Honey, Take Me to Miami

What happened? Did we fall through a wormhole and miraculously reappear in Greenwich Village, or Back Bay, or South Beach?

No, we're simply at the Pershing/Belt nexus in the DeBaliviere neighborhood, long the home of dining daring and lots of sheer fun. Sunflour Cafe is still around the corner, but in days gone by, Cafe Alexander (ne the A&M Deli) brought St. Louis its introduction to Russian cooking in that same space and, over on Belt, then-wunderkind David Slay ran a tiny carryout place featuring his version of Puckish pizza.

The latest incarnation of culinary innovation in the neighborhood is the somewhat deceptively named Nik's Wine Bar, which occupies a postmodern shotgun shack of a space on Belt several doors north of the corner.

The area overall exudes a feeling of urban cool, but once you're inside, that accelerates to way cool. The long, narrow space seats maybe 50, with one set of tables aligned with a pewlike bench along the left wall and those on the right wall set with freestanding chairs. Large, brightly colored people paintings line both walls, but there are also numerous pieces of eye candy scattered throughout the space, such as the bizarre clock above the kitchen door, a wall-hung tie-dyed chair, the Christmas-light-adorned conical inverted wine rack, and of course the torn pair of men's undies serving as acoustic enhancement on the speaker at the rear of the bar.

Across from the bar is a fairly normal 400-some-bottle wine rack that gives the place its name and backs up its listing of many dozen bottles, priced generally in the $15-$35 range, from virtually all of the world's wine exporters: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain. Domestically, the wine regions of California, Oregon, Washington and Missouri are represented.

But the marginal deception in the name is that this is simply a wine bar when in fact Nik's offers a breezy menu of items that can easily serve as appetizers or light entrees and, with just a little imagination, could easily be marketed as tapas. Like the wine list, the menu has influences from all over the world, many melded fusion-style into single dishes.

There really was no demarcation between first and second courses, so we just tried two flights of items that appealed to us. The toast etendue ($7) -- which, bien entendu, I thought was a typo until I looked it up in my Larousse and learned the word for "spread" -- was three pair of pieces of French bread, cut at a severe angle so that they were very long and thin, then topped with spreads of potent basil pesto, artichoke puree and rich kalamata olive. The hummus ($7) was an interesting variation on the Middle Eastern delicacy, with portobello mushrooms ground into the chickpea mash, which was spiced with basil, cumin, cinnamon, paprika and onion powder. The overall taste had more of a hint of sweetness than what I'd classify as a "standard" hummus, and the midsized bowlful was served with pieces of matzoh-like flatbread.

In addition to looking like something out of Miami's South Beach district, Nik's Wine Bar blatantly borrows from that part of Funkytown with a dish called South Beach chicken ($8), which in turn seems to have its roots halfway around the world in Southeast Asia. It's a gingery, nutty paste of chicken, served spread down the center of about eight fresh leaves of romaine lettuce, which are then rolled over into a wrap and dipped into a brandy-and-spice-augmented soy sauce. Our other second course was the pasta of the day, an arrabiata ($9), which was a relatively small portion of thin spaghetti noodles coated but not saturated with a full-bodied tomato sauce with capers, artichoke hearts and feta cheese.

If you're going to go to a wine bar, you should certainly sample the wine, although we were also tempted by the several pages of imaginative cocktails, including a full selection of martinis (for example, the Artini Formerly Known as Prince, featuring an appropriately ambiguous mixture of Stolichnaya vodka, Chambord blackberry liqueur, pineapple juice and the ultimate in identity crises, a "grape maraschino cherry"). The drink menu is pretty much a humor magazine unto itself, even if you're not going to imbibe.

At any rate, wines are also available by the glass, with similarly pithy descriptions, and we chose the Enzo Boglietti Barbera D'Alba ($9.50 and actually worth it), described as having "legs like Shirley MacLaine, a body like Janet, kicking it up a notch like Emeril -- let Enzo breathe and strap yourself in." The description's a bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but the wine did feature an amazing nose of cherries and roses and a terrifically long finish.

I also have to give unqualified raves to Nik's Sexy Dessert ($5), which is worth a trip in and of itself. Sweet strawberries are served in a rich port-wine sauce with a dollop of heavy cream, and the whole thing is contained in a large corrugated cup of only barely sweet dark chocolate. Ooh, ooh, ooh.

And finally, if you go late Saturday afternoons, you might be treated, as we were, to a fabulous musician named Bob Dill who plays virtually every mouth instrument ever invented against a programmed synthesizer, wandering seamlessly from Claude Bolling to Herb Alpert and all points in between.

Maybe Nik and crew want to focus on the wine-and-spirits consumption by their clientele, but those who leave without trying the food have missed the best wave at this particular beachhead. n

307 Belt
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Mon.-Wed, 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Thurs-Sat.
Light entrees: $6-$9