When you sit down to the table at Cru, a new restaurant that recently opened near Washington Square, you are handed the wine list: three leather-bound tomes. Stacked up, they’re almost as thick as the Yellow Pages of New York, Tokyo and London combined. One book is for reds, the other for whites; the smaller volume has over 50 choices available by the glass or half glass.
Cru’s selection of over 65,000 bottles come from the private cellar of Roy Welland, the restaurant’s main owner, and the list of 3,500 wines was compiled by sommelier Robert Bohr. Wine lovers—especially those with large bank accounts—will have the time of their lives.
The six men at a nearby table one evening were certainly enjoying themselves, seated around a forest of gleaming wine glasses and decanters, sniffing and swirling and holding their glasses up to the light. (This is euphemistically known in the trade as a “wine tasting.”)
While we were speed-reading through page after page of Puligny Montrachets, Haut Brions and Pomerols—and vintages we could only dream about (Hermitage for $4,900, anyone?)—a busboy arrived with a tray of burgundy-colored cones, made of roast beet and filled with a creamy purée of gorgonzola with pistachio. Miniature arancini stuffed with lobster came next, followed by a selection of wooden sticks topped with prosciutto wrapped over fontina and fried bread, like a tiny, inside-out sandwich. These set the scene for the food that was to come. Shea Gallante, who was formerly chef de cuisine at Bouley, has a menu to match the dazzling wines—although, mercifully, it’s not hundreds of pages long.
Cru has moved into the historically jinxed space that was formerly Washington Park, also owned by Mr. Welland. It closed abruptly last year with the departure of chef Jonathan Waxman (who has since opened Barbuto near the Meat Market). The venue has now been given a complete makeover. Cru’s sleek, clubby dining room is the perfect setting for wine tastings, with its dark brown banquettes, thick brown carpeting and gray walls. It’s divided from the front room by a two-sided rosewood bar. A couple more paintings would not go amiss, but the room is quiet and relaxing—not to mention staffed to the nines—and the service is friendly and informed.
You’d think that a restaurant with $5,000 bottles of wine on its list would be rather stiff. Not a bit of it. Cru feels as casual as a neighborhood place, with no dress code. At the bar in the front, which has windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, you can drop in for a meal without a reservation.
The menu starts off with crudo, a selection of small plates of raw seafood. The juxtaposition of ingredients may sound bizarre, but they work—often brilliantly. Pink slices of Arctic char are dusted with smoked pepper and served with julienne of apple, endive tips, baby wild arugula and vanilla oil. White tuna comes with a salty praline made of dried olives and a “caper espresso” sauce. Raw langoustine, which has a pleasantly gummy texture, is served with green papaya, truffle and gin sauce. Crème fraîche with a piece of dried orange peel and a slice of pink grapefruit complete this amazing dish, which is topped with a peppery salad of tiny micro sesame. Immediately, you’re aware that this chef has complete mastery of flavors and textures.
I’ve never tasted more tender quail, which Mr. Gallante bones and stuffs with speck and tarragon and cooks in a water bath before searing it. The bird reclines on a bed of risotto topped with a soft poached quail egg. He gets the same tender result with poularde baked in buttermilk, served on a bed of farro with chanterelles and braised leeks. He likes to mix the unexpected: Wolf fish, a delicately sweet and brightly flavored fish, sails in on a warm tripe salad with carrots and oven-dried tomato and a dash of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Wild turbot is such a great fish on its own that perhaps it doesn’t need the spices that Mr. Gallante coats it with, but it still holds up well with a rich red wine sauce and braised red cabbage, baby carrots and parsnips. Lobster is heavenly, buttery and sweet, served with fresh bacon, escarole and horseradish. Loin of venison was glazed with prunes, the plate a play of black and red, with baby beets, chestnut purée and black trumpet mushrooms.
The menu also has a section devoted to pasta. The large floppy ravioli with pecorino, walnuts and marjoram are first-rate, as is the creamy risotto with sea urchins, tomatoes and tarragon.
Pastry chef Will Goldfarb’s desserts include dark chocolate financier with raspberry compote and hazelnut praline cream, a pear papillote and a sublime chocolate parfait with passion fruit sorbet. Trifle comes in a glass layered with caramel mousse, lemon bread and blackberries and, on the bottom, Jurancon gelee. It looks like a mad science experiment and is absolutely delicious.
But there is a mad science experiment on the menu, an “interactive” dessert recalling Mr. Goldfarb’s vacation on St. Barth’s: “Liquid lunch with sand, sun and ocean.”
Our waitress set down a white towel in a basket filled with a collection of containers. “The silver canister is to spray the sea, the orange container is peach water and saffron for the smell of the sun (don’t drink it!), and the other container is puréed sable breton to look like sand. It comes with a ‘ham and cheese sandwich.’”
The “sandwich” was made, believe it or not, with prosciutto ice cream, epoisse cheese, apricot jam and a jelly of grapefruit juice with white beer, topped with something gritty for sand-toasted brioche crumbs. You’d never have guessed; it tasted like a perfectly nice sundae.
As far as the daunting wine lists are concerned, British humorist Stephen Potter’s “Winemanship Basic” had the answer: “When the waiter comes, say to him, ‘Look. You’ve got a Chateau Neon ’45 somewhere secreted about the place, I know. Can you let us have a bottle?’ (You know he’s got it because you have in fact read it off the wine list, cheapest but one.) When the waiter leaves you can say, ‘They keep a small cache for favorite customers.’”
Cru’s wine list is available on the Web at http://www.cru-nyc.com. I suggest you order your bottle in advance and get the satisfaction of waving away the leather-bound tomes and telling your friends that Mr. Bohr, who is one of the country’s top sommeliers, has set something aside especially for you. They need never know the bottle he brings to the table with trembling hands costs somewhere in the low two figures.