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Annapolis is swimming in wine bars these days.

The choices include the deeply cool Red Red Wine on Main Street, Justin Moore's food-forward Vin 909 over in Eastport and the accessibly cozy Grapes Wine Bar on Forest Drive.

Crush Kitchen and Winehouse got there first, though, back in 2010, when it opened on West Street as Crush Winehouse.

Crush is a big, inviting space, loud and lively, with a smartly arranged layout of banquettes, four-tops and high tables. The walls are painted in the welcoming rusts and golds that we associate with Tuscan hospitality. Toward the back, near the bar, there's one of those self-serve wine dispensing stations where diners can help themselves to taste-size portions of wines they're curious about. The restaurant's most notable feature is at the entrance: a spiral staircase from the building's former days as a firehouse.

We were treated very well by the restaurant's staff and management. They greeted us with complimentary glasses of Spanish cava, a sparkling, palate-cleansing wine. This is the third group of operators at Crush, and they seem committed to hospitality.

We came to Crush on a Thursday night, to find it filled with people who had signed up for an Italian wine tasting. We were told we could essentially join their party and order the same group of wines for the same price, a thoughtful gesture.

Crush offers an interesting and affordable selection of wine flights, which is an effective way of breaking through diners' anxiety about ordering wine. (The flights would look nicer in smaller glasses, though.)

I liked Crush as a gathering spot but less so as a restaurant. There's a disconnect between the atmosphere, which is frolicsome and fizzy, and the food, which is unfocused and flat.

Crush is not the only restaurant to offer a caprese salad when tomatoes are out of season, but it's discouraging whenever it happens. Maryland's amazing crop of strawberries is just around the corner, so why show them off now, as part of a portobello napoleon appetizer and as garnish for a dessert assortment?

Our favorite appetizer was the pan-seared dates, stuffed with herbed goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. It's the kind of quick and crafty appetizer that works well in wine bars. But no other starter whetted our appetite. The portabello napoleon, balsamic-glazed puff pastry layered with strawberries, spinach and sherry cream, was prepared adequately. But it's too heavy, more appropriate for a country inn, not a wine bar.

Even a well-produced and tasty appetizer like tuna tartare with seaweed and sesame seeds feels like something we've seen a hundred times before. The serving of cured meats and cheese is pretty, but the cheese selections are workhorses like manchego, gouda and gorgonzola. Crush could be introducing diners to cheeses they haven't had before — especially some of the great products from Cherry Glen, Firefly Farms and other remarkable Maryland cheese makers.

Crush serves up almost all of its entrees with the same mixture of undercooked mixed vegetables and either mashed potatoes or rice, depending on whether it's a meat or seafood dish. Meats and seafood are underseasoned and overportioned.

The Hawaiian rib-eye had a tasty horseradish salsa, but the steak itself needed basic seasoning. A veal piccata was tender, but the presence of lemon and caper flavors was minimal. These entrees were simply bland, but a scallop casserole was both bland and odd — fat, unseasoned scallops topped with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, and broiled in what tasted like unsalted butter.

Dessert was a choice of spongy tiramisu or an uninspired cheesecake. We did get try a new off-menu dessert, an apple-pecan cake. It was delicious, but it's still not right for a wine bar — too heavy and old-fashioned.

Not every restaurant has to keep up with contemporary attitudes about seasonal and local dining, but a wine bar with a sophisticated wrapping should. You want Crush to be as clever as it is nice.


Crush Kitchen and Winehouse

Rating: **

Where: 114 West St., Annapolis