|Fast facts:||Cru Bistro & Wine Bar|
|Cuisine:||Contemporary American small plates|
|Price range:||$6 to $12|
|Summary:||Artfully conceived and well-prepared small plates accompanied by an intriguing wine list|
|Address:||11383 Parkside Drive, Knoxville, TN 37934 Map|
Small plates dominate the menu at Cru Bistro & Wine Bar. When I first heard about the small-plate concept, I wondered if it might be some variation on tapas, or if it simply meant the owners wanted to skimp on portions and charge a fortune while calling it "haute cuisine" or something.
It turns out that neither is true.
Cru serves well-conceived, attractive, and tasty dishes for a reasonable price. Color me surprised.
The small plates on the menu are meant to be shared, and the staff will spread them out over multiple rounds if that's what the customer prefers. This is a great way to sample, for instance, seafood and white meats in the first round and red meats in the second round, with appropriate wines paired each time.
The NoshViews Team* dined at Cru recently and left satisfied, impressed, and not significantly poorer than when we entered. The server recommended approximately two plates per person, and that formula turned out to be correct.
Our first round consisted of calamari and a crab cake. The calamari was very lightly breaded and pan-fried with garlic and pepper, then served with a sweet cherry pepper sauce and a basil vinaigrette. The jumbo lump crab cake was served over a fried green tomato with a caper-and-dill remoulade.
The calamari was an excellent dish. The basil vinaigrette was mildly tart and aromatic, and its slightly earthy tone balanced the sweet pepper sauce very well. Basil goes well with just about any kind of seafood, since its delicate sweetness runs little risk of competing against an equally delicate main ingredient. To my palate, calamari has a naturally nutty flavor, so the slightly floral and sweet bouquet of basil is a perfectly suitable partner. The calamari at Cru is a well-conceived and well-executed dish, allowing its three core flavors of calamari, basil, and pepper to reinforce each other rather than compete. The balance of the three was just right.
On the other hand, the crab cake needs some work. The crab cake itself was very good, and the caper-dill remoulade worked beautifully as a companion sauce, but the fried green tomato just didn't quite cut it with us. Maybe it's because tomatoes aren't in season yet, but the green tomato in this dish had so little flavor, we didn't even notice it at first. In this case, the nondescript tomato slice served as nothing more than a fried pedestal on which to perch the crab cake and lift it off the plate. It was otherwise irrelevant to the dish. Though not a fatal flaw, that tomato needs to go.
Round two consisted of a shrimp dish, a pork tenderloin, and a tiny little side of grilled cornbread with smoked pimento cheese. The "colossal shrimp" dish was served alongside a polenta cake containing smoked cheddar and tiny bits of andouille sausage; the shrimp and polenta were accompanied by red eye gravy and fried spinach. The pork tenderloin was cooked with garlic and oregano, and served under a Pommery mustard cream sauce, with a hash of Yukon potatoes and Benton's bacon.
The colossal shrimp was the best dish of the night. The two shrimp were enormous (though not quite as large as, say, a North Sea prawn) and cooked just perfectly. The cheddar and andouille added the right notes of smokiness and spice to the polenta cake, which was solid and substantial, and proudly held its own place in the dish. Unlike the sad green tomato in the crab cake dish, the polenta cake was a strong partner to the shrimp. This was a surprisingly effective match.
Even more surprising was the inclusion of red eye gravy in the dish. The idea of bacon grease and coffee thickened with a little flour just seemed like a strange sauce for shrimp and polenta, but it worked shockingly well. Similar to the andouille and cheddar in the polenta cake, the red eye gravy was smoky and a little spicy without being overly dark.
Draped over the dish was spinach fried so delicately, it looked like spun glass. When placed on the tongue, there was a brief hint of crispness, then the spinach dissolved almost immediately. The spinach flavor survived the frying quite well, and those wonderfully strange gossamer leaves married perfectly with the red eye gravy. It sounds like an odd pairing, but that combination of spinach and gravy was our favorite of the entire meal. The colossal shrimp was a masterfully conceived dish, working on every level and touching every part of the palate. Cru deserves a big loud "Bravo!" for that construction.
The pork tenderloin was also a well conceived dish, though the execution suffered due to the pork being overcooked. The garlic and oregano flavors did not overpower the pork as I feared they might, nor did the Pommery mustard cream sauce. In fact, the sauce was delicate, slightly nutty in flavor due to the Pommery mustard (the recipe for which is a notoriously guarded family secret), and soft and creamy enough to enhance the pork rather than mask it. Unfortunately, the pork was overcooked and therefore a little tough. This distracted us from the excellent concept of the dish, which I think would have otherwise been our favorite of the night.
