and elevate them. He does that with the tender, lightly battered calamari, which reaches new heights with a smooth, basil-sparked aioli. (Marinara is provided for traditionalists.) Beets with goat cheese are a cliche, yes, but when the dish is made with beets that were probably in the ground a few days before, it takes on an extra layer of flavor.

If I had to order just one of the appetizers, I probably would go for the creamy risotto studded with pine nuts and flavored with fresh basil, with grilled shrimp sitting jauntily on top. It's an enticing dish that would be a good supper with a small salad.

The entrees didn't interest me as much as the appetizers (maybe because I had eaten too much of everyone else's appetizer, and the bread, as well as my own soup), but they were competently done. I would have liked the balance to be more vegetables and less meat and potatoes, but that's just me.

The weakest of the entrees was the fish special of the day, a fat rockfish fillet, slightly overcooked. It came with a lovely butter sauce and big lumps of crab meat; but the crab was refrigerator cold, which struck me as odd. Scallops with mushrooms, asparagus and truffled potatoes, on the other hand, were flawlessly cooked and presented.

But the best of the entrees was a modest one: a golden, crisp-skinned little chicken, with juicy meat. If you're looking for something fancier but not too pricey, the smaller of the two beef filets is as much meat as anyone should be eating these days. It was a perfect rosy red at its center, as ordered, and came with a winy sauce and a creamy bit of spinach "fondue."

Desserts, if you have room, are unexpectedly old-fashioned, but in no way ordinary. I loved the individual, warm pineapple upside-down cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. The individual apple cake was just as appealing. The best flourless chocolate cake I've tasted in months was a clear winner in my mind over a root beer float with three house-made cookies, but I can see the latter's nostalgic appeal.

Crush's wine list is international, but the emphasis is on California to complement the modern American food that is Chaustit's specialty. The list is divided into categories like "light and crisp whites" and "bolder reds," with a good number of affordable bottles and 20 wines by the glass.

If all goes according to plan, Crush will succeed on two levels: primarily as a neighborhood spot during the week, then drawing folks from farther away on the weekend. There's already a lively bar crowd. So far at least, Crush doesn't seem to have had the new restaurant flubs that its predecessor did; and the service was very smooth when I was there. That's good news for Belvedere Square, which needs a successful restaurant in that space to serve as an anchor.

Address: 510 E. Belvedere Ave., Belvedere Square

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$12, entrees: $18-$30

Contact: 443-278-9001

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***