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More Wine & Cheese? Yes, please

In some places, the phrase "wine and cheese" is a cliche that has lost its luster. Sounds like beer and chips for a more pretentious class.

In Crystal River, you can put capital letters on those words and say them with admiration, for they refer to a wine shop and bistro that offers the smartest wining and dining north of Tampa.

Competition is slim on U.S. 19 as it cruises the mossy, fishing coast up north. Just having sesame-soy crusted tuna, penne primavera and creme brulee is a rarity, but Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co. draws a crowd most weekends for better reasons and would do the same in any Tampa Bay neighborhood.

Even if a hangout in your neighborhood serves goat cheese pizza, I'll bet it's not made with hometown chevre. Here it comes from the Golden Fleece goats in Lecanto, 10 miles east on State Road 44.

I know there's no wine bar within the sound of my complaining with a selection this varied and affordable. Actually, I mean cheap: More than half of the 30 wines on the list were $5 or less (bottles $15 or less), and generous pours cleverly selected. Even at dessert, four bucks bought a Muscat, a moscato, a rare vin santo from Italy and a cream sherry from a small producer.

Plus, you can get them with the likes of rack of lamb in a crust of rosemary pesto in a strip center between Sav-a-Lot and Dollar General. I'd happily stand in line, too.

Certainly Citrus County waited a long while for a casual, contemporary alternative to the franchise rows, family restaurants and beloved old fish houses. A body could live on stone crab alone, but even I might tire of mullet and hush puppies.

And the market here is growing, both the Bermudas-and-sweat shirt crowd that shows up every winter and the younger families and singles who like to dine out in blue jeans year-round. This is their place.

Enter Rodney and Jennifer Carr, who opened Wine & Cheese in late 2002 after good careers as wine representatives working Florida and the rest of the Southeast. They chose Crystal River for a place of their own and started with a simple menu of soup, cheese plates, salads, pizzas and sandwiches. Make that panini, of course; even Citrus County can put a sandwich on Italian bread and grill it. That bread is a ciabatta, laced with olive oil, and there are others, most finished in the oven here.

That's still the menu at lunch, rare enough in these parts to make it a nice luncheon for birthdays and get-togethers of old friends, but not exciting. I'd pull the mozzarella from the Tuscan chicken pizza to let the goat cheese shine, punch up the tuna salad and compose the salads on plates instead of in bowls.

At dinner, however, Wine & Cheese shines with a nightly menu of a half-dozen entrees. Yes, the price goes up and you can spend $20, but the quality matches it. Service in the dining room is sharp, friendly and proud. The kitchen, run by Joe Adamo, Jennifer Banck and Aaron Davidson, is as good.

Dishes can be as familiar as seared tenderloin tips, but the beef is Buckhead brand and the mushrooms are marinated portobellos with caramelized onions. Vegetables are a toss of squash and asparagus. The chefs have the imagination to wrap pork with applewood bacon and serve it with rosemary Gouda polenta _ piney cheese grits to us _ richly sauced and accompanied by the meatiest spinach this side of collard greens. On another night, the star of the menu was shrimp and scallops on angelhair pasta in a tomato crab sauce.

I'd like to see even more in the handsome presentation of local seafood. Fishing, shrimping and crabbing is ever tougher, but the waters from Hernando up to Apalachicola still yield a precious catch of stone crabs, clams, shrimp and oysters. Nothing can match them at their freshest.

Every entree is listed with a wine recommendation, a practice that scares most of us as a way to promote the most overpriced wines by the glass. Not here; the suggested wines are the same bargains, often less than $5.

How novel. When there is such a glut of wine that Robert Mondavi Woodbridge is being sold in three-packs and BV Coastal is on a $7 promotion, why should we pay that much and more for a single glass of a bulk brand?

And Wine & Cheese is picking smart stuff, not oddbin seconds. I had a fine Louis Bernard dry rose from the Cote du Rhone, crisp, full and rich with cherries, perfect with a cheese plate, and a Napa version of the Italian dolcetto from L'Ecosse that was plummy good with the pork.

So it goes in the wine shop next door, where the emphasis is also on the well-chosen and the well-priced. The inventory is a good mix of nonsupermarket brands and sold in the friendliest fashion: Blends such as Joseph Phelps Pastiche or Sokol Blosser Evolution No. 9 are in "Other Interesting Whites." If there's a bias, it's affordability. You can buy that rosy Rhone for $10 to take home (it's only $16 in the dining room).

On this point, Wine & Cheese is not just "darn good for Citrus County," it joins a tiny handful of restaurants around Florida and the nation selling wine with good fun and common-sense prices.

Not surprisingly, the dining room is overdone in the wine theme: a few too many grape clusters, wine labels, vines and such for me. The biggest table, however, has a wine decor I love: It sits in the midst of the floor-to-ceiling shelves of the wine shop.

I'd never complain about that. I'd lift a glass to it.

Crystal River Wine & Cheese Co.

734 U.S. 19 S

Crystal River

Phone: (352) 795-0008

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday

Reservations: No, except for parties of six or more

Details: Credit cards; beer, wine; no smoking; wheelchair-accessible

Features: Live classical guitar, jazz and blues; wine tastings, wine retail sales

Prices: Pizza and sandwiches, $$7-12; dinner entrees, $13-23.