Serious wine geeks, I’ve noticed, are like certain exotic migratory birds. Like the arctic tern, say, or the albatross, they engage in long, solitary journeys during the course of the year, searching for this vintage or that, but whenever they gather in groups, they like to strut a little and show their plumage. Lately, the wine geeks have been gathering on lower Fifth Avenue, at a fine new restaurant called Cru. You can see them from the street, through the tall glass windows: pale gentlemen lined up by the bar, swirling their glasses of ’90 Comtes Lafon or ’55 Richebourg, their Adam’s apples bobbing excitedly, their heads bowed in attitudes of reverie and contemplation. When, through a friend, I asked one of the city’s more gregarious well-known oenophiles if he’d be willing to share his expertise over a dinner at Cru, the word came back that he’d love to and, by the way, he’d already been to the restaurant five or six times. When we sat down, other members of his tribe drifted up to discuss different varietals and vintages, and soon our table was crowded with a forest of flutes and goblets, and the air was filled with happy clinking sounds and the murmuring of abstruse adjectives.
The wine collection at Cru (or “the portfolio,” as the restaurant’s publicist insists on calling it) consists of an astonishing 65,000 bottles, most of them belonging to the owner, Roy Welland. Mr. Welland was also the owner of Washington Park, which occupied the same space Cru does now before closing abruptly late last year. Washington Park was an airy, bright establishment, specializing in airy, bright, seasonal New American cuisine. Cru, by contrast, is darkly polished and aggressively refined (the name refers to the French term for a growth of grapes). The executive chef is Shea Gallante, the latest prodigy to emerge from the kitchens of David Bouley. There are softly lit oil paintings on the walls, and the room is appointed with yards of burnished wood, like the dining suite of a lavish, somewhat antiseptic corporate hotel. The waiters are dressed in black, there are fresh-cut flowers on the tables, and the wine list comes not in one weighty leather-bound volume but two. One of the books is for reds and one for whites, and if you find them a little overwhelming, you can do what the wine geeks do and study the list at length online before coming to dinner.
The oenophile ordered a bottle of Chablis to start (2000 Gilbert Picq Vieilles Vignes), to accompany the fleet of fish crudi at the top of Gallante’s menu. The clean, dry Chablis was very good (“no cleavage to speak of, but great cheekbones,” intoned the oenophile), but the crudos were better. There were carefully articulated portions of arctic char tipped with smoked pepper, julienned apples, and a drop of vanilla, pieces of langoustine spiked with gin, and small postage stamps of fluke served with diced cucumbers, mango, and spoonfuls of Osetra caviar. For an appetizer, I enjoyed a nice piece of sturgeon off the chef’s tasting menu, covered with a light crème fraîche sauce folded with more caviar. It came to the table along with a soothing, interestingly chewy soup made of burrata cheese and fine white polenta, and a pair of nicely roasted scallops scored on their tops to resemble a pair of blooming flowers. The oenophile buried his nose in a dish of soft, crispy-edged skate wing (flavored with pine-nut flour and saffron), and before long, wine ceased to be the main topic of conversation at our table and people were talking about the food.
This is thanks to Gallante, who was chef de cuisine at Bouley. If there’s a criticism to make about his cooking at Cru, it’s that it’s too Bouley-centric, which, in the end, isn’t much of a criticism at all. Like his mentor, Gallante molds his ingredients in delicate, aggressively precious ways, building flavors on the plate with a kind of painterly precision. Every meal begins with an amuse-bouche presented on a little white tray. One evening, my pot contained roasted pieces of red shrimp; on another, a trio of delicious Kumamoto oysters coddled in a sunchoke bisque, with a smoky touch of pumpkin-seed oil. Potentially robust pastas are pampered in similarly dainty, fastidious ways. My friend the gnocchi addict murmured soft, barely perceptible hosannas over the dissolving quality of his favorite dish, which Gallante intersperses, in the Batali tradition, with oxtail simmered in Barolo wine. There are plump pecorino-filled ravioli; also, good hand-rolled tagliolini mixed with saffron, squid, and zucchini blossoms; and a vivid orange bowl of risotto blended with sea urchin, tomatoes, and tarragon.
I don’t recall precisely which kind of fancy wine I enjoyed with my serving of duck breast. But I do recall the duck. It was cooked to a gentle tenderness (to use food-geek terminology) and cut in thin, surgical slices, with the crispy, candied skin still intact. The very Bouley-like chicken had a similar milky quality (it’s cooked in buttermilk), and when you cut into it, the natural gravy mingled pleasingly with a mound of braised leeks, farro, and chanterelles. Certain seafood dishes underwent similar transformations. The black bass collapsed into a pile of potatoes, crabmeat, and an herb-rich salsa verde, and after a bite or two, the neatly arranged pieces of poached pink lobster mixed nicely with a mound of escarole braised with garlic and flavored with horseradish and salty nuggets of pork belly. Gallante’s rendition of lamb is fine as lamb goes (you get a couple of nice chops, and pieces of loin mixed with artichokes and fava beans), but the best meat dish I had was the venison loin, which is cut in two plump medallions, propped upright on the plate, and lacquered with a rich, faintly sweet glaze made with prunes.
Because Welland and his fellow owners double the wholesale price, at most, instead of tripling it (the common custom elsewhere), it’s possible to find a reasonable selection of wines to go along with your food at Cru. Our high-cheekboned Chablis cost $38, and a ’99 Leroy (one of the great white-Burgundy producers) cost $72. Of course, if you want to pay through the nose, you can. A bottle of 1870 Lafite-Rothschild costs a cool $11,000, and at dessert time, pastry chef Will Goldfarb rolls out a trifle of thin caramel sauce, blackberries, and lemon sorbet, designed, for $100, to be enjoyed with a glass of ’83 Château d’Yquem. Goldfarb, who has a reputation in dessert circles as a radical bomb thrower, also offers a “spontaneous dessert.” It’s composed on the spot, and consisted of a glass of fruit sorbet, bubbles, and bland creamy foam on the two occasions I ordered it. Then there’s the Day at the Beach, made of jellied lemon (to evoke a slice of Key-lime pie Mr. Goldfarb once enjoyed on St. Bart’s), white foam infused with salty prosciutto (to evoke the sea), and crushed Breton cookies (the “sand”). There’s a decent selection of cheeses, too, although if you’re wise, you’ll put down your spoon and do what the oenophiles do. You’ll order another bottle of wine.
Ideal meal: The crudo, sturgeon, and duck, followed by the caramel trifle (served, for a cool $100, with the Château d’Yquem).
Note: Wines by the glass also come in three-ounce pours for the cost-conscious connoisseur.