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.

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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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