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Lucky Jinx

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Is Samurai Jim a jinx on bargain-price restaurants? Last time it was a vanished barbecue joint that sent us fleeing to the very minor mercies of the meatloaf at Maryjane’s. This time it was a New Orleans–style restaurant on Convoy Street, where the pleasant waiter who answered my phone questions a few days earlier never mentioned that they were about to close for renovations. (He probably hadn’t been told.) When we showed up, it was dark — so, once again, presto change-o. Jim mentioned an old, expensive Italian restaurant nearby, which brought to mind an interesting new one: since we were already that far north, we could head west to Venice Ristorante, reputedly both good and moderately priced. And we had better luck this time.

Insta-cell-phone res, GPS, “location, elevation, situation” — and the Prius telekinetically jaunted to La Jolla in no time. Venice, a year-old offshoot of a successful Denver mini-chain (owned by an Italian chef) has quietly replaced the former Tutto Mare (no great loss) in a corporate, soul-less region of UTC, where all the street names start with “Executive.” Do not be distracted by Executive Square, Executive Way, or Executive Corner of Hell. Instead, turn off Genesee onto Executive Drive (a few blocks north of La Jolla Village Drive).

Venice has a long bakery counter in front, opposite a pleasant bar-lounge, then an open kitchen along one wall leading to the dining room and a heated dining patio in back. We stayed inside. Outdoors is quieter, but either way there’s no escape from dramatic Italian tenors incessantly sobbing out tragic arias on the sound system. A few vulgarly cheerful tunes from Verdi and an occasional soprano would make a nice break.

We began with antipasto “Venezia,” an anthology of appetizers, every bite a good bite. I loved the sensual rollatini of fine prosciutto enveloping excellent fresh mozzarella, while Michelle took especially to the fresh tomato bruschetta. The greaseless calamaretti (fried baby squid) came with an arrabiata (“angry”) spicy marinara dip. “I didn’t realize Italians made such spicy sauces,” said Gustavo, from Colombia. The plate also included mozzarella caprese salad with just-okay tomatoes, a couple of tasty, tiny crab cakes, and far too few pieces of seductive grilled artichoke.

The appetizer of Polenta “Piazza San Marco” needs much more polenta to deserve its name. There seemed to be just one (maybe two — and somebody else got the other one?) small, delicious round of it, the size of a sea scallop, firm and crisped on the exterior, a mere garnish for an assortment of prawns, calamari, mussels, and clams in a smooth, creamy-textured brown sauce based on an aged-balsamic reduction. To spoon the sauce onto our individual plates, we wiped off and used the sole tablespoon that had been provided (with the calamari sauce). Might I suggest, perhaps, that when diners tell the waitperson that they will be eating family style, perhaps the waitperson might bring an extra spoon for sauce and a sharp knife to divide larger items (e.g., rollatini, bruschetta) that defy the gentle edge of the butter knife?

Facing so many tempting starches on the menu, we decided to violate the classic Italian meal plan (antipasto, shared pasta course, and entrée/s) and simply include pastas among our main dishes. The gnocchi (potato dumplings) are not to be missed — far from the typical mini-cannonballs, they’re light and silky. Fred helped me choose between the sausage/wild-mushroom sauce and the grilled pears: “Pears, of course!” And not just pears, but a velvety cream sauce of fontina, Parmesan, and Gorgonzola, with toasted walnuts to lend their faintly bitter crunch to the sweet fruit. This is a dish made for sharing; so extravagantly rich, it’s best in modest doses.

Pastas, including ravioli, are made in-house. You can readily taste the difference between these and manufactured versions — thinner, silkier, but with more character. The choice was difficult again (a rock crab and shrimp filling with lobster sauce? a sausage and ricotta filling?), but Jim pointed out that the easiest one to mess up or to shine with would be the autumnal butternut squash filling (Capellacci de Zucca). These oversized, hat-shaped ravioli come scattered with walnuts and Parmesan, alongside a small separate pool of marinara. The ravioli are lightly robed in browned sage butter garnished with wickedly alluring, sugar-coated crisped sage leaves. The combination is full of happy contradictions: earthy and delicate, sweet and bitter, and musky, louche richness versus that tart-friendly marinara. The underlying formula arises from Italian folk-cooking, but those Italian folk-cooks are such brilliant chefs! (Well, the whole world already knows that.)

