Cru Cellars (South Tampa)
I have needed to write this place up for a while. The experience is so special, I really would have thought I would have been beaten to the punch, but I searched, and there was but one passing mention of Cru in February of this year as a rec for Valentine's Day. I didn't see anything else.
Part of the reason may be that it suffers from negative name association (dissociation?). There are so many pretenders in the "wine bar" category in Tampa, that every time my wife kept bringing it up, I assumed it was yet another Wine Exchange-y/Taps-y trendy of-the-moment place jumping on the bandwagon, and trying to sell me substandard drinks and eats at a premium. Or, I thought she may have been referring to a wine store that had tastings, probably not even seated, with "snacks". Or, I thought she was probably still thinking of our memorable meal at Cru in Ft. Myers six years ago (I see that's what all but one of the Cru mentions on this board have referred to).
But boy-oh-boy am I glad she dragged me to Cru earlier this year. We have gone four times in the last three months, with all kinds of groups (even with my mom). My experience has been incredibly consistent, and I fall in love with this place the more I go.
I'm not quite sure, but it seems it has been open between one to two years (the intensity on the face of Jennifer, one of the owners, suggests less than three years, at any rate!). They are knocking it out of the park. It is a small place in an odd location on Macdill, and half of it is retail (with some very interesting, curated, bottles), and the other half reminds me of a minimalistic minute black-box theater in soothing shades of taupe, greys, and natural wood, with flattering halogen lighting. Beautiful space, super pared down, as if to underline the fact that you are there for the wine and the food.
The wine list is among the best I've ever seen. There is something for everyone -- high, low, old world, new world, equal emphasis on reds and whites -- and perhaps most significantly, with a bent toward the off-beat, or lesser-known varieties. I had never had a priorat. Now I have it every time I go. It's just one example, but I guess the most important thing to note is that these people from the owners down to the "lowly" servers KNOW this list, and have a solid understanding of wine, and CAN COMMUNICATE IT. Of the four people I have engaged on my visits, none of them were haughty. None of them condescending. ALL of them gave a damn about their product. ALL of them actually wanted to teach me something. I cannot remember ever having an experience like this, on this level, in Florida.
Yes, I know we have Bern's, Mise en Place, and so many other restos with impressive lists, but I can't remember ever being presented with equal parts ENTHUSIASM and KNOWLEDGE about wine from a restaurant's personnel in Florida. Of course the experience at Cru is nothing like at a full restaurant, but I don't think that's what they aim for (and I respect that). The tiny place maybe seats 45 (65 with outdoor seating?), and the menu while well-thought-out and downright delicious is limited (I respect that also).
At the risk of overstatement, however, I have felt every time I have interacted with the staff as if I were in an important wine region of the world. I guess I would expect this level of passion/knowledge at any joint in Sonoma or in the Loire valley or in Piedmont. But to find it in Tampa is borderline scary.
All of the bottles are also sold by the glass, and most of them appear as part of carefully-thought-out wine flight on the menu, which allow you to sample without much commitment. This is the list, although I think it has changed a bit since this was posted:
I feel that with the flights especially, they are tailoring the experience to the taster, and furthering wine education. Every time a flight has been brought to our table (whether just the two of us, or in larger groups), the wines have been marked, explained, and contrasted for us. By EVERY single server. And not in a power-point-y way. And EVERY single wine on the list has been fabulous. I have not yet identified a weak one. Of course, not all work with every item on the menu (staff again MORE than happy to help), but every one I have had (and I have tried well more than half, including the sherries) has stood strongly on its own.
I haven't even gotten to the food. I believe they have a chef. I believe s/he actually cares. I believe people actually cook in the kitchen. Need I say more? Ok: they have the best burger I have ever had in Tampa (and it has been consistently outstanding over 3 different visits). I do not profess to be a Tampa burger hound -- I am too disillusioned -- but of those I've had, this is head and shoulders above the rest. I better stop; I'm getting hungry again! The meat has a deep, rich flavor -- I'd be surprised if they didn't use any marrow or lamb trimmings. The bun is not a lame grocery-store one, as it actually has bite; sops up juice; and never comes close to falling apart. And they have house-made slightly spicy pickle spears on the side. Another AND! AND you may pick from any of the "premium" cheeses on their list! Sottocenere! Aritisanal cheddar! Real bleu cheese! (I must disclose -- heretically, perhaps -- that there is no mention of fries or chips, or any other distractions. This burger is the main event, the only event, and with good reason.)
We've had a half dozen other items, including the marrow, with the same results. Very, very special. This kitchen knows what it's doing.
So in the interest of promoting all that is chow-worthy, I offer to you that Cru -- menu-wide and winelist-wide -- has been among the top three most consistently bodacious dining experiences I have ever had in Tampa Bay.
I think you'd really like it. I forgot to mention that there is a nice bar, which is actually central to the whole place, and it's been manned by Lucius, the wine director, every time I've gone. He's a helluva teacher, and really nice to be around. Solo diners -- and groups, even -- would do well at the bar, right in the middle of the action.
You're welcome. I have been taking too much from CH and not giving enough back. I particularly enjoy your input, gfr1111.
Despite the generally deplorable eating-out scene in Tampa, there are multiple stellar places I feel an obligation to support in any way possible, they're just that good. I'd also like to think that restaurant-industry folks read this board and see that there are people that are paying attention.
All in hopes of one day eliminating slop and proliferating deliciousness.