Cru Food and Wine Bar

Cru Food and Wine Bar, 9595 Six Pines Dr., Suite 650, The Woodlands, TX (Market Street)
Price: $$$ / $$$$$R Cru 2018
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Service: 3.5/5
Food: 4.0/5

Cru, a French term meaning growth but is generally taken to mean terroir or more specifically the quality of a wine grown and produced from a specific terroir. Premier Cru and Grand Cru terms are typically associated with outstanding to excellent quality wines from distinct geographic regions such as a top-level wine labeled Premier Cru from the Medoc region. Cru in Texas appears to be associated with copious choices for savoring tasty whites, bold reds, and all the colors in between; with and without bubbles.

Cru Food and Wine Bar, originally a Texas establishment, is slowly dispersing across the country and currently has 15 locations in the US; 10 in the Texas cities of Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Houston; 2 in Atlanta, Georgia; 2 in Denver, Colorado; and 1 in Lexington, Kentucky. Cru is dedicated to offering superb wines by glass and bottle along with a nice selection of California coastal style entrees and appetizers.

This is our first visit (7 March 2018) to Cru in The Woodlands.  My wife and I stopped in around 8 o’clock in the evening for a glass or two of wine and maybe a small bite of something tempting.  The bar and restaurant occupies a cozy little spot along the North Commons strip, across the street from the diminutive Central Park.  You have three options for seating: a patio for observing the street scene and people watching, an indoor bar and a few small indoor tables that by themselves seat 2-4 comfortably. The interior is tastefully done with blown-up wine labels decorating the back wall.  The interior space was clean and very quiet though there were only 3-4 couples seated around us. A casual and friendly atmosphere.

The waitress was very prompt greeting and seating us, and since it was our first visit, she was very pleasant in explaining the menu, which physically, was a thin wood panel with the food selections on one side and the wine by glass on the other.  I’m not sure who originated this type of menu but it sure is common, albeit nice, for wine bars all across the country.  They had a separate menu for libations and their extensive wine by the bottle offerings. The waitress continued to check in on us for orders and to see if all was well. The only small censure I had with the service was the visits to our table were a tad too spread out; 15-20 minute visit frequency, but I’m likely being overly critical.

W Valdisanti 2012While we studied the food menu we started off with a couple of glasses of a 2012 vintage Tolaini Valdisanti Tenuta S. Giovanni Toscana IGT from Tuscany, Italy at $20 per glass (I’m relying on my memory for the prices so I may be off a bit). A wonderful wine of dark fruits, full-bodied, well structured, with velvety tannins that leave you wanting more.  The wine is a red blend of 75%  Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cabernet Franc that I rate at 90, maybe 92.  The serpent in the wine glass is the universal symbol for St. John the Baptist, “San Giovanni”, and is also the name of the Italian vineyard from which the wine hails. This wine retails, if you can find it, for $22-30 per bottle.

We eventually decided to have a few small morsels of cheese to go with our wine.  They have 4 different “flights” of cheese boards that include 3 samples of various cheeses along with bread, grapes, sliced apple and pear. We chose the Chef’s Pick flight for $16 that consisted of Testun Ciuc, a bold Italian cheese aged in a wine barrel;  a sheep’s milk Pecorino Brillo, aged in Chianti; and a cow’s milk Cashel Blue, an Irish blue-veined cheese.  All were delicious but we really like the Testun Ciuc.  The powerful flavor paired well with the Tuscan wine.

Our visit was delightful and we will be back, especially to sample some of the more interesting items on their menu such as Lamb Lollipops with blue cheese and prosciutto, Salsiccia pizza topped with goat, roasted peppers and Italian sausage, or the Cast Iron Seared Sea Scallops with spinach parmesan risotto.  Their extensive wine offerings we didn’t even begin to scratch.  They offer an ever-changing selection of about 30 wines by the glass and around 10 times that amount by the bottle.  So little time to experience and enjoy, but we will persevere and try.


