Thin line between love and hate

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I love Cork. Which is why I hate it. If Dallas has needed one thing for a long time, it's a no-frills, down-and-dirty wine bar. One that energetically trumps the numbness of most wine lists. One with sass. One with smarts.

Other places play around with the wine bar theme, though not very successfully. Mark's on Henderson claimed the title. But it pushed plonk by the glass, and its by-the-bottle selection, if interesting, was anemic. St. Martin's is a surreal thing all together. The list can be interesting, but the servers don't seem particularly knowledgeable and the glasses are sometimes dirty. And with the odd mix of characters hovering in its gaudy, hauntingly romantic surroundings, it's more like a David Lynch prop shop than a wine bar. You almost expect the staff to morph into dwarfs and start speaking backward as soon as the cork is pulled. Tony's Wine Warehouse is OK, I guess. Yet I've often wondered why every white wine I've ever sampled there has the syrupy, nutty taste of oxidation. Marty's is a wine bar, sure, and a damn good one. But it's a retail store first, and there's almost no way to escape the low-level noise of shoppers, transactions, and the rattle and "whompff" of the automatic doors as you sip your Burgundy.

No, Dallas needs a wine bar, one that's nothing but--a place that can take wine and vigorously cast it in a few of its countless personalities. This necessity is the mother that gave birth to Cork, a McKinney Avenue wine-and-cheese bar launched by Clancy Martin, owner of Martin's Custom Jewelers in Arlington, and Julie Stevens. The pair recently added some operational muscle by bagging Steve Naylor, former manager of Cafe Madrid, and gave him a chunk of the ownership along with his general manager role.

According to Stevens, Cork was crafted to resemble the wine bars of Paris. While it gushes with promise, Cork falls just slightly flat--for now. It's not because the environs are off. In fact, not much of Cork is off at all, which is why I love it. The sparkling copper-sheet bar is striking, and the sinuously muscular metal glass rack above with spear tips lunging into the sipping area is viciously delicious. Its Cafe Society-like mix-and-match hash of wood tables and chairs in a space with yellow walls and a blood-red ceiling is serenely provocative.

Just as diverse as the furniture is Cork's collection of antique water glasses: a luscious counterpoint to the simple (and appropriately shaped) wine glassware with elegantly focused bowls and thin rims that easily slip between the lips. Still, with all the hard surfaces, Cork gets blaringly shrill, drowning the full wash of wine's sensory pleasure in a carpet of noise.

Cork's little plates of wine accompaniments are good--fantastic, really. The selection of some 20 cheeses--everything from parmigiano reggiano to manchego to sage Derby--is as fresh as a slap-worthy remark and as tasty as sharp deadpan wit. The same goes for the salami and the slice of hearty country páte. Fresh fruits--blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, black and green grapes, are not only lushly plump, they reek with flavor.

By far the biggest disappointment at Cork surrounds its most important element: the wine list. A wine bar's list is its marquee, its seductive dressing. It's not so much that Cork's list of 170 wines, most of which is graciously offered by the glass (at excessive by-the-glass prices), is disheartening. The eclectic roster includes a good selection of Spanish wines, a couple from South Africa and New Zealand, a pair from Chablis, even a pair of California Cab Francs.

A great wine list need not be large, studded with older or high-priced wines and vintages, or cover a significant breadth of regions or varietals. But a great list does have to be enticing, rich, informative, and rousing, which is why I hate Cork. OK, maybe hate is too strong a word, but it's irritating that a wine bar in Dallas comes within a champagne bubble of successful execution and then chokes in the clutch. Cork's list resembles a page torn out of the phone book: the white pages actually, only not as scintillating. The type is tiny and cramped and impossible to read in dim light or the slurry of a modest buzz. There are no visuals or descriptions of any kind. The only organizational principle is "red" and "white." This is passion?

Give a novice wine-drinker a list from an otherwise inviting wine bar. If those green sippers find the list easy to hold and read, inviting to browse, funny, sharp, and informative, they'll come back. Present that same bunch with a list that has the sex appeal of a radiator hose, and they'll ask what's on tap down the street.

