Noshing around the world

Maybe grazing is best left to zebras or buffalo or $32 filets that were once West Texas cud chewers. I don't know. But I remember in the mid-'80s when grazing became the hip way for the young and trendy to eat as well as label themselves gastronomically eclectic. And labeling is what you'd have to be worried about when engaged in the act of grazing--or progressively nibbling on saucers of food--because it's doubtful most of the portion allotments could stress the waistline of a tsetse fly.

It was during this period of naming their sophisticated dining habits after those of plains-roaming, hoofed herbivores that Americans discovered tapas, or Spanish appetizers. Ushered into the states by places such as the Ballroom in New York and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in Chicago, tapas bars, serving tiny portions of such things as stuffed mushrooms, marinated beans, paella, olives, snails in spicy sauce, cheeses, and stuffed peppers--have since popped up everywhere.

Actually, the origin of tapas is far more noble than its spread in the states, which seemed driven by cutting-edge gastronomes who could easily be convinced to eat a plate of "squid in their ink" before running strands of Gucci dental floss between their teeth. The custom of serving tapas originated in the 19th century in Andalusia--the southern region in Spain where sherry is produced--when tavern owners topped wine glasses (tapas comes from the verb tapar, meaning "to cover") with slices of ham, sausage or bread. This practice not only provided tavern patrons with a salty snack to spark thirst, thereby generating drink orders (similar to the 19th-century custom among American tavern owners of serving extremely salty sandwiches for free), it also kept the glasses of sherry from being Stuka'd by flies.

That's what I like about Spaniards: They put everything into the proper context. They know that the only ring Mike Tyson is good for is one with a pissed-off bull; that real aerobics is dizzyingly intricate footwork done to the tempo of a flamenco guitarist; and that appetizers aren't for culinary worship. They're to keep bugs from doing the backstroke in your glass of fino.

Today, each region of Spain distinguishes itself by its tapas offerings, and the variations and abundance of this food propel it beyond the narrow designation of drink prophylactic and into the realm of a full micro-course meal. This is where Barcelona Tapas Bar, a new eatery on lower Greenville, comes in. Barcelona not only wants tapas to serve as your meal, it wants to broaden the Spanish regionality of the stuff to embrace the world, creating a whole menu of multicultural drink tarps. So not only does the menu have marinated olives, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled vegetables, it's got spicy french fries, satay chicken, and buffalo burgers. Buffalo burgers? That's right. And they're designated as a "house specialty" on the menu (though the waiter acted embarrassed when I asked him if this was really the signature dish).

Actually, while I'd never lay it atop my glass of sherry, the buffalo burger was one of the best items on the menu. Stuffed between two halves of French bread, the meat was light and tasty with a feathered texture topped with marinated mushrooms, tomato, lettuce, and Dijon mustard. The whole thing oozed a rich, lively tang. Those fries, however, felt like a taste bud chemical peel. Sophisticating this fast-food vegetable with a heavy dusting of salt and cayenne pepper is a little like adding volcanic passion to a quiet, romantic dinner with a napalm centerpiece.

The satay chicken kabobs were even more puzzling. While moist, tender, and delicately flavored with a light application of seasonings, the chicken didn't benefit much from the peanut sauce: a cold, lumpy, curry-spiked paste blotch that didn't marry well with the chicken. Heck, it didn't even strike up a conversation.

A few of the more traditional tapas offerings were only slightly better. The marinated olives, a collection of Greek, Italian, and Lebanese pit fruits, were large and meaty, but didn't reach much beyond a basic brine flavor profile. The cheese and fruit plate had a pleasantly unexpected scattering of pomegranate seeds along with grapes; apple slices; juicy, fresh blueberries; and firm, tangy wedges of peach and nectarine. But the pineapple slices had flat flavors and were starting to brown while the cheese wedges (a vegetable-speckled jack, goat cheese, and a nice, mellow Manchego) were skimpy.

One thing you'd expect at a place with a spiritual anchor in Spain and global ambitions is spectacular culinary offerings of a Middle-Eastern pedigree. But the Mediterranean plate suffered from hummus that was strangled with garlic; warm pita bread that was drying and beginning to harden; nearly flavorless grape leaves stuffed with pasty, undercooked rice; falafel that was too hard, dry, and chewy with a dull spice kick; and baba ghanoush (a pureed eggplant dish) that had little else to offer other than another shot of garlic overabundance. The saving grace of this conglomeration was the tabbouleh, which was fresh, tangy, and crisp.  