Grotto Italian Restaurant

Grotto Italian Restaurant, 9595 Six Pines, The Woodlands, TX (Market Street)R Grotto A 2018
Price: $$$ / $$$$$
Ambiance: 4.0/5
Service: 4.0/5
Food: 4.0/5

When in North Houston we always make an effort to stop by the Grotto for lunch. We’ve been coming here since 2014, if my memory serves me correctly, and I can’t remember a bad experience, either in the food served or the service.  When I think about it that’s an achievement that applies to almost no other place I can think of with the exception of a few extreme, pricey, high-end establishments.

The Grotto, with 7 locations in Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Texas, is one of the 60-some different Landry’s specialty restaurants. The Grotto, serving upscale and standard Italian fare, delivers a diverse menu emphasizing quality cuisine and attention to the details. The restaurant occupies a cavernous open chamber of tile, wood, and plaster in subdued but pleasant colors and stylish decor.  When busy this open area can reach into some fairly high decibel levels. The walls have various poems and quotes concerning Italian food and eating that I have only been able to partially decode with my limited vocabulary in the language. Overall the spirit of the interior is one of understated charm and impeccable cleanliness.

We have always had great service at the Grotto with the exception of parking, which is the fault of The Woodlands, Market Street town square shopping district; there simply is not enough parking in the area to accommodate all the shops and shoppers. We have solved this problem in 2 different ways depending on how lazy I am.  Either we use the adjacent Woodlands Mall parking lot and walk the less than 2 blocks to the restaurant or drive up to the front entrance and make use of the valet parking service. Seating is always cheerful and prompt. We have never had a reservation for lunch and had to wait for a table only once, but we just had a drink at the bar, passed a few moments in irrelevant conversation and in no time the hostess showed us to our table.  Once seated we are promptly served with water and a bottomless assortment of spicy and plain breads along with a very nice olive oil concoction of herbs and spices. The waiter has always been attentive in all our visits, quickly taking our drink orders and following up at appropriate intervals to take additional requests or just inquire about the service and or meal. The manager will usually stop by for a quick chat which is always a nice touch.

W O'Lillo 2014Drinks are always a meal prerequisite with us and the Grotto provides ample supplies of everything to satisfy our whims.  Beers to martinis, wine to mojitos, your thirst can be satiated in multiple venues but we usually just partake in wine and beer. They have my standard Italian beers of Moretti and Peroni and an adequate selection of wines by the glass.  They have a much more extensive selection of wine available by the bottle. For this visit we had a Baracchi O’Lillo Toscana IGT Super Tuscan, possibly a young 2016 vintage, that was very good. It was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese; brimming with full-bodied black fruits and leaving a lasting finish. I would rate this wine 90+, and for $10 a glass, a steal.

We started off our meal with an appetizer of their meatballs priced at $10. A pair of fist-sized monstrosities filled with herbs and breading.  Very flavorful but way too much if you are also going to have a meal.  These spheres of opulence would be a perfect complement for an after-work drink or two. In the past we have also tried their $14 Scampi Grotto: shrimp scampi, that is very good and definitely less filing than the meatballs.

For our entrees I ordered my usual, Meatzza Pizza for $17.  The ingredients have changed over the years; with and without bacon, with and without mushrooms; the current version consists of pepperoni, Italian sausage, and mushrooms all atop a wonderful thin, crisp crust cooked up in an open-fire pizza oven situated in the middle of the bar.  In my mind, close to a perfect pizza, onions instead of mushrooms would be perfect, but too large for one person. We ended up taking half the pizza home with us.  My wife had the Ravioli di Mare for $18. A delicious serving of seafood ravioli, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and shrimp abounding in a wonderfully creamy and smooth white wine sauce.

We usually end our luncheon fare with something sweet but due to the excessive intake of the prior dishes we had to take a pass, but their ever-changing desert cart always  has something irresistible.  Mezzanotte, tiramisu, cheesecake, cookies, strawberry cassata among other seductive treats.  Starting with desert would be an acceptable choice.

The Woodlands Grotto is a fine place, a great place for lunch or dinner.

