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Tampa wine bars expanding food choices beyond cheese and crackers

TAMPA — I've been telling my single guy friends that the best place to meet lovely ladies is yoga class. The gender ratio is promising, and anyone who can do the scorpion pose is likely to be a 21st century fox, or at least inclined to carry her own luggage. But now I must amend that. On a review meal a few weeks ago, I looked around Cru Cellars and noticed nothing amiss for a while, until this happened: A guy walked up to the wine bar and ordered. Thirty people noshing and sipping, and his were the only XY chromosomes in the place. • There's been something of a wine bar explosion in Tampa in the past couple of years, a number of them adding very competent food to their lineup to make it a complete night out. Often, evidently, a girls' night out. Bianchi's Enoteca opened on MacDill in October 2010, promptly garnering a coveted Golden Spoon award in Florida Trend's annual restaurant assessments. Cru Cellars opened a couple months earlier, in August 2010, but this February launched a menu conceived of by In Bloom Catering and executed by Josh Burton, formerly of Timpano's. And Toast in New Tampa, the veteran of the bunch, offers a regular menu of salads, flatbreads and panini, but joins forces with area restaurants like Toasted Pheasant or Jalapeno for special events and wine dinners.

Bianchi's Enoteca

Susan Bianchi and Romeo Patron met while working at Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits. Bianchi had been in the restaurant business for 17 years in western Massachusetts; Patron attended Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore.

Different paths to the same goal: a tiny, intimate wine/cheese/fancy food retailer with about 20 seats.

Beyond a common goal, they share a particular wine aesthetic. About a dozen wines are featured on the chalkboard, all hailing from France, Italy or Spain. They love Old World wines (but aren't adverse to New): crisp, dry, flinty, even austere quaffs that don't have the superabundance of fruit, sucker-punch of alcohol or blowsy oak aging you find in so many California wines.

This is a space without a full restaurant kitchen — no grill or hood, just a couple of induction burners and a partnership that is gaga over great cheeses and charcuterie. Pop some intensely green Sicilian Castelvetrano olives ($5) or oily Marcona almonds ($5), with a couple of bruschetta draped with white anchovy and Parmesan ($6), or a quick-sauteed tangle of hen of the woods mushrooms ($10) with toasts, or ask the server to put together a cheese tray (I always say: one hard, one soft, one extra stinky — that covers the bases). All these powerful flavors in tiny tastes with a glass of Domaine Jean-Claude Roux Quincy sauvignon blanc from not-quite-the-Loire ($10 glass), a Sancerre only less buttoned-up — it's heavenly.

Cru Cellars

Jen Bingham is a certified sommelier, a passion that bloomed after college when she moved to Chicago and ran a wine shop and wine bar. She and her husband moved to Tampa in search of warmer weather and bought an existing wine shop in the Palma Ceia neighborhood.

Her focus is small-production wines from all the major wine regions, with a real emphasis on bottles under $50 (my haunt is the table of under-$13 offerings — hey, a journalist's salary). It's a "hidden gems" approach that often yields nice surprises.

A while back Bingham met Hope Montgomery Ruhe, co-owner of In Bloom Catering, at an industry wine tasting, and they ended up doing a sell-out wine dinner together. Since then, they've collaborated on a menu of sharable small plates, artisanal cheeses and a few more substantial dishes, all of which aim to complement a couple dozen wines by the glass or bottle, with a handful of provocative flights ("pinot envy"; a collection of earthy terroir titans called "down and dirty").

On a recent evening, we happily nibbled a truffled pork and chicken liver pate ($9) on crostini with a roasted beet, arugula and goat cheese salad ($10) and a board of three of my fetish cheeses: Cypress Grove "purple haze" with its lavender whiff; a hard, nutty cow's milk Piave vecchio; and a smoky, buttery Spanish sheep cheese called Idiazabal (three for $12), served with candied nuts, two jams and crisp toasts. Not sure which went better with the assemblage, a plums-with-a-hint-of-smoke Bethel Heights pinot gris ($12) or a crisp, mineraly Paul Bouchard white Burgundy ($9).

Toast

In the spot that was once the Wine Warehouse on Bruce B. Downs, Hector Gonzalez launched Toast three years ago.

Also a certified Level 1 sommelier, his wine tastes are catholic: Right now his biggest sellers are a silky mourvedre, grenache and syrah blend from Cline Cellars called Cashmere as well as a crisp-apple Marco Felluga pinot grigio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Toast gets its share of women's gatherings, but a cedar-planked humidor and private smoking lounge make it a destination for New Tampa's cigar fans of both genders.

A retail shop with a welcoming long bar, Toast's kitchen facilities are a bit cramped, so Gonzalez limits himself to a short list of flatbreads (the best being a CPK-inspired barbecued chicken version with onions and green peppers, or a "muffaletta" capped with a pile of cold cuts, cheeses and olive salad; both $9), seven straightforward but nicely made sandwiches (tuna salad, roasted chicken, veggie; all $8) and a range of antipasti and nibbles (dips, olives, smoked salmon) that seem to come in handy when you're settling in with a second glass of something tempting.

