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.
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.
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).
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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.