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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.

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Comments

Sheryl Oct. 30, 2008 @ 11:30 a.m.

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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