Crave Restaurant: The Sweet Smell of Sourdough
There was once a place in Santa Ana called Café Chiarini. It was fabled for its soups, salads, giant cookies and, most of all, enormous tri-tip sandwiches made from inch-thick, crusty, homemade sourdough and meat slowly cooked in a backyard smoker. Although open a few short months, it quickly became a popular lunch-time refuge for those who worked in and around the city. In an interview for our Stick a Fork In It food blog, chef Judy Fleenor revealed that cops and judges had developed an affinity for the egg-white omelets. The place was an unqualified success. I read reports that there were no days when there wasn't a line that snaked out the door at noon. Customers ate lunch shaded by sails in an outdoor patio. The brick building even had its own art gallery of sorts. Then, last April, a little less than a year after it opened, Café Chiarini abruptly shuttered with barely an explanation.
I never got around to eating there, but a year later, I'm sitting next to the bar at Crave, the restaurant that Fleenor just opened under the shadow of the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, just down the street from Chiarini's former location. It's perhaps not as charming as the original, old building, but the brick walls here are unquestionably beautiful, historic-looking and provide a much-classier dining room than a restaurant serving sandwiches and soups would normally require. Besides, what's more important to folks around these parts is that Fleenor is back. And as word gets around that Crave is Café Chiarini resurrected, the lunch-time queue will only get longer.
From what I can tell, the menu is cribbed crumb-for-crumb from Café Chiarini's menu. Sourdough is the basis for almost all that you consume—this is bread for the ages. Baked by Fleenor and supplied in excess, it has a crunchy outer crust mottled golden, shiny as though it were buffed with Turtle Wax; the tangy interior fluff is as moist as cake. Wherever you sit, you will be given a basket of it with butter. Order a soup, and you get at least two more crusty hunks to rip and dip into the liquid. And, of course, there are the sandwiches, which—because the loaf is hand-sliced—can be comically oversized.
Yet no matter how lopsided the ratio of bread to filling may appear, you need every millimeter of this sourdough, especially for the tri-tip dip. Griddled with butter, the bread is then stuffed with tender, thin-sliced smoked beef, caramelized onions and oozing provolone. You need the extra thickness because you're going to slather nostril-searing horseradish all over it, then dunk the thing in au jus. Sliced half as thick, the sourdough wouldn't hold up to the torture.
The sandwich is gargantuan, and this is true of everything here. Any whole sandwich is more than enough for two and comes with either bagged chips, a pasta salad I found superfluous or a bowl of fruit that's probably the most calorically prudent side dish considering the size of your sandwich.
In her tuna and turkey sandwiches, Fleenor does nothing special with the protein, but she uses thickly cut tomatoes, a slice of sharp Cheddar, a swipe of a house herb aioli and, most important, fistfuls of peppery arugula to fill in the rest. Her pork-melt sandwich is sopping wet and juicy, full-flavored and worthy of North Carolina. Her so-called Spicy Red Curry Pork sandwich is even better, with a vaguely Indian flavor and pink rings of pickled onion. But when you order the grilled cheese, make sure the ultra-chunky tomato basil is the soup of the day—it has a similar Indian accent in its spicing and a sprig of fresh basil as garnish.
If you choose to order a salad instead, be aware that those, too, are served in unreasonable portions. The spring salad had enough blubbery goat cheese, balsamic, blueberries and strawberries to last nearly three meals. And when I went with three friends to share the Cobb, Fleenor split the normally washbasin-sized bowl into three separate plates. Each plate held an ample serving, with a whole hard-boiled egg per share and enough bacon and chicken to require another thimble of homemade Ranch dressing.
I never got a chance to talk to Fleenor during my three visits. She was too busy. But one night, I had a chat with Fleenor's husband at the bar. He was in the middle of talking about the Redhook Mudslinger he's particularly proud to have on tap when I took the opportunity to finally ask him, "You guys used to be at Café Chiarini; what happened there?"
"Partnership dispute," he replied, and we left it at that, changing the subject back to beer. I figured he didn't want to dwell. They've clearly moved on to bigger and better things.
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