There's nothing that downtown dwellers love more than a cozy new restaurant with satisfying food and a staff with the knack for remembering the names of regulars. So they should be crowing about Cru. The name, in case you're not an oenophile, is French and refers to a vineyard. Here in Sarasota, Cru means a small and friendly wine bar and continental bistro.
Urban casual, Cru has warm yellow walls, contemporary paintings, cloth napkins, fresh flowers, low lighting and attentive service by a seasoned waitstaff. They're all in great shape because they're up and down stairs all night carrying plates. Ladies, you may want to leave those sexy, strappy little Manolos at home and opt for ballerina flats, because those stairs are a tad steep.
Cru wants you to taste new wines with your food or without it, so general manager/sommelier John Gardner has arranged for three ways to experiment and evaluate. Order by the glass with either a three-ounce or a six-ounce pour, or you can call for whole bottles. The wine list is ever evolving, with Gardner aiming for more boutique wines from small producers, labels you can't find in the supermarket or at area liquor stores. Currently the wine list boasts about 150 selections, and the range is global. Gardner loves to answer questions and debate flavor characteristics; so if you're inclined to ponder or pontificate, this is your place. And hasn't the movie Sideways emboldened us all to express a vine load of opinions about merlot and pinot noir?
Cru's proprietor is John Anderson, who also owns Pastry Arts. The chef is Malin Parker, a name you know from Fred's, where he was executive chef for five years. His menu at Cru is succinctly divided into small plates that average $9 and big plates that range from $13 for spaghetti and meatballs (with shaved Manchego to give it a Spanish spin) to $26 for a 12-ounce New York strip steak with a Stilton crust. That comes with mashed potatoes and braised Swiss chard, a leafy, healthy green that's trendy right now.
Two small plates, such as the roasted corn chowder (one of my personal favorites, with its smoky bacon bits and potato) and the spinach salad, are easily a meal since bread comes to the table, too. Someone wanting just a light bite couldn't go wrong with the Prince Edward Island mussels. The portion is modest, but the flavor is mighty because of the saffron-citrus infused cream. Sugar-cured tiger shrimp, black beans and chorizo, escargot or a cheese/fruit plate round out the little meals, although there are usually a couple off-the-menu chef daily specials.
In the big plate section, expect to find the ubiquitous seared ahi tuna, lamb shanks braised in zinfandel, roast half duck, jerk tenderloin, crispy snapper elevated with white truffle oil, or a pecan-crusted turkey breast nicely paired with cheddar grits and a tamarind-ginger glaze that lifts this bit of bird out of the ordinary.
The slipper-tail lobster comes in little shards atop a mound of English pea risotto. While not the biggest meal in the house, this one is really special. Delicately enhanced with precious droplets of white truffle oil and a dusting of freshly shaved pecorino cheese, this deceptively simple meal is tenderly nuanced.
Don't neglect the desserts. The restaurant sweets come from Pastry Arts and pastry chef Jean Lukowski. Classically trained in Europe, he's the real deal. Choose from a pear custard tart (the mildest and most unassuming of the sweets), a hazelnut praline flan, a French mocha torte (the star of the menu) or the chocolate amaretto torte. To pair with the desserts, sommelier Gardner has selected about a dozen possible wines as well as eight different coffee blends.
I've been to Cru a half dozen times since it opened and I don't even live downtown. I rarely find a convenient parking place. No matter. I'm such a fan of the food and the ambience, I'd rather walk a few blocks (and up a flight of stairs) than stay home and cook. I'm true to Cru, and my calf muscles are improving.
1377 Main St., Sarasota
Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Box Office Boffo
If you have tickets for the Asolo or The Players and you want to dine in comfort before showing up at the theater on time, you already know that nearby fine dining choices are scarce. But it's a niche that Villa Francesco wants to fill. You do your part by making a reservation, and owner Joe De Leo's chef and staff do their part in feeding you well and shooing you out the door in time for the overture.
The large and rambling Mediterranean-style space, with its dark-green stucco walls, genre oil paintings and rows of archways, is well suited to the classic Italian-American menu, which is itself big and rambling. It's divided into courses in the European manner of eating, so you order one from each to make up an elaborate meal or just stay in one or two divisions. If you want to eat light, you might select a soup such as pasta e fagioli ($4.50) and pair it with a Caesar salad or the cappucina con Gorgonzola, which is romaine, cheese, toasted pine nuts and paper-thin slices of red onions ($5.50). The pasta selections are divided into categories such as spaghetti and seafood or vodka rigatoni and another category that's all stuffed pastas, such as lasagna Bolognese ($15.95), which is amazingly light in texture and wonderfully full flavored. From there the menu advances to about a half a dozen fish dishes and four or five selections in the chicken and veal divisions. Once a week the chef makes ossobuco, and there's usually a special soup and entrée of the day. Entrées average $18.95. Desserts are the routine tiramisu, ice cream and cannoli.