At Bianchi's, Cru and Toast, a glass of something unusual and a few delicious nibbles make for a nice evening that won't break the bank. And if you run into one of my single guy friends, go easy on him.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

Bianchi's Enoteca

3215 S MacDill Ave., Tampa

(813) 837-2233;

bianchisenoteca.com

Cuisine: Wine bar

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday,

10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Prices: Food $6-$19; wine by glass $6-$10

Cru Cellars

2506 S MacDill Ave., Tampa

(813) 831-1117;

crucellarstampa.com

Cuisine: Wine bar

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

Prices: Food $5-$15; wine by glass $6-$16

Toast

14921 Bruce B Downs Blvd., Tampa. (813) 632-3105;

toastofnewtampa.com

Cuisine: Wine bar

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday

Prices: Food $6-$10; wine by the glass $8-$12

More bay area wine bars

Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar

2548 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater, (727) 724-4228, and 14306 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 265-1415, carmelcafe.com

With two glamorous locations, this newish concept has some key players behind it: Chris Sullivan, an Outback Steakhouse founder and its former CEO, and Steve Cook, the veteran of Tampa's Mise en Place who led the collaborative effort on the menu. It features small plates of Mediterranean rim cuisine with regional flavors from Italy, France, Spain, Morocco and Greece. It has a 60-label Old and New World wine list and offers pours of 3, 6 and 9 ounces with a cool iPad sommelier concept.

Tapas Garden and Wine Bar

321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach,

(727) 595-4321

Start off by ordering a pan of the paella, because that's the star of the menu and you won't want to leave without trying it. It will be enough to feed a couple of people, but its made-to-order nature means it will take a half-hour. No problem; just sample a couple of choices off the tapas list. The fried green tomato with crab and the antipasto wedge are good places to start. Dinner only.

A Taste for Wine

241 Central Ave., St. Petersburg,

(727) 895-1623, tasteforwine.net

Bern's may have the better wine list, but many of us would rather hang out at A Taste for Wine. The wrought-iron balcony offers a great view of Central Avenue. Inside, there's art on the walls from JJ Watts gallery, and live music on weekends: jazz, folk, flamenco, pop, etc. They also serve craft beers, if wine's too fancy for you (just don't ask for a Miller Lite). An expansion in recent years has opened a new area with plenty of seating that's perfect for birthday parties or small corporate events.

Wine Madonna

111 Second Ave. NE, Suite 102, St. Petersburg,

(727) 289-7257, winemadonna.com

One of the new tenants of the recently reanimated Plaza Tower and Courtyard Shops, it's positioned directly next to the Ale and the Witch, an extremely convenient arrangement as the two bars share a large outdoor courtyard. This allows the beer and wine crowds to commingle while accommodating the tastes of each. The indoor space is dark and intimate, and the wine list changes regularly and includes dessert wines, ports and wine smoothies. No kitchen, but limited menu from nearby selected venues is available.

Casa Tina's Pan Y Vino Wine Bar

369 Main St., Dunedin, (727) 734-7700,

panyvino.com

This little tapas and wine bar was born when Casa Tina moved to larger digs. Owned by the same folks, though, it offers more than two dozen wines by the glass, tapas and small plates that use local or organic ingredients, plus desserts and coffees. It recently added a brick oven for organic pizzas.

Jenn's Wine Bar

11724 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 960-4808, jennswines.com

A low-key spot in which to share a bottle of wine (no by-the-glass) after work, with a small patio out front with wrought-iron tables, large umbrellas and plenty of foliage. Inside, the walls are lined with bottles of wine, and racks create mini aisles. In the center, a horseshoe bar seats about 15 people. There is no menu here (well, Goldfish and popcorn), but you can order from Michael's Grill next door and they'll walk it over.

Wine Exchange Bistro & Wine

1609 W Snow Ave., Tampa, (813) 254-9463,

wineexchangetampa.com

For nearly two decades, the Wine Exchange has been a defining part of swanky Old Hyde Park Village. In March 2009, the bistro and wine bar relocated to its big, gorgeous digs from a smaller spot around the corner. Order grape by the glass or bottle while scanning the room for Tampa big shots like super attorney Barry Cohen.

Clearwater Wine Bar & Bistro

483 Mandalay Ave., Suite 113, Clearwater, (727) 446-8805, clearwaterwinecompany.com

Winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and the Wine Enthusiast Award of Distinction, its wine list features 40 wines by the glass and more than 150 bottle selections from the world's major growing regions. For those who prefer hops to grapes, there are also eight craft beers on tap and more than 20 micro- and Eurobrews.

Laura Reiley, Justin Grant and Jim Webster

Tampa wine bars expanding food choices beyond cheese and crackers 03/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 4:30am]

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