Talk about tough breaks.
After nine months of intensive renovations, things were finally set to go at the remodeled and expanded Cru Cafe and Wine Bar. Not only had the place doubled in size, but owner Debbie Sharpe had also planned a second outlet of The Goddess and Grocer, her popular Bucktown gourmet goodie shop, at the same address.
But a week before the scheduled Nov. 3 opening, chef Patrick Crane, charged with overseeing the menus at both spots, snapped his ankle. Crutches in the kitchen? Not a good idea.
So Sharpe turned to an old friend to pitch in. That friend just happened to be Dale Levitski, who's among the most versatile and consistently interesting chefs in Chicago today. His resume includes stints at Orange, La Tache, Trio Atelier, and a role as consulting chef at Stone Lotus.
Sharpe's timing was good he was free. Levitski, 33, is scouting locations for his own restaurant, which he hopes to open in March 2007.
But was he up for the challenge of taking over another chef's menu with such little time? "The first instinct is that you've got to be crazy," he recalls. "Then, hell no!" Finally, however, he relented. "I love the challenge."
Levitski revamped and tightened the mostly light-bite menu of Cru. "I put a bistro spin on things," he says. Good call. The menu remains a bit of a work in progress; Levitski guesses he'll be finished with his substitute work in about a month. Until then, he's kept things light, easy-to-share and social--ideal for this laid-back hangout.
Despite an expanded bar area, Sharpe didn't fiddle too much with the dark, rich, cozy vibe of Cru's previous incarnation. It remains, for my money, the best hey-let's-grab-a-drink-after-work place in town. And if you're doing a little holiday shopping, it's close enough to Michigan Avenue shopping that you can easily stop by and ward off worries about January's credit card bill with a glass of bubbly.
Cru deftly balances elegant (yes, there are more sparkly chandeliers than ever, and the place seems entirely wrapped in chenille and mohair) and accessible (go ahead, curl up on that couch while you gab). There's a separate fireplace-warmed room that overlooks Delaware Street, and a third dining room, with tables, chairs and a banquette.
The nibbles we tried suited the spirit of the place -- and the season. Warm, spicy, citrus-spiked olives ($6) served with a few slices of white bread were great. Another winner: the charcuterie plate ($14), big enough for two and served with flavorful mustard, salami and more olives.
The menu offers a lineup of salads ($6-$11), and sandwiches ($13-$15) served with pommes frites or mixed greens. If you're looking for a dessert place, Cru also satisfies. Betsy's Cookie Plate ($8), a rotating assortment of biscuits from Betsy Robinson, the Goddess's pastry chef, is a shareable standout. Got a real sweet tooth? Try the Chocolate Shards ($8), a slab of tangerine-studded dark chocolate and pistachio-studded milk chocolate served with a housemade caramel sprinkled with sea salt. If you're not into sharing, Levitski introduced bistro-fare entrees this weekend, such as grilled flatiron steak with pommes frites ($19) and house-made gnocchi with root vegetables ($19).
Of course, the drink menu here is dominated by wines. And it's a good idea to stick to them: Cru seems a little uncertain on the 'tinis. Our ice wine martini ($9) was garnished with a lemon peel rather than the advertised grapes, giving it an ill-suited perfume taste. The by-the-glass wine list offers five sparklers (14 whites and 13 reds) with enough variety, from a South African chenin blanc ($7) to New Zealand pinot noir ($13), to satisfy most palates and pocket books. The bottle selection is more extensive, but well organized and reasonably easy to navigate. Bottles start in the upper $20s, with a few reaching what should be considered the upper stratosphere for casual sippers.
Service is still a bit inconsistent, so be patient. Considering its rough start and the kitchen's stylish recovery Cru deserves a break of a different kind.
Chris LaMorte is the metromix dining producer. firstname.lastname@example.org