Real cuisine--or gator bait?

Blue Conch brings Florida fare to Dallas

The Blue Conch has a full bar featuring shooters and tropical drinks and a beer garden with a dozen bottled beers--a pretty paltry garden. But it's a welcoming, cozy place with a great jukebox and some great menu items if you care to fish for them. So drop by and sample some of the food for which Lawton Chiles named a special council. And don't forget to light up a few smokes while you're at it: Texas Attorney General Dan Morales is itching to get his hands on some tobacco bucks himself.

My first official introduction to wine took place outdoors on a frigid Friday night in the dead of winter. It was my freshman year at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, a small town on the shores of Lake Superior. I was about to embark on the Northland death march, a sort of collegiate recreational hike that began at one end of the strip in town where all the bars were located, and ended at the last bar at the other end. In between we...well, the details escape me, but it sticks in my mind as one of the fondest memories of my college days.

To kick off the march, my friends and I unscrewed and toasted a couple of bottles of MD 20/20, a delightfully fruity, potent wine from Mogen David. I never quite understood where that name came from, but I remember my first swallow tasted like a dose of cough syrup spiked with WD 40. I figured they must have just inverted the "W" and split the 40 into two equal parts and got the name that way.

While I was impressed with the MD (or "Mad Dog," as it is more commonly known) and its fragrant nose and forward complexity--at least compared to Pabst Blue Ribbon--I was by no means ready to make wine my beverage of choice, because, for one thing, it was hard to find in kegs.

Then I heard that this eccentric guy in our dorm (he had two 100-gallon saltwater tropical fish tanks in his room) was regularly hosting wine and cheese parties a couple of times a week. His mother would send him a few petite chateaus and generic Burgundies on a regular basis, and he'd make a cheese platter and start calling people. I must admit, I thought this a bit too refined for my Bud 'n brats sensibilities--until I stopped by one evening. As he slipped a glass of red wine in my hand and offered me cheese and toast points, I noticed that his guests--sipping wine around his fish tanks, on his bed, and reclining on the floor--were all women. It was at precisely this moment that I developed a passion for wine.

Many of us have been introduced to wine under similarly inelegant circumstances--we kind of stumble onto the stuff. Few Americans grow up with wine on the table like folks do in Mediterranean countries, and it takes an ulterior motive (or perhaps a 60 Minutes broadcast) to get us to really try it.

This is why The Grape Escape, a new wine bar in Fort Worth's Sundance Square, is such a terrific place to swirl, gurgle, and spit everything from piquant Sauvignon Blancs to rich dessert wines: It seems to intuitively take into account the clumsiness with which many of us approach wine (ever stain the tip of your nose while sampling a Cabernet bouquet?). Launched by Michel Baudouin, owner of Le Chardonnay, which closed in Dallas after only 18 or so months and in Fort Worth after 11 years, The Grape Escape has an ingenious tasting protocol. Wines are divided into 21 "flights" and can be ordered by the bottle, the glass, the half-glass, or in flight groupings. The latter actually offers the most room for experimentation, because you get a selection of three to five 1.5-ounce pours in a particular category for a set price ($5-$29).

They're served on a place mat with markings for each wine and space for taking notes. So you might order, for example, a flight of white Burgundies and compare and contrast them with California Chardonnays. You could do the same with Pinot Noirs and red Burgundies. Or you could order a flight of Merlots from all over the world, great Cabernets from California (1994 Dominus), great Chateaux of Bordeaux (1982 Chateau Palmer), even a selection of sherrys from Spain.

And the list is continually in flux, so it's possible to sample a few wines on one visit and return a week later to discover a completely different set of flight constructions. To bring out the best in the wines, The Grape Escape has a menu that includes such things as cheeses (Roquefort, Texas goat, Stilton, Manchego, and Comte), pates, caviar (beluga and osetra), and pizzas with wine pairing suggestions. But while the wine selection and organization was first-rate, the food had some solid hits and severe misses. Top scores go to the country pate, a combination of pork and veal that was firm and chewy with lots of rich flavor. The cap d'ail, a head of fresh garlic sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and baked in parchment with a fresh tomato, was perfectly done with sweet, nutty garlic and juicy, rich tomatoes. A holdover from Le Chardonnay and the last food you'd think to pair with wine, the "really French fries" speckled with herbes de Provence, were light and flavorful without the least hint of grease.

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