Wild Hog Smokehouse Bar and Grill

Wild Hog Smokehouse Bar and Grill, 4410 South Washington St., Grand Forks, NDR Wild Hog.jpg
Price: $$$$$
Ambiance: 2.5/5
Service: 2.5/5
Food: 2.5/5

Our visits to the Wild Hog are becoming less frequent, less anticipatory; going there only on the spur of moment, when we are nearby.  Maybe we are getting bored with the establishment or maybe it’s the little bothersome things, that are not serious or upsetting by themselves, irksome maybe; which, over time, sum up to a disagreeable experience.

The Wild Hog is located on S. Washington to the east and across the street from the Altru’s architecturally muddled, health complex, with easy access and plenty of up-close parking. The bar and grill are separated into two equal parts with no hard dividing line or functional difference between them.  The dining area, including the bar, is a causal affair with spacious booths capable of easily seating 6 and wooden tables and chairs seating 4 or more.  There is a private room useful for parties of a dozen plus. The lounge side is furnished with a fully stocked bar surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped seating counter, and beyond that, bar height wooden tables, seating four or more. The bar does get claustrophobic and noisy when full.  The walls throughout the restaurant are hung with flat screens broadcasting sports programing of all sorts.  Most of the screens are too small, there are a few large screens, to watch for more than a few moments without incurring serious eye strain; fewer but larger screens would be an improvement.

Service is always a hit or miss adventure at the Wild Hog; usually the deciding factor in grading your visit.  Seating, usually prompt and immediate has been known to be a thumb twirling, toe tapping exercise.  Getting service once seated is never quick even when the place is sparsely populated. Once the drinks are ordered expecting to see them in a timely manner, if they involve anything alcoholic, is wishful.  This is one of the periods where you finish your texting to the unimportant people in your life.

We always start with drinks at the Wild Hog.  When in the mood for just a beer, we’re covered, the basics such as Bud, Miller, Coors and some finer brews such as Stella are here. Great, job well done, except they assume you want to drink out of a bottle if your brand is not on tap.  Of all the times I’ve had a beer at the Hog not once, let me repeat myself, not once, but I repeat myself, have they asked if I wanted to quaff that tasty beer from a frosty mug or glass. Life gets complicated if you want a mixed drink.  The Hog-tender presumes that a margarita is a girl’s name, but not to upset the customer, she concocts a drink of cheap tequila and lime juice on ice, creating the absolute, no contest, worst, dreadfully awful drink in the lower 48 states and 10 Canadian provinces. Stay clear, lime flavored bison spit is a step up.  Ordering a simple martini requires step by step instructions to the person occupying space behind the bar. My God it’s just gin and vermouth. A Gibson is impossible since cocktail onions are missing in action. The Hog bar is stocked but avoid the disappointment and order a Miller Lite.

Appetizers are always a nice addition to a meal and or drinks.  Choosing which app to nibble on can be a little tricky here; if not done properly you risk departing prematurely. The Boneless Tenders, 6 for $10 or 12 for $16 are very good strips of chicken and you certainly can make a meal from them. Try them with the Hog’s Honey BBQ sauce. Forget the Hogs in a Blanket, corn dogs from your grocery’s frozen section would be a better pick. The Burnt Ends, $10, are worth a try; one of the few new additions, along with the Fish Tacos, $13, I believe, to the menu in the last several years. The Spinach Artichoke Dip would be good if it ever came hot. After 2 or 3 orders of cold to slightly warm dip, slow learning occurs occasionally in my family, we gave up on this dish.  The BBQ Nachos or Deconstructed Nachos, $12, are not your run of the mill Mexican restaurant or even ballpark nachos.  Try the Deconstructed Nachos without the BBQ sauce; I find chips and BBQ sauce a difficult combination, although the one time I did order them deconstructed they came as constructed BBQ Nachos, so I’m a little inexperienced on advice for this one except that I know that I don’t like the non-deconstructed nachos. The overly salty Tostitos Rounds are exceptionally unremarkable chips for any restaurant; a negative everywhere except possibly for drunken party in your home. The Onion Tanglers, $8, are silly.

