When a wine shop makes the leap from retailing bottles of vino to pouring them for customers, you often find common themes. For some, the pouring is merely an adjunct to the retail business, with a few glasses made available in the belief that people will buy more bottles if the shopkeeper can only get it in their mouths. For others, the retail side of the business diminishes as more and more floor space is devoted to the higher margin of by-the-glass sales. And the food? That’s often an afterthought, limited by tiny kitchens or a desire to stay out of the serious side of the restaurant business.
Cru Cellars, a wine shop on South MacDill, has managed to add a wine bar without taking any of those shortcuts. The restaurant is almost hidden in the back of the store, tucked away beyond a small archway, the clink of glasses and muffled conversation the only thing that might entice people away from the wood racks and casestacks out front.
It’s small enough to be cozy, just enough room for a bar and a line of small tables along the walls. On one recent weeknight, the tables were mostly devoid of food, just occupied by after-work revelers meeting for a glass and a chat before the rest of their evening. They have plenty to choose from, with about two dozen wines available by the glass, spanning the globe, grape varieties and winemaking styles. There are also a half-dozen flights that consist of three ounces of three different wines under a common theme, like Sonoma whites or Italian reds. There’s even a nice selection of beer, with a focus on the retro-joy of canned craft brews.
But despite Cru’s obvious focus on wine, skipping the food would be a serious mistake.
The menu is a brief love letter to the joys of pairing food and wine, with dishes that are marked by their brightest and liveliest ingredients, like clues to choosing the right grape or region. Kalamata, fig jam, dilled goat cheese, roasted mushrooms, coriander crusted. For the wine novice, it just sounds tasty. For the wine lover, it’s a pairing challenge.
Beyond the delicate mesh of the right wine with the right food, however, Cru’s food is delicious almost across the board and sold at prices that seem below market value.
Like a flatbread pizza schmeared with fig jam and scattered with strands of prosciutto and dotted by blue cheese. The crust is crisp and chewy at the same time, the sweet jam mellows the pungent blue, the prosciutto adds a salty and meaty touch and greens liven up each bite. Enough to share for a mere $8.
Same with Cru’s potted pig for $9, the truffled pork and chicken liver pate filling a baby-food sized jar that seems dainty until you start spreading the luxurious mix on crostini. Even after ordering more toast — you’ll need it — you’ll likely be sticking knives and fingers in the jar at the end of the meal to make sure none of it goes to waste.
The wine bar’s bone marrow is almost too generous, with four massive ivory cylinders topped by a dollop of sautéed shallots, capers and parsley. The marrow is a tad underdone and can be a bit difficult to extract from the bones — we resort to using the handle ends of spoons — but it is a prodigious amount of creamy, fatty stuff for $11.
The only low note among Cru’s small plates comes in the restaurant’s house-cured salmon, which is overpowered by dill and accompanied by serviceable but unexciting deviled eggs. Entrées are more of a mixed bag. Coriander-crusted pork tenderloin is exceptionally tender, delicately seasoned and doused in an elegant sauce with a hint of citrus that accentuates the flavor of the meat, but a plate of steak, egg and polenta never comes together. The egg is spot on, perfectly poached, but even with the runny yolk providing a fatty flavor boost, the beef is underseasoned and a bit tough.
Cru’s bouillabaisse is standard stuff, the seafood cooked right but the broth a bit bland, while a bowl of roasted mushroom orzo is packed with parmesan and grape tomatoes making for a satisfying meal.
Don’t forget to turn the menu over. Whether you devote the beginning, end, or entirety of your meal to it, Cru’s selection of cured meats and cheeses is easily one of the highlights of the wine bar experience. There are 15 or so cheeses that span almost as much global territory as the wine list, a few simple meats and some extras that you can mix-and-match to create plates that range from a simple sampling of three for $12 to a prodigious tasting orgy of seven for $24, all served with candied nuts, jam and crostini.
You can go to Cru and have a nice dinner with a side of water, go to Cru and sample wines with a few bites to keep your energy up, or engage in a complicated dance of food and wine pairing that will test the limits of your culinary and oenological knowledge.
No matter why you go, however, your final tally will be less than you’d expect for such an accomplished food and drink adventure in the back of a wine shop.