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.
"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.
Grilled tomato and onion salad ($6.95) didn't have any lips either, but it was still seductive. It was a tall silo of golden tomato and red onion rings spattered with smoked bacon vinaigrette. The tomatoes were juicy and tangy, but the onions were bland. Around the plate were diced bell pepper and flurries of goat cheese--stingy flurries. We wished for more.
"It's like a haunted house," says my dining mate as I slip the salad back to her. And it is. There's a red flash of light splashed across a section of black wall near the stage that reads "Venus." A tall circular wine display case is cuddled in a corner near where the stairs rise to the elevated dining area, the one with those swanky couches. It contains a cylinder of spikes that hold the bottles. It looks like a chamber of some sort, like a place Doc Frank might store a cadaver to cannibalize for spare parts. The case frame is shelled in black and silver crackle. In fact, the wood trim everywhere is scabbed with this crackle treatment. The pillars surrounding the bar bear strips of mirror, completing the terror-funhouse motif. "But it's cozy," she adds. It's something you wouldn't expect.
Venus is big on steaks. Yet Venus' lips are absent from the steak listings, and the T-bone, a thick piece of beef ($29.95) planted in a demi-glace puddle, is a bit of a libido skirter. Though rich and chewy with a good grill flavor at the extremities, the meat took on a disturbing flavor as the carving got closer to the bone. It was off, sour, stale as if it had been aged in a refrigerator with a crowd of expired milk cartons. Which is a shame, because my dictionary of aphrodisiacs describes the beefsteak as "probably as powerful a sexual stimulant as any food."
Salmon also has elevated aphrodisiac value. And Venus' version is a masculine cut of meat, virile even. The grilled salmon fillet ($23.95) is a cleanly cut strip of pink embroidered with diamond grill marks. It flakes when poked. The top of the strip rested on a bed of creamy risotto, pestered with some kind of citrus treatment. But it was bland, though creamy.
Snails, too, creep in with turn-on value. Escargot ($9.95), ranked with two lips, is served in a gravy boat filled with a rich white-wine-butter sauce. There were sections of artichoke heart and slices of mushroom. The snails came on with a heady mustiness when bitten, like that first breath in a freshly opened lake cabin that's been long shuttered. Near the boat was an arrangement of crisp pieces of coarsely perforated toast with a sprig of dill shoved into the holes. They were slightly rancid.
But the service isn't. It was downright energetic, attentive, and curiously stealthy--even if the waiters can't tie a bow tie. Maybe it's because manager Karim Alaoui recognized me instantly, despite my constant gazing at my shoes and my fumbling with aliases. But then, not far from us, a party of 10 was seated. It was commandeered by a small handful of waiters who darted and slipped between diners as though the whole thing were choreographed. If you opt to have your leftovers bagged, they're surreptitiously removed from your table, slipped into a white shopping bag, and placed at the door. You're smoothly linked with them on your way out. The only thing that can grow tedious is the long dissertation on each menu item. But it's certainly better than the converse: menu ineptitude.
Sometimes, it seems, the menu lies, or maybe it just exaggerates. Shrimp cocktail ($9.95) is five large shrimp hanging for dear life (with a couple of lemon slices) on the edge of a martini glass. That cocktail sauce, described on the menu as a spicy horseradish melding, is actually smooth and tame; not much spark there, horsey or otherwise. The shrimp themselves were freshly firm, a bit chewy even, lacking in succulence and rich sweetness.
Mustard herb-crusted rack of lamb ($28.95) had no menu lips next to it. And that's a good thing, because this dish is unsexy, even haggardly. I should have known better, though. As I said before, the waiters know the menu, and ours tried to steer me away from this in the way that waiters do when their faces say "everything on our menu's great" and their vocal inflections say "that one sucks." Two pairs of ribs, crossed at the tips, covered in a mustard crust that looked like a form of exotic corrosion, were arranged on a plate near a boat of jalapeño mint jelly. Mint jelly? That's a thing I wish would go the way of the dinner highball and metal-dingled loafers. Why would you want to murder perfectly good meat (actually, the meat had no depth and an almost rubbery texture) with something that tastes as if it were invented for birthday cakes?
Or Venus lip gloss.
Actually, while the menu here could use a few wrench turns, Venus is enjoyably comfortable. The atmosphere is smooth, given the heavy camp leanings, and the music is well chosen and tight. With a little effort they might even work some lips into those auctions.
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