How Cru Cellars went from wine bar to restaurant

With a revamped kitchen and menu, Tampa's Cru Cellars serves up more than global wines.

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click to enlarge CRU CREW: Lucius, Sobo and Jennifer Bingham of Tampa's Cru Cellars. - Paul Abercrombie
Paul Abercrombie
CRU CREW: Lucius, Sobo and Jennifer Bingham of Tampa's Cru Cellars.

Some folks chase their dreams.

But one could say Jennifer and Torrey Bingham listened to their customers’ stomachs.

When the young couple opened South Tampa’s Cru Cellars a few years ago, they hoped to become a hip local wine bar and retail shop.

A handful of months into their venture, the growing crowd of patrons began asking for snacks to go with their wines. Soon, Jen and her staff of trained sommeliers could barely keep up with demand for charcuterie boards full of more than a dozen cheeses, meats and olives.

An extensive remodeling that included more seating and the creation of a cozy outdoor wine garden fueled appetites further. The hotspot’s eclectic and ever-changing roster of wines from around the globe also began to attract winemakers eager to visit and host multicourse wine dinners.

“One day we realized that if our customers wanted us to serve food, we’d need to become a true restaurant,” Jen says. “And if we did that, we wanted to compete with the top restaurants in the area.”

Though unprepared for her clientele’s clamor for food, she was no stranger to the high-end service world, having served as wine director at Chicago’s ENO wine bar inside the InterContinental hotel, and other Windy City wine shops.

With the completion of a snazzy new kitchen several months ago, Cru director of wine William Lucius tapped Brad Sobo as executive chef.

“We poured a ton of money into making this fantastic kitchen, and we needed the talent to run it properly,” Lucius says. “Luckily, we scored Brad.”

Sobo’s new menu features items such as blackened octopus, rabbit with butternut squash and duck rillette. Daily specials rely heavily on local and seasonal produce and meats, as well as whimsy. Indeed, a twist on the traditional grilled cheese sandwich was recently featured with taleggio cheese, fried mortadella and homemade tomato soup.

“Sometimes I like playing with my food,” he jokes.

A varied and rotating wine list also presents enjoyable cooking challenges.

“With so many interesting and different wines, I love serving food that pairs with our wines in variety and quality,” Sobo says.

Wines and other beverages also often find their way onto the menu as ingredients in dishes. A previous beer-pairing dinner presented a beer-based Triple Hop Sorbet dessert.

Jen and her staff say they plan to hold more wine dinners, classes and additional special events. Still, the transformation into full-fledged restaurant hasn’t been without its hitches.

“We may need to get more seating soon,” she says.

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