Bar Natasha’s spring menu ain’t no ordinary bar food.

Hey, Bartender! 

Bar Natasha’s spring menu ain’t no ordinary bar food.

During one dark period in my life, I took a job as a bartender in a trashy strip-center tavern, where my duties included opening bottles of beer for the blue-collar crowd and frying up "snacks." The menu was short and sweet: french fries, onion rings, fried cheese poppers and fried mushrooms. If somebody wanted a dipping sauce, I handed him a bottle of ketchup.

Since then, I've seen -- and eaten -- much more sophisticated bar food, but none with more savoir-faire than the new spring menu at Bar Natasha (1911 Main Street), elegant morsels created by mystery novelist and former restaurateur Lou Jane Temple. But there's nothing mysterious about their prices -- they're expensive. If one prefers Thai-style steak-and-lettuce rolls (made with chilled beef marinated in sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and chili sauce) to fried cheese poppers, than it's time to open up the ol' wallet. Ditto for the hippest shrimp cocktail in town: a martini glass laden with six big, fat shrimp floating above a kicky rémoulade sauce with bits of fresh mango and avocado.

As an alternative to the traditional bar burger, Bar Natasha presents a much more dignified red meat: juicy lamb chops slathered in a punchy jerk rub, then sautéed and served with a cooling mango chutney. There's also a cheesy quiche du jour and a summery feta cheese spread.

But the best innovations are the new desserts, particularly a warm strawberry-rhubarb crisp and a spin on shortcake with fresh strawberries draped over a hunk of tart lemon pound cake. I spent a small fortune on that little snackfest. But when customers are sipping expensive martinis during a clever cabaret show, serving them fried mushrooms simply won't do.

Elsewhere, the new Crazy Olives Bar & Restaurant at the freshly renovated Argosy Casino (777 N.W. Argosy Parkway) is a good deal more elegant than the trashy sports bar it replaced. Despite its faux-Italian décor -- olive jars, barrels, a whirling "olive press" and fake grape vines -- the menu lists traditional burgers, hot wings and barbecued ribs. But the gourmet pizzas are excellent -- and huge -- and a grilled steak salad heaped with juicy strips of beef, artichokes and olives was positively classy. The slot-machine noise from across the hall and the clamor of a half-dozen TV sets in the bar are maddening, but they don't call it Crazy Olives for nothing.

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