Real cuisine--or gator bait?

Blue Conch brings Florida fare to Dallas

California cuisine was first out of the chute. Then came New Orleans, Southwestern, and Florida. Florida? Yes. The Sunshine State, noted nationally for its European tourist eradication program, has entered the regional cuisine big leagues. Actually, it's been there since the early '90s, when it burst onto the scene with imaginative creations featuring fresh fish, tropical fruits, chili peppers, and Caribbean herbs and spices.

Floridians got so impressed with their culinary innovations, they nudged Governor Lawton Chiles (the guy who just squeezed $11.3 billion from the tobacco companies for the laudable purpose of raining wads of nicotine-tainted cash on state bureaucrats) into forming the Florida Cuisine Culinary Council in early 1996. This organ, a conglomeration of cutting-edge Florida chefs, was founded to enhance the profile of native culinary trends by demonstrating "how their great-tasting Florida Cuisine creations can be easily duplicated at home." Or in Texas.

Which brings us to the Blue Conch Florida Bar, a new Dallas seafood spot on Skillman Avenue (next to the Brick Room) that features Florida cuisine in a few of its various incarnations. You won't find pompano dusted with crushed pistachios or pork loins stuffed with chorizo and smoked over guava bark here. But you will find a raw bar with clams, oysters, shrimp, and boiled green peanuts (nuts in the shell boiled in salt water) along with a menu offering fish burgers and conch fritters.

Launched by Gainesville, Florida, resident Bob Peterson, an owner of Aw Shucks (Greenville Avenue and Addison locations) seafood bars and the Blue Goose Cantinas (lower Greenville and Addison locations), the Blue Conch is a low-key hangout--the kind of place where you might sit down and have a beer while you dump the sand out of your shoes. It fills the space that was once Carpaccio's Clam & Pasta House, a Peterson venture that fizzled after just a few short weeks.

Blue Conch's dining room is furnished with white-washed picnic tables on seemingly misplaced mauve carpet. Swirls of used brick peek out from the wall behind the bar where the white sheet rock has been chiseled away. Island watercolors share space on the remaining walls with framed newspapers proclaiming Gator football victories.

Stuffed with items lifted from various restaurants all over Florida, the menu flirts with culinary plagiarism. But manager Damon Conners says it's OK, because they give the places credit on the menu.

Put together and executed by chef Venacio Macedo, who was chef at the Blue Goose for 15 years, the menu has some serious slippage on the raw bar side, while the entrees, for the most part, are well assembled. The oyster and artichoke soup, for example, had a tangy, spicy broth with a dollop of sour cream and big chunks of artichoke hearts. But floating in its midst were three submerged raw oyster globs that weren't even slightly cooked. Now eating ice-cold raw oysters doused with lemon or dipped in cocktail sauce is one thing. But trying to choke down very warm oysters with a soup spoon is an experience I'm not eager to repeat. The soup also had a bit of bubbled scum around the sides of the bowl as if it had been microwaved, and the accompanying bread was stale.

The conch and shrimp pasta salad with tricolor corkscrew pasta came with appropriately chewy, firm conch and flavorless shrimp. The pasta had a refrigerated-too-long firmness about it and was doused in a wimpy vinaigrette--not a very complementary arrangement. Our half-dozen oysters on the half shell, though, were fine, with just one marginal, off-tasting specimen.

While the menu advertised them as "tender and sweet," the blue crab claws steamed in white wine sauce and seasoned with tarragon, scallions, and rosemary, were overcooked, dry, and fibrous. The dish was thrown out of kilter with a way-too-heavy dose of wine.

Other selections came through spectacularly, however. The conch fritters were soft, moist, and fluffy with big chewy chunks of sweet conch and bits of bell pepper. A paper cup of key lime sauce--mayonnaise, mustard, and key lime--proved a simple yet appropriate accompaniment.

Soaked with a hearty outdoorsy flavor, the grilled grouper burger was moist, fresh, and flaky with tomato, lettuce, and tartar sauce. And the fresh grouper tacos had generous strips of sweet batter-fried fish sharing space in a soft tortilla with pico de gallo, cabbage, an avocado wedge, and cilantro. While the menu says it's seasoned with a fish sauce, it was hard to tell. All of the ingredients were fresh, and the orchestration functioned well, but this assembly could have used a heavier sauce presence--preferably one with a spice kick.

The same could be said of the sloppy joes. While the menu warns that you may need towels, these joes didn't even warrant the use of a sleeve. Not quite stuffed with slices of tangy, tender beef brisket with a wisp of smoke flavor, this sandwich barely had enough sauce to keep the meat moist--let alone splatter your chin. With just another ladle-ful, it would have been a knock-out.

While the service was very attentive and pleasant, it was a bit rickety and a little light on the details. We ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio with our dinner (the Italian wines, we later learned, were left over from Carpaccio's, and the Blue Conch is desperately trying to use them up), and our server admitted he wasn't up on wine service etiquette. So he asked us if we thought the ritual was all that necessary or if he could just pour the stuff.

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