The pork was served over a hash of Yukon potatoes and Benton's bacon. I probably don't need to go into tremendous depth about how great this hash was. Suffice it to say that the two of us greedily scooped up that item, nearly fighting over it, mumbling over and over, "Oh my God, these potatoes!" The hash was a tremendous blast of flavors, and the Pommery mustard cream sauce took it to a level bordering on the hedonistic.
Alongside those two dishes, we had grilled cornbread with smoked pimento cheese. We agreed that this was an outstanding, lovely dish. I suspect the cornbread was made from a blend of white corn meal and a high-gluten cake flour, because the end result was the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever eaten. It was almost like a white cake in its texture and airiness. A quick grilling gave the cornbread a lightly browned and crispy crust, which was a nice contrast to the delicate body inside. The pimento cheese draped it in a silky, earthy curtain of smoke, cheese, and spice. It was richly creamy, even a little fatty perhaps, with a distinct smoke flavor. This was the best pimento cheese I've ever tasted. Like the colossal shrimp, this dish was artfully conceived and masterfully executed.
Cru has an outstanding wine list, which I plan to explore in future visits. Their offerings span the globe, pulling wines from many vineyards most American restaurants don't serve. Relatively few of their wines appear on other wine lists in Knoxville, and those that do are among the usual suspects at the higher end of the price scale (Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, etc.). However, the vast majority of Cru's wines are inexpensive, selected not for their price but for their quality. Restaurants in Knoxville tend to exclude obscure wines because they have less market appeal, but Cru seems to be willing to buck this trend, presenting wines that they believe should be appealing to the discerning palate. This is an admirable and welcome approach that is too rare in the restaurant business, especially in Knoxville. I'm looking forward to watching that wine list evolve.
For example, Cru features several "unoaked" chardonnays, and I'm only aware of two other restaurant in town that are currently doing so (Bistro By The Tracks carries one, and The Grill At Highlands Row carries three; if you know of others, please mention them in the comments). The trend toward aging New World chardonnays without using oak barrels is a welcome one which I wholeheartedly support, but it's a trend that still hasn't caught fire across the country quite yet (see here for some background on that subject). Cru is ahead of the curve on that one, and I'm thrilled to see it happening here.
Cru offers a refreshingly eclectic selection of wines by the bottle, by the glass, and by flights. Each flight consists of small glasses of four different wines. One flight may be white wines, one may be reds, and another may be a mixture of those. This makes it easy to experiment with different wines paired alongside different small plates. The flights offered during our visit were around $15 each, which would translate to something like $7 for a full glass. That's about average these days for restaurants in Knoxville, so a flight of four doesn't represent a price premium over two full glasses.
Almost all the wines looked tempting, and we talked about ordering a couple of flights for our meal. Instead, we chose a bottle of sparkling wine: Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, a Spanish cava. This was a gorgeous, supple, earthy, and slightly spicy wine that paired exquisitely with our dishes.
I'm a huge fan of cava and have been for many years. The name "cava" refers to the method of making the wine, rather than a specific grape variety. Cava is the most famous sparkling wine of Spain; the name refers to the traditional method of aging the wine in barrels stored underground in the caves of Catalonia. The results are usually somewhat spicy, a little smoky, and often with notes of herbs, almond, and sometimes walnut.
The Segura Viudas is a tremendous example of the cava style, and it was a gorgeous complement to our meal. It brought to life the smoky, earthy, and spicy elements of our dishes; believe it or not, the cava married so beautifully with the red eye gravy in the colossal shrimp dish that I cannot imagine having any other wine with that item, except maybe a malbec or grenache. Its herbal notes also added significant depth to the crab cake and cornbread dishes.
As I mentioned above, I plan to explore Cru's remarkable wine list in more depth. I'll post my tasting notes and opinions of those wines in future reviews.
I would suspect the small-plate concept at Cru works best for small groups of perhaps two to four people, although a large table of maybe a dozen people near us seemed to be sharing dishes quite efficiently.
Most small plates range in price from $6 to $12. Our dishes, not counting alcohol, tax, or tip, cost $41 for two people, allaying my fears about expense. The restaurant occupies both the former Table Fifteen space and the wine shop which used to exist next door, so it's larger than I expected it to be.
(*The NoshViews Team consists of me and whomever I can drag out to dinner on short notice.)See all NoshViews reviews...
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