From the evening’s specials (thankfully printed on a separate page, not just breathlessly and “pricelessly” recited) we chose cioppino Toscano, a stew of prawns, salmon, tuna, mussels, and clams in a fresh tomato and wine sauce. I started to natter on nostalgically about the Dungeness crab fishermen’s annual cioppino feast in Pacifica (just south of Frisco) but stopped myself. “That has great crab, but the sauce is canned tomato purée, coarse and primitive. This tastes much better.” In Venice’s flavorful sauce, Roma tomatoes are chopped to succulent small bites, and all the shellfish is cooked right, not overdone. Of course, salmon is as much an outsider in a cioppino as it is in a bouillabaisse — a cold-water species (probably factory-farmed Atlantic, by the taste) invading a warm-seas mélange, a weirdo Nordic exchange student in a school of Mediterranean fish.

Anatra ai pistacchi di bronte means pan-seared duck breast with Gorgonzola, pistachios, and porcini mushrooms in port wine sauce, along with asparagus wrapped in pancetta. Everything is totally right. It’s a wonderfully luxurious and unexpected combination.

Vitello ai porcini e tartufo is a grilled small veal rack with a sybaritic sauce of rehydrated porcini, fresh mushrooms, Marsala, and truffle oil. The buttery mushroom sauce has the physical impact of a warm bath. You want to swim in it, like the old song that goes, “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” It comes with an adorable little round of eggplant parmigiana.

Protein entrées come with one side dish, with a choice of several pastas — fettuccini Alfredo, or spaghetti, or penne in tomato sauce — or else Tuscan white beans or fresh veggies. They do come on the side, not on the plate — ready to be passed around. Given the two deluxe starches already included in our meal, I picked white beans and veggies, and they were good choices. The veggies (carrots, greens, etc.) were firm-tender and well treated, and who can resist Tuscan white beans?

Although food prices at Venice are moderate (and the large portions offer a second meal from leftovers), the wine list is, frankly, something of a problem if you’re on a budget. It’s long but mainly red, Italian, and expensive. To my surprise, the choices didn’t include a single Verdicchio, a light-hearted white grown not far from Venice itself, nor even Vernaccia (as far as I could see in the small-print tome under romantic lighting), nor Sicily’s lovely and affordable Lachryma Christi. I grabbed a reliable, crisp Hogue Chardonnay, the cheapest on the list ($29) to ease our traumatized transition from expecting Creole to eating Italian. “Whenever you choose a Chardonnay, I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Michelle. “They’re never over-oaked.” For the choice of a red, I handed the list to our newly arrived pal Gustavo (bienvenido a San Diego), who’s done a stint as a waiter in an Italian restaurant. “There are a lot of Barolos — for millionaires!” he said, looking over the list. With my stricture of “under $50, if possible,” he picked the same Montepulciano that I was thinking about — velvety and food-friendly and barely under my price limit. The restaurant’s price for it was a hair under triple retail price.

That bakery at the entrance is full of gorgeous cakes, and some are available for dessert. “But I don’t want a heavy dessert,” said Michelle. “One of the things I like about this restaurant is that the food is luxurious but light.” “You don’t feel burdened by it,” added Jim. Hence, we passed on the fancy cakes and were disappointed by a lack of panna cotta. We tried profiteroles (small cream puffs) and cannoli. The former, unexciting, were filled with whipped cream of various flavors. The Sicilian-style cannoli, cigarillo-narrow with unusually heavy shells and a grainy ricotta filling, rated only one bite apiece. In New York’s Little Italy, my neighbor Antony and his fellow ragazzi at the Red Swan Social Club on Mott Street would probably beat up any renegade baker who tried to sell cannoli like that in the neighborhood: “No respect!” they’d say, meaning, a major dis on Sicilian culinary craftsmanship. We had really good cannoli there.

Our server had scribbled calculations for tip amounts on our bill, ranging from 15 to 25 percent, all calculated on post-tax balance — a coy little display of raw greed following an evening of slightly sub-professional service. In any case, figure about $35 a head for food, plus drinks, tip, and tax — and very fine food it is, but if you’re budgeting, watch what you drink.

Budget Buy: Better Half’s $15 “Stressed Economy” Blue Plate

The Better Half, 127 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-543-9340, thebetterhalfbistro.com.

The quest for really good low-priced restaurant food comes home with this insanely cheap “early-bird special.” This small bistro, with its adventurous, skillful cooking and friendly vibes, is my gang’s secret hangout, the posse’s adopted lair. Chef John Robert Kennedy is now serving a nightly dinner of three courses for $15 (plus beverage, tax, and automatic 18 percent tip) on orders taken from 5:00–7:00 p.m.

