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Swimming raw in Cowtown

Pangaea has a beautiful fish tank lodged in one wall. Crowds of orange, purple, and striped cichlids (perchlike freshwater fish found in South America, Africa, Sri Lanka, and India) swim among the plants and reddish rocks. They look like submerged Carroll Shelby hot rods: low-slung and flat with large mouths reaching forward like aggressive grillwork.

Clusters of baby cichlids weave between aquarium rubble. "I'm surprised so many survived," a server says of the numerous offspring. I agree and point out how aggressive cichlids can be. "Yeah, we've pulled more than a few bodies from there," he says with a chuckle.

Pangaea has a sushi bar. It's a handsome thing backed with clean wood paneling and a black granite counter surface. Some of the fish is extraordinary. Generous sheets of hamachi (yellow tail) were as silky and compellingly buttery as an evening of luck. An eel roll topped with bright green flying fish roe tinged with wasabi (Japanese horseradish) was hearty with a jolt of sharpness. Taco (octopus), sliced thin, struck with a splash of bright rust suction-cup fringe that framed the shimmering, moist, white flesh. The meat was firm and resilient yet tender.

But when it came to sushi that fell short, I was grateful the server made his comments about the aquarium as I was leaving. My mind would have inevitably wandered to those extracted tank floaters as I sampled the bar's more mediocre offerings. California rolls were plagued with hard rice and a fishy taste, while the salmon-skin roll was swamped with the sourness of aging. On one visit, virtually every strip of raw fish was warm.

A Greek word meaning "one world," Pangaea is a Chinese-Japanese hybrid diner infused with other Asian touches and French influences. Shannon and Hui Chuan Logan opened it on Sundance Square in Fort Worth earlier this year. Hui Chuan, who had culinary training in Nice, France, is Pangaea's chef.

The space is simple and airy. Standard-issue cafeteria tables and chairs populate the concrete floor. Walls are washed in mustard yellows and periwinkles. Hand-painted muslin curtains garnish the windows, and the posts are brushed with Chinese characters. It's an interesting fusion of the pedestrian and the sophisticated; the stark, staccato of American economic functionality with the mysterious, disciplined elegance of Asia.

But while the decor successfully integrates, the menu struggles. Miso soup was wash-bucket bland--striking for a broth so often ripe with salt. The bento box lunch, a black lacquer box with compartments for a California roll (forgettable); teriyaki salmon (good, if a little hard and dry); fresh cantaloupe, honey dew, oranges, and grapes (delicious); and green beans (tepid and waxy) was a box of modest bumbles.

A salad of roasted marinated quail resting on a bed of field greens with olives and pearl onions featured succulent, chewy quail, but the meat had an off sourness--not the tang you might expect from a vinegary marinade, but tartness hinting at a turn for the worse.

That off flavor haunted the duck-stuffed greens. The menu describes it as shredded duck, green onions, and pine nuts stuffed in lettuce and served with fried rice noodles. Instead, the pine nuts were substituted with chopped almonds, and the shredded duck was scattered over a barbed-wire tangle of rice noodles atop a lettuce leaf rather than stuffed into it.

Pangaea prepares one thing that is absolutely astounding, however. Squid salad, strips of tender meat seasoned with chili powder and rice vinegar in seaweed, had all of the flavor and feel-good texture any mouth could want.

Pangaea is a spot ripe with potential. Hell, it boasts the only sushi spot in downtown Fort Worth, a place where they have to restrain themselves from chicken-frying everything. Even cichlids.

Extreme friendliness can be dangerous, especially in a fish restaurant. I mean, you never know where one's hands have been.

During an evening visit to Mainstream Fish House in Fort Worth, a garrulous manager stopped by our table to greet, introduce, and clasp and shake fists. This was unfortunate for him, as his vigorous affability came just after my companion clutched and bit Mainstream's marginally tasty fish tacos. Filled with chopped fish and standard fresh vegetable and cheese matter, the things were contained within a hard fried tortilla. Plus, they leaked so much grease that our fingers had the luster of a home-equity-loan huckster.

But we shook the manager's hand anyway with energetic firmness. And being the seasoned professional he obviously was, he gave no notice to the sludge we pressed into his flesh. He wished us a good evening, moved to another table, and clasped and brushed the shoulder of the gentleman seated there, no doubt making a spot-cleaner target for the laundry.

That Mainstream's staff is very friendly, as well as skillful, was vigorously punctuated at the conclusion of our meal. As our server was loading his arms with fish-soiled dinner plates, beverage glasses, and gooey ramekins of viscous sauce, we pummeled the poor monger with dessert requests. Three of them. And five cups of coffee. Two decaf. He nervously spit these requests back to us, nodding to each diner who piped an order as he went through his paperless confirmation ritual.

He delivered the stuff without flaws. But his friendliness didn't compensate for the coarse sweetness of the desserts. The Key lime tart looked like butterscotch hummus and tasted like adhesive. The apple cake was uninspiring and a little pasty. The chocolate mousse with suspended strawberries and blackberries clustered on top was better--smooth and silky.

In between the handshake and dessert was a series of nearly respectable entrees, though another dish took on the characteristics of an oil spill. The New Orleans bread pot shrimp, hollowed-out Italian white bread holding Cajun butter-barbecued shrimp swimming in a reservoir of buttered ooze, had decent shrimp with a good spice kick. But bread fibers, floating and swaying with the shrimp in this oily lagoon, had the look of meat pan drippings.

Sometimes Mainstream even dabbles in twists. Instead of pieces of raw fish "cooked" in a lime-juice marinade, Campeche ceviche tossed shrimp and scallops into this acid bath. The results were a little bumpy, though two plates of the stuff were snapped up at our table. The shrimp was hard and waxy, while the scallops were tender with sweetness that, surprisingly, came through. Speckled with tomato and scallions, the mix was plopped on a bed of woody jicama and shreds of cabbage threaded with crispy, tasty tortilla strips.

Seafood pasta screamed with high notes. Spinach linguini populated by scallops, flavor-rich shrimp, and crawfish was moistened with a light garlic sauce. The dish captured the tight, clean simplicity of the decor. Concrete floors, simple wood tables and chairs, polished bulky ductwork, green-and-white checked table cloths, generous windows, a bar and counters sheathed in galvanized metal.

If only the food were a bit tighter. Grilled fish selections offer a choice of sauces: cocktail, spicy tomatillo, chunky marinara, tartar, roasted bell pepper cream, oriental cream, and tomato relish. Yet they too often seemed to muddy flavors rather than enhance them. Strongly flavored grilled tuna skirted mushiness, but it was hard and crumbly on edges. And the seasoning was far too light to balance the meat flavors, a job that was too weighty for the selected mushroom sauce.

Swordfish came off a bit better, slightly mushy though it was. It offered a good grill flavor, but again seemed underseasoned. And the requested smoked-tomato butter sauce did more to drown than to compensate. Grilled salmon proves the point. Ordered without sauce, the flesh was so skillfully seasoned, flaky, moist, and rich.

Plugged into the Sundance Square space that was once Prego Pasta House, this Fort Worth restaurant is the latest in a trio of Mainstreams that includes one each at Preston Forest (opened in 1995) and Oak Lawn Avenue (opened earlier this year and just recently closed).

And it's a good place to visit. Just wash your hands before shaking.

Pangaea, 299 W. 5th St. at Throckmorton, Fort Worth, (817) 877-0301. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Wednesday and Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5:30-11 p.m. $$-$$$

Mainstream Fish House, 301 Main St., Fort Worth, (817) 332-3474. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Second location at 11661 Preston at Forest, (214) 739-3474. $$-$$$


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