Craft beer has shone so brightly this past year that other beverage categories have been cast into its sudsy shadow. Truth is, there's another trend afoot. The Tampa Bay area has always had wine bars, places like Tampa's Wine Exchange, Clearwater Wine Company or St. Petersburg's A Taste for Wine, but in 2010 a new breed started to emerge.
Cru Cellars and Enoteca Bianchi, both on MacDill Avenue in Tampa, fit a particular mold: Intimate spaces with ambitious wine lists and menus that focus on cheese and charcuterie, salads, flatbreads and sharable nibbles like olives and spiced nuts. These are entrepreneurs who have decided not to pour all their money into a full kitchen with hood, grill and extensive kitchen staff. In fact, these newcomers may not have any open flame back there, but they manage to send out eminently wine-friendly foods.
In this new paradigm, the Wine Studio opened exactly a year ago and Crumb & Cork opened two weeks ago. While their wine agendas are dramatically different, their food menus are uncannily similar. Want more uncanny? Women flock to both. I visited the Wine Studio one evening (all right, it was a Wednesday, when women are offered special discounts) and counted several dozen women in the house and not one guy.
Wine Studio owner Sharon Stewart had a wine bar of the same name back in the 1980s in Sarasota, before its time, evidently. The new place in Palma Ceia has hit its stride with low-slung couches and tables that seem like someone's homey kitchen, classic movies that play softly against one wall and a soundtrack that women can, and do, sing along with.
Stewart's specialty has emerged in recent months: fondue. Look around the room and you'll see small groups peering into steaming vats of traditional Gruyere ($16.50) or tangier Stilton ($17.50) fondue, accoutrements like baguette cubes, apple slices and broccoli occasionally being cast adrift and swiftly reeled back in. Both are tasty, the quantity generously serving two or three. Pair these with an order of Danish blue-stuffed figs ($6.50) or a gorgeous beet salad with endive, walnuts and fluffs of goat cheese ($6.95; see "women and cheese" hypothesis in story, 1E) and you've got a satisfying meal to share amongst friends. Then add a tureen of chocolate fondue ($16) with fruit and all the fixings, and dinner becomes a party.
Stewart's staff is friendly and warm, no wine snobbery here, and the wine list reflects this. It globe-trots between New and Old World wines, largely familiar bottlings at fair markups. The list is careful to offer a breadth of varietals, but these aren't necessarily hidden gems ferreted out from boutique cellars across the planet.
Crumb & Cork, on the other hand, serves up about 150 bottlings, 100 by the glass, with many unusual finds (and a number of glasses as low as $5). A collaboration of Joshua Pillock and Joseph Saine (Joseph is more the "crumb," or food guy; Joshua's expertise is more "cork"), the wine list is about as ambitious as anything in Tampa.
The space itself, most recently a bank and originally a menswear and "gentlemen's notions" shop (the Wine Studio was most recently a dentist's office), reads more like a nightclub than a restaurant. It's glamorous, with a long bar and low couches in a midnight blue and deep purple motif. Live jazz four nights a week reinforces that blue-note mood, and female staffers sport blue pageboys (I was told these might morph into more seasonal colors during the holidays).
The menu is dominated by artisanal cheeses and charcuterie sourced from some of the world's greats. (With the charcuterie, it would be nice to see some domestic entries, as American hams and such are starting to be internationally competitive.) With them are savvy accompaniments like Savannah honeycomb, sumptuously oily Marcona almonds and Medjool dates. Lots of good stuff here with which to put together a platter of finger foods (if you can't decide, they also offer some "tableaux" of preselected marriages, as well as wine flights by individual tastes from chards to a "golden ticket" of mystery wines).
As at the Wine Studio, fondue is a major offering, but I'd say this brand-new spot needs to work out the details. For now, $30 is much too expensive for what you get (a shallow bowl of Swiss fondue with not very many, and very dry, bread cubes). Same goes for the chocolate fondue ($25 for two people), which doesn't offer a satisfying range of accompaniments. (Salted pretzel sticks are a good idea because salted chocolate is such the rage, but they don't radiate sophistication.)
Crumb & Cork, at one corner of downtown's burgeoning restaurant row on Franklin, is also offering Sunday jazz brunch, a really smart move as the downtown Sunday market grows in ambition. And despite having what Pillock describes as a "kitchen light," it's a nice lineup of croissant sandwiches ($8-$9), frittatas ($11-$12) and a decadent bananas Foster pain perdu ($12).
Together, the Wine Studio and Crumb & Cork are showing that while hops and barley can be endlessly fascinating, grapes have the power to rev up Tampa Bay crowds, especially when accompanied by cheese.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.