CRYSTAL RIVER— A few years ago, Crystal River hit the jackpot with the Crystal River Wine & Cheese Company. In an area bereft of many sophisticated dining options, here was a restaurant with interesting and affordable wines, dozens by the glass, local goat cheese and entrees like rack of lamb in a crust of rosemary pesto. • Sadly, the Wine & Cheese Company closed two weeks ago. Lease issues caused Rodney and Jennifer Carr to pack it in. Still, residents are not quite in mourning. After all, they have Vintage on Fifth, the Carrs' second restaurant, which opened in January. • Set in a rehabbed 1940s church, Vintage is still preoccupied by the grape, offering 20 pours by the glass ($4.75-$9, most clustered in the $6 range) and lots of temptations — a split of Perrier Jouet "Grand Brut" ($14), three ports by the glass for sipping after dinner, and heavy hitters like Silver Oak alongside funky black cherry-and-clove quaffers like Screw Kappa Napa merlot.
Vintage goes far beyond the traditional wine bar model where food plays second fiddle to the potables. The menu is Southern, but not narrowly so. Delicious shrimp and grits ($18) — the secret's smoked Gouda and a little bacon — have competition from an appetizer of firecracker shrimp ($8), an Asian-inflected dish with deep-fried, wonton-straitjacketed shrimp paired with chili-garlic sauce and pineapple-pepper relish.
A trio of fried green tomatoes ($6) isn't likely to make anyone rapturous, but garnished with the kind of charming and folksy service one associates with the South, they're mighty pleasant. Better are the sweet potato frites ($4), greaseless, perfectly salted and sent out with three sauces (who knew sweet potatoes pair nicely with horseradish sauce?).
Many entrees come with either garlic mashed potatoes or sun-dried tomato risotto (the latter very good, but not necessarily a perfect match for everything — a classic Milanese might be more versatile). And all entrees come with a salad reminiscent of the Columbia's 1905 salad, minus the ham and Swiss.
The Wine & Cheese Company's rack of lamb lives on; only now it comes cloaked in a lovely pecan crust ($29), equaled in sophistication by a Maple Leaf Farms half duck ($21), crisp-skinned and drizzled with tangy blueberry barbecue sauce.
Two of the three desserts are made in-house, the creme brulee napoleon ($6) handily beating out the New York cheesecake sundae ($6), an excuse for rampant chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The former, though, shows real finesse, brittle layers of buttered phyllo sandwiching velvety custard.
The Carrs have big plans. Soon Vintage on Fifth will open for lunch, and they're looking for a new Wine & Cheese Company location. In the meantime, Crystal River's having a good year because of Vintage.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.