Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cru Cellars, Tampa, FL

Who misses SideBern’s?  I know I’m not the only one with my hand in the air.  Unfortunately, it’s gone bye-bye and is currently being transformed into a new Bern’s outpost, Haven Wine Bar.  Happily, however, former SideBern’s chef Brad Sobo didn’t go very far.

An oenophile’s delight, Cru Cellars has morphed from a retail wine store that happened to serve wines by the glass to a full-fledged, destination-worthy bistro with the addition of Chef Sobo who rolled out a new kitchen menu last September to augment the already existing cheese and charcuterie offerings. 

While the retail selections tend to be heavily weighted on the side of more expensive wines (most priced at $30+), there is a large table full of $13-and-under wines for those who prefer to spend less.  If you decide to drink your purchase at the bar or with your meal, a reasonable $12 corkage fee will be levied. Alternatively, a lengthy menu of wines by the glass plus over 30 craft beers is available, along with an intriguing selection of 9 ounce flights with names like “Whitey Tighties”, “Acid Trip” and “Pinot Envy” - so mix things up if you’re so inclined!  The venue interior is warm and chic with an inviting bar and several pub-style tables.  My party opted to dine al fresco in the charming “wine garden” and appreciated the fact that cozy outdoor heaters were fired up when the evening temps began to dip. 

The dinner menu, while not phone book-sized, is impressive and the $6 happy hour small plates are the deal of the century.  We tried each of the four items on the discounted early menu and each was a winner.   I practically swooned when I sank my teeth into a ball of deep-fried loaded risotto.  Its crispy exterior yielded to reveal a hot, cheesy, sour-creamy, bacon-studded cache of pasta nirvana.  Don’t even think you’re going to be okay sharing your three golden globes of bliss…just go ahead and get everyone their own order so no one with an over-eager reach finds himself pulling back a bloody stump.

The (also $6) plate of razor-thin slices of ruby-hued beef carpaccio drizzled with balsamic vinegar and served with slabs of rustic bread, the pastrami pork belly Reuben sliders and the seared tuna with ginger aioli all imparted a level of quality that belied their humble price tag and were stunningly presented.

Behold the raw boeuf splendor:
Stellar seared tuna at a bargain basement price:

If you think boneless, skinless chicken breast meat is a crucial component in any delectable poultry entrée, we simply can’t be friends.  Dark meat is where it’s at (pardon my hanging preposition) and Cru’s elevated approach to Chicken and Dumplings is a classic southern food lover’s dream come true.  A juicy, braised chicken leg quarter was presented lazing in a bath of sumptuous gravy and creamy duck fat dumplings (oh, yes they DID), accented with tiny baby carrots so preciously perfect and bright that they almost looked like they were made of marzipan.  The adjective “masterful” doesn’t usually spring to mind when I contemplate the preparation of chicken and dumplings - but on this occasion, it did.

While it may be difficult for some diners to go out on a limb and give rabbit a chance, try to push the image of Thumper’s adorable whiskered face from your mind and forge onward.  Rabbit mezzaluna, little half-moon pasta purses stuffed with savory lagomorph morsels nestled atop a silken bed of butternut squash, toasted pine nuts, beech mushrooms and savory brown butter is the ultimate comfort food.  If autumn had a flavor, this is what it would probably taste like.

Not feeling quite that adventurous?  Perfectly executed duck confit with a creamy, golden-edged polenta cake, zippy cumin slaw and ancho barbecue sauce also hits it out of the ball park.

Never fear if you've either gone totally to the dark side meatless or are simply attempting to dial down your consumption, because you will have plenty of options at Cru…including a delectable wild roasted mushroom-laden flatbread with goat cheese, house-made hummus and truffle mac ‘n cheese.

The flatbread is funghi-lover heaven.

Last but not least, there’s a hockey-puck-sized, made-from-scratch s’mores dessert that is completely diabolical (cover your eyes, Girl Scouts).  The bottom layer consists of an epically sturdy graham cracker crust, laden with a thick, intense chocolate layer of what is almost certainly Satan’s own ganache creation.  And just when you thought things couldn't get any more sinful…the entire thing is slathered in hand-torched marshmallow cream.   I've never seen six forks diving into anything at such a fast and furious level in my life (a wine-bar brawl almost ensuing as everyone jockeyed for crumbs).

While this is not an all-encompassing report of our Saturday night feeding frenzy, I'm getting into Bible-length territory so I'll stop here, having hit the highest of the consistent high notes.

The Cru Cellars experience is a highly enjoyable one and it’s a perfect venue for date night or just relaxing with friends…either for wine and a little charcuterie, or for a complete dinner.  The scrummy small-plate options provide a welcome level of flexibility as you will find it difficult to commit to just one dish.

Cru Cellars on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

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