What if Cork had a wine list organized by flavor profiles (and a cheese list with pairing suggestions)? Or included simple descriptions of grapes, pithy blurbs on the historical significance of various wine regions (some colorful maps, maybe), and trivia sprinkled throughout such as the kind of ruinously expensive Bordeaux Mick Jagger used to slug backstage after a concert? What if it had a section of nothing but wines whose bottles are plugged with plastic corks and a brief description as to why they're used (some fine drink comes so dressed)? Or a page of stuff from wineries that once had their labels rejected by the government because they were deemed obscene--complete with reproductions of the allegedly offensive material and the reasoning of the censors?

Hell, there's a winery in East Texas that ferments a little ditty called Piney Woods Pecan Mocha, a blend of white wine, fresh brewed coffee, and pecan flavorings. The stuff makes my tongue recoil in terror, but the winery sells every drop it can brew--er, produce--and it might provide an excuse for Cork to open for breakfast. The point is, wine presentation possibilities are endless, and you almost have to try to make a wine list boring. Here's hoping the folks at Cork pop some bottles, let loose, take some pot shots at pomposity, and make their wine list smart but uproariously fun in their own distinctive style. God knows we need it.

The first thing that struck me at Zeitgiest Cafe was how good the grilled-shrimp cocktail with plum chutney tasted. I expected a lumbering, perhaps cloying clump of fruit hash to clumsily mate with the sea-washed sweetness of the shrimp. The chutney was clean, crisp, and refreshing with firm, tangy cubes of plum in a lively medium made with shallots, honey, garlic, and mint. It pulled and tugged at the firm, meaty shrimp, offering a few unexpected dimensions. The menu offers the choice of dipping the shrimp in standard cocktail sauce, but skip it.

The second thing that struck me was how little else on the menu even approached this level of simple elegance. Other than the wine list, that is: a tight, well-rounded burst of brevity clustered by flavor profile that would be just about perfect if it offered more selections by the glass.

If only the food uniformly proffered such punch. The pan-seared salmon burger studded with corn and bell pepper and slathered in a red horseradish sauce was soggy, and the entire thing self-destructed into mush after just a couple of bites. A good meatless Bolognese sauce with a burst of garlic dressed the vegetable lasagna. But it wasn't forceful enough to rescue the firm pieces of yellow squash, mushroom, and eggplant mated to tri-colored pasta. The dish had no zest, no spark to meld the flavors. Plus, it had just a single pasta sheet. Pomegranate-glazed lamb chops over couscous, tomato, and arugula were chewy and lacked sweet silkiness.

Better was the Locatelli-crusted chicken sandwich with grilled onions and tomato on garlic aioli-slathered focaccia. The chicken was moist, and the grilled onions added a pleasing sweetness. The 501 salad, greens with green apple and red and yellow tomato speckled with pumpkinseeds, wasn't bad either, though the dressing could have used a bit more spark.

Opened in early March, Zeitgeist Cafe was launched by Laurie Sandefer of Cafe Society fame (she shuttered the cafes and sold her interest in the coffee company several months ago). James Winkler, formerly of Bistro Louise in Fort Worth, manages the restaurant. Opening chef Greg Nelson, who crafted the New American menu with "global twists," has since departed, and Culinary Institute of America grad Keith Champy and Yossi Ohayon, formerly of the Omni Hotel in Richardson and the Fairmont, have taken over the kitchen.

Zeitgeist is crisply comfortable and spacious, with a compelling, lush patio, stylized murals in the entryway, and yellow textured ceilings and walls and whitewashed woodwork in the dining room. A green sitting area with stuffed chairs and bookcases is situated just off the bar. There's also a stage area for live music on weekends. The food just doesn't pick up on the spirit or feeling of the surroundings; the Zeitgeist is scrambled.

Cork Wine and Cheese Bar, 2711 McKinney Ave., (214) 303-0302. Open 5 p.m.-11p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday & Sat. $$

Zeitgeist Caf. One Turtle Creek Village, 3888 Oak Lawn Ave., (214) 521-0552. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday, Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $$-$$$

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