TAMPA -- One of the joys of writing about businesses in a particular market over a long period of time is watching some of them find their footing, mature and blossom. Cru Cellars has seriously come into its own.
Jen Bingham, a certified sommelier, opened her little wine shop and wine bar in the Palma Ceia neighborhood some years back. Her focus was small-production wines from all the major wine production regions, mostly family-owned wineries with a real emphasis on wines under $50 and with special attention to wines made naturally (organic, biodynamic, etc.) There was a little bit of food early on, mostly cheese and such.
In 2012, Bingham debuted a more substantive small plate menu through a collaboration with Hope Montgomery Ruhe, co-owner of In Bloom Catering but better known now as co-owner of Brick & Mortar in St. Petersburg. It was a big step forward, making it a serious haunt for girls' nights out in South Tampa.
Brad Sobo, formerly of SideBern's, has headed up the kitchen for the past three years, and he has taken things forward another great leap, adding more entree-sized dishes and comfort food (what he calls his "fat boy food" that pays tribute to his St. Louis roots), things that get husbands and boyfriends in the door enthusiastically.
And even more recently, new wine director Zach Groseclose, formerly of B-21 Fine Wine & Spirits in Tarpon Springs and a sommelier in New York City before that, has added even more sophistication in the dining room. There are about 35 wines by the glass ($8 to about $14 per glass), seven thematic wine flights ($20) and a couple dozen craft beers — what makes this all magical is that Groseclose and the rest of the staff knows these wines, can tell you the stories of these wines and are deft at guiding you to what you're going to like, all without ever seeming pompous or wine-shaming if your wheelhouse is cheap plonk.
I'm not going to linger overlong on the cheese side of the menu, other than to say the way to go is one of the farmers' platters: one cheese or meat for $6, three for $17, five for $24, seven for $32, all served with house-made jams, candied pecans, whole-grain mustard and baguette slices. Plenty of good stuff here (Humboldt Fog, Thomasville Tomme and these great pork-fried almonds).
Cru is cru-cial (sorry) if you're a vegetarian. There's a pretty dish of caramelized Brussels sprout halves nestled in among smoked mushroom "sausage" and a little swirl of rich taleggio fondue ($14), and an equally lovely-to-look-at roasted baby carrot dish ($10), the long bisected carrots set atop a basil chimichurri and another savory sauce I couldn't quite figure out but licked clean. The crusty-topped mac and cheese ($9) has just enough truffle flavor imparted by a luscious Sottocenere al Tartufo to be faintly discernible (yay!) and other cheeses (Parmesan and smoked Gouda) that tip the overall effect into fantastic.
A handful of starters is offered each night during happy hour for $6. One night, this included a generous portion of wine-steamed mussels strewn with dreamy skin-on fries, and a duo of fat avocado toasts. The blackened octopus ($16) is something of a fetish food for regular customers, the tender meat paired with wisps of fresh fennel, a few halves of black olive and an assertively lemony aioli.
Because I'm a girl, and because I did visit Cru with my posse, we shared all of the aforementioned dishes, forks flashing. Another visit avec spouse was more of a hold-your-own situation, with mole-rubbed hanger steak alongside patatas bravas and blistered corn succotash ($23), plus a burger ($15) that caused me to forget my wine glass entirely: fat, juicy patty draped with a feisty Vermont cheese called Karst, the love child of Gruyere and cheddar, and festooned with pickled red onion.
Oh, yeah, the wine. The list is weighted to the Old World, lots of France and Spain, with some interesting entries from places like the Canary Islands. Markups seem substantial but not egregious. Let's pick a couple of random wines: The 2016 cab franc rose from Raffault Chinon is on offer for $12 per glass and retails for about $14 per bottle; the La Follette North Coast 2014 pinot retails for about $24 per bottle and is on offer for $14 per glass.
Part of what you're paying for is the convivial atmosphere and the accrued knowledge of the Cru crew. As it should be at Tampa's best wine bar.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.