The main dishes are generally good, not terrific, not terrible, just good, fill you up, comfort food.  BBQ Pulled Pork, $16, is my favorite, the go-to when you can’t make up your mind, and if you want a little less volume try the Smokehouse Sandwich, $10, with pulled pork.  The Prime Rib Sandwich, $14 is tender and delicious, ordering it Philly style, $15.50, is even better. The Carne Asada Wrap, $11, The Classic Burger, $10, and the Fish Tacos, $13 are all good and worth trying, lunch or dinner.

The Wild Hog is ok; just ok.

Sky’s Restaurant and Cloud 9 Lounge

Sky Restaurant and Cloud 9 Lounge, 322 Demers, Grand Forks, NDR Sky's

  • Price: $$$$$
  • Ambiance: 4.0/5
  • Service: 4.5/5
  • Food: 3.5/5

Wednesday, sundown is an hour or so away, temperature has dropped to 70, the few trees sway, and the day’s end has a name:

And after such a blazing day
At last the breeze began to play
I drained my glass and turned to see
Her face she smiled she spoke to me
I told her my name I asked her the same
She said they call me sky…

(partial lyrics to Sky performed by Human League, written by: Philip Oakey and N. Barton © 2011.)

We met some friends at Sky’s for dinner, drinks, catch-up conversation and laughs. The guys discussed ways of the world, fishing, favorite and not so favorite beers and of course, times gone by. The gals were in high form, animated, speaking in their secret language; we ignored each other, mostly, except to comment on the food and drinks, and with more drinks, more comments, not necessarily on food and drinks, but certainly drinks were discussed when only the ice remained.

The restaurant and lounge are located on the second floor of the old First National Bank building, built-in 1915, accessible by escalator near the main floor entrance. Sky’s atmosphere and décor are upscale chic with a casual flare, nice clean lines without any pretensions to something greater, wooden chairs and cloth booths. White, starched table cloths at the booth tables would have afforded a stylish touch. There were some plastic looking orangish-red chairs with chrome frames mixed in with the wooden chairs at the tables, appearing embarrassed and out-of-place. We sat at a booth overlooking Demers Avenue which is not terrible scenic but it affords an opportunity to study the people on the sidewalks below without shame or guilt.

We started our event with Tanqueray and tonic and a margarita on the rocks. Not particularly difficult to make well, but nevertheless they were good, cool, and refreshing. We followed that up with more margaritas, Bailey’s, and Stella beers. A fine night it was. For some inexplicable reason we passed on sampling the wine selection, which appeared prodigious, but now we have an additional reason to return.

We followed the drinks up with an appetizer of escargot, $12, immersed in cognac butter with a faint amount of garlic, brought to our table in a white porcelain escargot tray, served very hot, but in a nit-picking way, not sizzling, popping and bubbling, affording a 4th of July delivery. A sliced white bread roll was added to soak up every drop of the piquant butter.  The escargots were delicious and definitely primed us for the entrees.

I ordered the filet mignon, $36, with a warm pink center, and accompanied with asparagus spears and a demi-glaze sauce served on the side, but I passed on the potatoes for waist-line reasons. My spouse asked for the herb crusted lamb loin, $28, served medium, and topped off with asparagus spears, garlic mashed potatoes and apple chutney sauce.  The filet was presented in a pedestrian manner with a half-dozen of so asparagus spears stacked on top of each other, opposite the steak sans dress.  The filet came well done with the very center being medium well and a peppercorn sauce was substituted for the demi-glaze.  The overcooked filet was tender but lacked the juiciness of medium.  The asparagus was crisp, not tough, and tasty.  The waitress was apologetic for the steak and sauce errors and offered to start over, but being the trooper that I am, I just carried on. She then offered to buy dessert but in the end we declined, although having the manager trek over to our booth and tell us that the chef had a terrible toothache and was having trouble concentrating on his art would have cheered us some…more.  The lamb, served sliced and stacked en-echelon around the contours of the plate, bogarting ones attention to the detriment of the asparagus and potatoes. The lamb came as ordered, a perfect warm pink center, seasoned to perfection. Wonderful.

Service was as one would expect, prompt, courteous, and attentive at all the right times.

We’ll go again mainly to sample the wine selection and under the assumption that the kitchen was having a bad night or toothache, deserving of a second chance.

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