The wine list is Mediterranean-inspired and fairly extensive. There's plenty of roaming-around-room in the $30-$35 category, or you might experiment with the super Tuscans at $70 a bottle. All wines by the glass are $6, and for that you get a surprisingly healthy pour. If you nod off in the first act of your play, you can blame it on the generosity of the sommelier.
Service is crisp, efficient and pleasant. The servers know the menu well and can make helpful suggestions. Best of all, if they know you need to make that curtain, they'll see to it that you do, sending you on your way feeling that your money and time were wisely dispensed.
1603 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: nightly from 5-10 p.m.
Reservations strongly suggested
Parking in restaurant lot
Not a wine, not a beer.
So what exactly is Bistro 8? According to Anheuser-Busch brewmaster Jane Killebrew-Galeski, Bistro 8 is a food-friendly, fermented fruit and grain drink balanced to enhance everyday and gourmet foods. It's lighter than beer, less complex than wine, and should be viewed as an alcoholic alternative to both.
The nicest thing about Bistro 8 is that it's palate cleansing and refreshing. And it actually does nuzzle up quite nicely to a wide range of foods. Recently, three of us sampled Bistro 8 at Michael's On East (where it's on the menu) with spicy nibbles, comfort foods, fruits and cheeses, Asian fare, and continental bistro dishes. Bistro 8 came up a viable beverage choice for everything. It doesn't compete with foods, making it a retiring but pleasant dinner companion. Certainly not as bloating as beer, with less alcohol than wine, Bistro 8 is a convivial alternative. It should be served chilled; and since it's slightly effervescent, you finish it at one sitting.
As for the Bistro 8 recipe: It's blended with eight different flavors/aromas including apple, mango, apricot, cactus, lime, grapefruit, oak and spices. No single flavor announces itself on the palate. An eight-ounce serving contains 110 calories, 4.7 grams carbohydrates and is seven percent alcohol by volume. The recipe was refined over an 18-month period in conjunction with panels of leading national chefs. But brewmaster Galeski wouldn't name a single celebrity chef. If Bistro 8 tanks, star chefs aren't taking the fall.
The most fascinating fact about Bistro 8 is that it's being test marketed in one city, and one city only in the United States; and that city is Sarasota. Why us, a town not generally described as a hot spot for innovative foods and beverages? From the marketing division of Anheuser-Busch, Anne Peterson explains that the company was looking for a plus-30 crowd in a place with a lot of restaurants, local people with leisure time and tourists on vacation willing to experiment. Sarasota fit. So, here we are, suddenly on the forefront of a hip new drink.
If you want to participate in the Bistro 8 experiment, order a bottle at Michael's on East, Patrick's, Caragiulo's or Mediterraneo. Or you can buy either a 24-ounce bottle or a four-pack of eight-ounce bottles at Publix or Albertson's supermarkets. The price for both is about $6. Let me know your reactions to Bistro 8 by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pass along your evaluations to the Anheuser-Busch brewmaster in St. Louis.
Lance Thompson finds the recipe for career success.
Lance Thompson is four years into a career in the food industry. For 47 years, Lance Thompson was a businessman with degrees in engineering. He and wife Linda used to host elaborate dessert parties for 100, and that avocation is now his new occupation. When Thompson retired in 1999, he enrolled in the Cooking and Hospitality Institute in Chicago and went on to earn credentials at the Cordon Bleu. When Linda retired last year, they moved to Sarasota and Thompson launched Sarasota Catering Company. His forte is small to mid-size dinner parties.
Cornbread stuffed pork chops have been part of Thompson's repertoire for 15 years. "I've tweaked it over time," he says, "and my greatest improvement was finding the right brine combination. I serve this dish with tangy red cabbage and an Argentinian malbec called Terrazas Reserve." Sarasota Catering Company, 6544 Superior Ave., Sarasota. 927-7675.
Cornbread Stuffed Pork Chops
1 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon peppercorns
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups ice
4 double thick pork chops
2 cups cornbread, broken up into small pieces
1/2 cup coarsely cut celery
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup currants
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 cup chicken broth
salt and pepper
For the brining solution, bring the apple cider vinegar to a simmer and then add the salt and peppercorns. Let the solution sit for 10 minutes. Add ice, stir, and place solution in a bowl or ziplock bag. Add pork chops, cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for two hours.
For the stuffing, mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl, and then add the liquid a little at time until it just holds together. (You may not need all the broth.) Remove chops from brine and dry with a paper towel. Looking at the pork chop from the side, make an incision into the chop to make as big a pocket as possible without cutting through the back or sides. Place two to three tablespoons of stuffing into the pocket. Don't let the stuffing hang out of the pocket because it could burn when cooking.
Place chops on a hot oiled grill for two minutes and then rotate 45 degrees and let cook for another two minutes. Turn chops and cook for two minutes. Rotate chops 45 degrees and cook for another two minutes. If the grill is hot, you'll have grill marks on the chops. Finish in 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until the internal temperature is at least 150 degrees. (No grill? Put chops directly in the oven for about 20 minutes or until chops register 150 degrees.) Let rest for five minutes before serving.