Meat market

Venus Steakhouse & Supper Club stocks it all

It's Saturday night, and Shelly Dowdy is gliding across the floor of her restaurant in a tight-fitting gown that envelops her Rubenesque form like an iguana skin. An animal-print wrap is slung around her waist. She looks scared. Venus Steakhouse & Supper Club is packed, and the American Cancer Society is auctioning off bachelors. I suppose this is to be expected in a restaurant anchored in meat.

Each bachelor is paraded around and interrogated by a blond master of ceremonies who asks questions through a raspy mike. "Do I hear $50?" she says after prodding them a little to discover what they like to do other than have women bid for their company. One is a chef, another a colorist, still another a law student. They range in age from 24 to 40 in various stages of hair recession. An astounding number claim massage and cooking as avocations; there was not an ESPN-watching, navel-lint-plucking rube in the group. No one mentioned power tools. Or golf tees. No, these were men who spent time at the gym conditioning their bodies so that they could prepare shiatsu steak tartare between the shoulder blades of some lucky woman.

Yet with all of that potential ecstasy bubbling like adolescent hormones, the bids don't get very high. The top, I think, was $160. Not high rollers, these women who coo at each example of kitchen machismo, although one of the men, the one with dark hair and amazing cut lines on the back of his upper arms, is pawed a little as he parades through the restaurant waving a long-stem rose.

Venus' waiters know the menu; they just don't know how to tie a bow tie.
Stephen P. Karlisch
Venus' waiters know the menu; they just don't know how to tie a bow tie.

"This is good," says my dining mate. She is tearing the classic crispy oven-roasted rosemary chicken ($24.95) with her fork. She puts a piece in my mouth. It was a little sweet, juicy. The skin was crisp. It was everything you'd want from a chicken. Maybe then some. Except the creamy honey glazing wasn't ample enough.

Its menu description has three pairs of red lips, or kisses, printed next to it. The lips are arranged in singles, pairs, and triples. Why? Down at the bottom of the menu it says this: "A love note from Venus. Our kisses represent levels of aphrodisiac potency. You might consider this while making selections (especially the faint of heart). Love, Venus."

I don't have the heart to ask what "faint of heart" means. And though I don't recall ever fainting over a chicken, I feel a little different after a couple of bites. What can you make of that? I later checked my dictionary of aphrodisiacs. There's no entry for chickens, or even rosemary. Nothing came up under charity bachelor auctions either. But there was a little something under honey. It said this: "In Oriental dishes intended as an aphrodisiac, honey is a frequent ingredient."

Dowdy, a onetime player in the defunct FoodStar Restaurant Group, leans against a railing near our table. We're sitting on the raised section of the restaurant, a tiered strip that hugs the bar. She says she wishes the band would start playing again. The auction has created a little dead space. One of the auctioned bachelors makes his way over to the "swanky" couches that line the wall, waving the rose. These expansive art deco couches are plush and plump, the color of champagne. They're the kind of places you wouldn't mind sitting with someone if the restaurant were empty and those lips on the menu really meant something. Then again, if those lips really meant something, maybe the restaurant would never be empty.

A big band plays off to the side of the restaurant on a stage framed in gray curtains. They play Glenn Miller and other standards. A young blonde in a shiny pink gown that clings tighter than Dowdy's iguana sheath, sings low and slow.

I mention to Dowdy how amazing it is that this fat band blows from just beyond the bar, yet conversation is still easy at the tables. The balance is perfect. She says the T.G.I. Friday's folks, the people who had this Lemmon Avenue space before Dowdy moved in with her lips and bachelors, really knew what they were doing with acoustics.

Sound-deadened dining room or not, I'm disappointed in the king crab cakes ($9.95). Our server raved about them. But to me, they seem one-dimensional. There's no sweetness or richness or an herb or spice you can grab on to and say, "Yeah, that's a good crab cake." Other than pepper, that is. The pepper kicked. Shreds of fried leek were scattered over the top, cold and oily shreds.

"You're wrong," says my dining mate. "They're delicious." She drags a piece through the puddle of sauce. I check the menu. The crab cakes have two pairs of lips, so maybe she is absorbing something I wasn't.

There are no lips by the chopped salad ($7.95), and there was little else to set it apart, except for the hard-boiled egg halves tossed on top. The whites were clean and firm. The yolks were brilliantly yellow and fluffy. Someone back there in the kitchen knows how to cook an egg. But they don't know exactly how to dress a salad. Studded with toasted walnuts and slices of apple, the lettuce leaves were mostly nude. The house blue cheese dressing worked to peek through with its lusty tang.

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