Real cuisine--or gator bait?

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.

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.

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.

Blue Conch Florida Bar. 1919 Skillman. (214) 824-1170. Open Monday-Friday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 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.

Blue Conch:
Oyster-artichoke soup $5.95
Blue crab claws $5.95
Conch and shrimp pasta salad $5.95
Grilled grouper burger $5.95
Fresh grouper tacos $5.95
Sloppy joes $3.95

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
Salmon carpaccio $7.95


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