The Lynnester and I checked out the special in a New York minute. The menu offers two choices for starters, four for entrées, and two for dessert. First course consists of the soup du jour or salad. The lively salad has seasonal fruit, candied walnuts, greens, and a fig vinaigrette. That evening’s soup was a sensual, creamy spinach bisque poured over spaetzle and a little bleu cheese. “Glad to see that even for $15, you can get something this exciting,” I told the Lynnester. “Better grab a taste fast because I’m liable to Hoover it all down.”

Entrée choices aren’t special-made cheapies; they’re the simpler dishes and specials from the regular menu. The choices include a grilled flat-iron steak (yes, you get fries with that); a savory wild-game meatloaf with caramelized onions, hunter sauce, and luxuriously creamy mashed potatoes (my choice that night); a vegetarian pasta with smoked pumpkins, mushrooms, and tomatoes; and the evening’s seafood special. (That night, it was rockfish Veracruzana, a bit too mild in the chile department and oddly strewn all over with couscous. Maybe it’s a version of Veracruzana from one of the Lebanese restaurants in Mérida, way over on the other side of the Bahia de Campeche? Well, I did say the cuisine here is adventurous.) Portions are huge enough to make a second dinner from leftovers.

The evening’s desserts offered a choice between a comfortingly gooey almond-rice pudding or a bowlful of multicolor “rainbow” sherbets, an enchanting dish I ate in South Miami Beach when I was six years old and (obviously) never forgot. Kennedy’s rendition is probably less sweet but no less magical.

When we were done, at about 7:30 on a Friday evening, University Avenue was nearly empty — few pedestrians, few diners in the restaurants. The only crowd was at a campy new indoor-outdoor Hawaiian joint at the next corner, a raucous gay party from day one. Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago exposed the typical salaries (not the perks) of the financial cowboys at those insanely unregulated “free market” institutions who got us into this mess.

The story reduced unthinkable yearly amounts to an understandable hourly rate: the Masters of the Universe typically earned, in four hours what I get paid for a full year — they paid about the same percentage in tax as Joe the Plumber and I do (but they have hotshot accountants to shelter a lot of it; I’m just a whiz with TurboTax). And after bankrupting their companies and our country with their mad greed, their rewards include severance pay ranging from 25 to 100 years of my salary. (Who are the terrorists destroying “our American fabric of life”?) Now, restaurant critics presumably aren’t supposed to be political, but politics splats right onto your plate when you’re eating a $15 meal on a once-busy block of Hillcrest on a Friday night and hoping that a terrific little restaurant can survive the crunch. Remember when you vote: the dinner you save may be your own.

Venice Ristorante
(Very Good to Excellent)
4365 Executive Drive (just west of Genesee), La Jolla, 858-597-1188, VeniceRistorante.com.
HOURS: Monday–Friday 11:00 a.m.–about 10:00 p.m.; Saturday 5:00 p.m.–about 11:00 p.m. Closed Sunday.
PRICES: Appetizers and salads, $6–$16; pastas, gnocchi, pizzas, and risotti, $12–$19; entrées, $18–$29; steaks, $26–$30; desserts about $7. Happy-hour tapas, $4.25.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Refined Italian cuisine, mainly northern. Vast wine list, mainly Italian, red, and over $50.
PICK HITS: Antipasto “Venezia” assortment; polenta with seafood “Piazza San Marco”; any ravioli; gnocchi al Gorgonzola e pere; anatra ai pistacchi di bronte (duck breast with pistachios); vitello ai porcini e tartufo (veal rack with porcini).
NEED TO KNOW: Validated valet parking. Heated outdoor patio available. Happy hour in bar only, from 2:00 p.m. to closing weeknights, Saturdays all evening, with discounted wines and menu of $5 tapas.

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If you are still looking for a New Orleans style restaurant, there's a restaurant in Old Town adjacent to the Whaley House called the New Orleans Creole Cafe. I didn't think it was great -- but I also didn't think it was bad either. I'll probably go back and try a few more items on the menu since the first time I went we were in bit of a rush -- so it was just a quick bite. It's a cute place with some outside seating that features a view of a quaint courtyard and the Whaley House beyond. I would be interested in hearing if anyone else has gone to this restaurant and what they thought about the food.

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