Dining

Review: Venue

February 2011
Food:
Service:
Ambience:

3609 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-0477, venuebistro.com 

The Draw Upscale bistro fare served in a casual neighborhood environment.

The Drawback Seasoning in many of the dishes is timid; service is distracted.

Don’t Miss Duck confit, ricotta gnocchi, Kurobuta pork belly, pot de crème

Price $$$ (average entrée price $16–$25)

There’s a scene in the movie Walk the Line in which a young Johnny Cash auditions for a record producer. Because gospel music was popular at the time, Cash starts playing a gospel tune. After listening a few minutes, the producer stops Cash. “If you was hit by a truck,” he says, “and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, one song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing?”

The producer’s point? That Johnny Cash was never going to become Johnny Cash by trying to emulate everyone else. Like Cash, anyone involved in a creative endeavor has to find his or her own distinct voice and approach—including chefs. Chefs may be trained in classical French techniques, have a passion for Italian cuisine, or be committed to local and organic ingredients, but the ones who succeed are those who can take disparate influences and belt out something unique.

It’s a tall order, but this is Venue chef Patrick Horvat’s challenge. Horvat, 28, who previously worked the burners at Il Posto, the now-defunct Via Restaurant, and Pearl Street Grill, recently took over Venue’s top toque position (which was vacated in October by rising star James Rugile, now working the line at Mizuna). Having served as sous chef under Rugile, Horvat has vowed to keep the restaurant’s focus on seasonal ingredient–driven cuisine. But he’s also working to infuse the menu with his own signature comfort-food touches.

Is it working? Well, yes…and no.

Walk into Venue’s small space at the bustling intersection of West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard in Highland, and you’ll see white walls and little in the way of decor. There are photographs of pots and knives and corkscrews, a pegboard with painted-white kitchen gadgets, and…that’s it. It’s an environment designed to focus your attention solely on the food, which means the food better hit the right notes.

And some of it does, especially the appetizers. The Kurobuta pork belly, for example, a thick and succulent cube of meat accompanied by razor-thin pear slices and a tumble of lightly dressed arugula, is a standout. So is the Brussels sprouts salad, in which the vegetable’s delicate leaves are tossed with lardons, chewy golden raisins, and an herby fennel vinaigrette. In both dishes, discordant flavors and textures are brought together harmoniously. Other midwinter favorites include the small crock of plump mussels, resting in a white wine broth with fat cubes of chorizo and sweet oven-roasted tomatoes, and the creamy winter squash soup—a thick, slightly sweet purée of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash topped with crunchy, roasted pepitas.

Some of the starters are less successful, including the baby beet salad—not only because today’s beet salad is like yesterday’s Caesar (i.e., tired and ubiquitous), but also because the salad was underdressed and served with a tasteless farm-style cheese. The barbecued frog’s legs were disappointing. There was little discernible grill flavor, and the barbecue sauce seemed to have evaporated somewhere between stove and tabletop.

Despite this, the triumphs on the appetizer menu more than made up for the missteps. The same cannot be said of the entrées, many of which are new to the menu since Horvat took over. The beef short rib, while perfectly tender, suffered from a severe salt shortage. The pork milanese arrived with a delightfully crispy bread coating, but without any discernible flavor profile. (We asked for a side of mustard to see if that would help. It didn’t.) The pan-seared chicken was moist and savory in a hallelujah sort of way, but the white bean cassoulet it sat upon was dry and lifeless. The salmon was pink and perfectly cooked, but thoroughly undistinguished. Do you see a pattern here?

Clearly, Horvat knows his way around the kitchen, and his instincts for blending tastes and textures in his new creations are solid. But he seems to pull back when it comes to seasoning. Instead of stepping out in front of the ingredients and making them his own, he’s hiding behind them. This could be intentional, as it often is with chefs who want the ingredients to take center stage, but there are ways to coax a better performance out of those ingredients.

When Horvat does assert himself, the results are impressive. The crispy-edged duck confit is a master blend of juicy duck, fresh oyster mushrooms, creamy risotto, and springy creamed leeks. The dish somehow managed to be earthy, herby, elegant, and comforting, all at the same time. His chubby ricotta gnocchi also confidently traveled the flavor spectrum. They started savory, thanks to the cheese and a bit of sage, and finished sweet because of the slight caramelization. In between, the accompanying blend of roasted root vegetables—carrots, parsnips, watermelon radish—gave the dish a pleasing density.

Dishes such as these deserve the diner’s attention, which means servers should steer customers toward them. But the waitstaff at Venue are too distracted to focus their efforts in this way. Each time I ate at Venue, the servers acted as if my table was an annoyance standing between them and something they really needed, or perhaps wanted, to do. While the basic functions were adequately performed—menus were proffered, drink orders taken, dishes delivered—the performance was perfunctory at best.

Which brings me back to Johnny Cash. Had he stuck with gospel, he likely would have become a good singer but not a memorable one. In much the same way, Venue is a good restaurant, but one that is not reaching its potential. Yes, the servers do what they’re supposed to and the chef is obviously talented, but polish and confidence are lacking on both fronts. Even the name—Venue—is vague and confers a reluctance to adopt a distinct persona.

Everyone has their version of “Folsom Prison Blues” just waiting to be released. I suspect it’s just a matter of time before Venue, with Horvat at the helm, finds and takes advantage of that moment.