Two offerings that reached above these predominately mediocre norms were the sizzling garlic shrimp--succulent, sweet, and chewy with a charred coating of garlic and other seasonings--and the lamb basil wrap with cucumber dip--tender, sweet lamb flesh threaded with basil leaves and wrapped in slightly dry pita bread. The cucumber sauce--cool and refreshing--compensated nicely for the parched pita.

Barcelona's service was downright peculiar at times, though friendly and perky overall. At one point our server yanked the menu from my hands after I ordered wine (a reserva Rioja) and suggested I look on with my companion to determine our tapas selections. I tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for what could easily be construed as boorish behavior. (A menu shortage perhaps? No, the place had barely three tables filled.) But I came up empty. The server later returned to our table with two wine glasses containing a taste of red wine in each and an unopened bottle of Taurino Notarpanaro, a light Italian red. "This isn't the Rioja," I said. "We don't have any Riojas," he returned. "Is this OK instead?" Forget for a moment that a tapas bar without Riojas (there were three on the menu) borders on sacrilege. What kind of a way is this to suggest a substitution? It reminded me of a recent visit to Sevy's when an order of fresh Maine lobster in angel hair pasta was delivered instead on a bed of spaghetti. As the server set it down in front of us, she quipped: "We're out of angel hair. Is this OK?" Is this "don't inform the customer of an outage, just give him what we want and hope it sticks" technique a new customer-service twist?

Despite some of these warts, Barcelona is a pleasant, romantic space with hushed amber lighting, dark wood tables, textured walls, plush velour-like seating, a handsome stone and wood bar, and some interesting decor mounted on the walls including candles, a crossbow, a shield, and a mace. Suspended in mid-air by chains in front of the mirrored back bar is a huge double-edged sword. A symbolic representation of the dining experience, perhaps?

Owner Mehran Rafiian, who designed the menu as well the restaurant, says he's trying to create an 18th-century/medieval look. Together with his partner, Judy Ray--a former Memphis, Tennessee, bartender--Rafiian launched Barcelona some eight months after he dissolved his end of the partnership in Cafe Izmir, where he also created the menu. Rafiian says he's harbored the ambition to create a "multicultural" tapas bar for years, and when the former Grinder's Coffeehouse space on Greenville Avenue opened up, he jumped at it. Now he plans to launch a Barcelona sibling in downtown San Francisco. But before he opens to hyper-fussy Bay Area grazers, he might want to do some tapas tightening--or they just might put him out to pasture.

Editor's note: Because of a production error, last week's review of The Grape Escape did not run in its entirety. The full review follows.

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.

The salmon carpaccio, however, was a disappointment with fish that was dry, stringy, and sliced much too thick, while the fried capers were hard and possessed little flavor. Flirting dangerously with the pathetic were the six-inch pizzas. Our "divine" pizza with smoked prosciutto and duck confit with Roquefort cheese was a dry mix of meat plopped on a spongy whole wheat crust with no sauce of any kind and tiny bubbling blobs of cheese. This is pizza? The creme brulee was a soup topped with a burnt-sugar crust in an edible cookie crust that we thought was plastic. Oh my.

The Grape Escape is a tiny, casual space with bright orange walls and flat black accents, including ceiling ductwork and a black string bass hanging on one wall. The bar top is an unusual creation--poured concrete stained in a red-orange sunburst. Decibel levels tend to get unbearably high when crowds move in, so the best time to come for serious tasting is on weekdays.

Although it needs to tighten up its food a bit, The Grape Escape is unquestionably one of the best wine bars in the nation. Look for a Dallas version to open some time after the first of the year. Maybe here they'll get the wherewithal to offer a vertical flight of MD 20/20.

Barcelona Tapas Bar. 2100 Greenville Avenue. (214) 826-8600. Open daily 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.  

The Grape Escape Wine Bar. 500 Commerce, Fort Worth. (817) 336-9463. Open Monday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight. Closed Sunday.

Barcelona Tapas Bar:
Marinated olives $1.95
Cheese & fruit plate $3.95
Mediterranean plate $4.95
Sizzling garlic shrimp $4.95
Buffalo burger $4.75

The Grape Escape:
America's Chardonnay Flight $8.46
The Cabernet Escape Flight $12.38
Country pate $4.95
Cap d'ail $3.95
Divine pizza $7.95

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