Monday, July 4, 2011
Cru Bistro and Wine Bar, Knoxville, TN
In conjunction with a 4th of July week nosh through the southeast, UD and I tasked our East Tennessee pals Jim and Michelle with identifying a worthy dinner venue serving creative, contemporary cuisine within half an hour of their relatively rural town. Fortunately, they knew just the spot....Cru Bistro and Wine Bar (already one of their favorites) was just a 25 minute jaunt up I-75. These guys are world travelers (and diners) so we already knew we wouldn't be disppointed with their suggestion, but we weren't prepared to be as blown away as we were by most of Cru's creations.
Comfortable and modern, Cru specializes in small plates (which is our favorite way to enjoy a lot of different tastes over the course of one meal, so extra credit was bestowed right off the bat) and offers a better-than-average selection of wines from around the globe at a predictable markup level considering the restaurant's upscale shopping district location. If you can't decide on one glass, there's also an interesting selection of wine flights featuring four 2-ounce pours.
Jim and Michelle started with a flight apiece, which I guess was a little too much on the table for us heathens to handle. Dogboy quickly knocked over two of Jim's glasses in his excitement and I subsequently toppled one of Michelle's not two minutes later. You can't take this motley "cru" anywhere, I guess. You will notice that neither UD nor I spilled our own wine...THAT, we're far too careful for. Our lovely server, Nicole, very kindly cleaned up after us both times and brought replacements with nary a hint of the inward exasperation she was almost certainly experiencing at Baby Boomers repeatedly sending wine glasses hurtling through space at only six in the evening.
We nibbled a double order of Cru's Charcuterie Plate while we perused the inviting menu and it was a lovely thing! A fine selection of cured meats and cheeses were presented along with crostini, grain mustard, cornichons and tomato jam. It wasn't just "all the usual suspects", either...the platter included a few tasty treats we don't often encounter, such as duck sausage, a marvelous Irish cheddar which was laced with Guinness Stout, some "stinky" Pont-l'Évêque and sopressata.
The numerous plates we ordered and shared ranged from good to outstanding. Falling into to the "good" category was the Shrimp and Crab Bisque. The flavor was nice, but we didn't find it to be particularly "bisque-like". Instead, it was more of a very thin, light cream soup. I don't care for overly-thickened bisques and chowders, but this one was strangely lacking in any discernable hint of viscosity. I dug a couple of nice-sized crab morsels out of the bottom of the bowl which kept me from being disappointed by it.
Also "good" were the Panko Crusted Whitefish Tacos with Cilantro Chimichurri, Spicy Mayo, Asian Slaw, and Pico de Gallo wrapped in Naan. They were fine, albeit perhaps the most forgettable of the many creations we sampled over the course of our Cru snarf-fest. The fries that came with were exceptional, however...hot and crispy, twice-fried perfection.
Moving on up to the "very good" category, Michelle and I zeroed right in on the Grilled Buttermilk Cornbread with Smoked Pimento Cheese, Scallions and Mixed Greens. We loved the tender, almost cake-like cornbread and its peppery cheese topping. The boyz liked it as well, but both agreed that they would prefer a coarser, more rustic cornbread...and if it could be studded with roasted corn kernals and chopped jalapenos, so much the better. Hmmm...maybe they're onto something.
Now, I will share with you the top crowd-pleasers of the evening (all of which I would classify as "exceptional"), beginning with what was the one of the most luxurious crab cakes I've ever tasted. The Maryland Jumbo Lump Crab Cake served atop a Fried Green Tomato Slice with Caper-Dill Remoulade Sauce was sheer perfection...the huge chunks of tender, sweet crabmeat were barely held together with the scantest of breadcrumb coatings and beautifully pan-seared.
Our buddy Jim loves the Merlot Filet Bites with Shallot-Thyme Demi-Glace, Baby Bella Mushrooms and Smoked Gouda Polenta...and so did the rest of us! The generous portion of tenderloin bites and mushrooms married well with the demi-glace and I now have a particularly fond place in my heart for the cheesily dreamy bed of polenta everything was nestled on. SO good.
Having top-of-mind awareness (following the decadent tenderloin offering) that polenta makes a fabulous carrier for just about anything, we decided to taste an order of the Colossal Shrimp served atop a Cheddar Andouille Polenta Cake with Fried Spinach. The mammoth shrimp (yes, I realize what an oxymoron that is) were expertly grilled and beautifully presented. I was reborn yet again in polenta when I took a bite of the tangy, smoky cake. I'm not sure I've ever had the opportunity to sample fried spinach leaves before, but I loved them AND the stained glass-like visual appeal they provided.
Underdog and I acquired a new pork addiction during our visit to Loudon...it's Benton's Bacon, referred to by Esquire Magazine as the “world’s best bacon” in 2009. We believe them. When we saw the Benton's Bacon Stone Fired Pizza on the menu, we had to have it. The pizza was served hot and crispy, liberally blanketed in marinara, mozzerella, provolone, caramelized onions and "The Precious". Yes, we were all getting desperately stuffed by this point...but it called to us like crack (not that any of us have real experience with crack, but I'm sure it must be very similar to Benton's Bacon).
Last but not least, and just because you don't find Chicken and Waffles with much regularity in the Tampa Bay area, I had to have it. Golden, fluffy mini waffles were topped with moist and crispy-fried chicken tenderloins and drizzled with Apple-Bacon Gastrique. I have a single word to describe this and it's "OMG".
Despite the fact that everyone was stuffed to the gills, there was a Dulce de Leche Gelato featured as a special of the evening and one of us (I won't name names, but her initials are SPP) NEVER passes up anything dulce de leche, so I ordered a scoop with four spoons (everyone needs a little palate cleanser after a fine meal such as this, right?). It was dense, ultra-creamy and had a flavor similar to Sugar Babies (as Michelle aptly pegged it)...pure, blissful caramel decadence!
Thanks for the fabulous rec, Jim and Michelle...somehow, we knew you wouldn't steer us wrong!