The Christmas season is upon us, jangling nerves, crappy weather and all, and no matter how well we've managed to dodge swine flu and the recession, we're going to need all the day-to-day life support we can get. Liquor is one option, love another, but the best way to make it through the holidays is with warm, soul-satisfying food.
Welcome to Venus, a cozy, brick-lined oasis of country cooking in the heart of Berkeley. Since the turn of the century, chef/co-owner Amy Murray has been crafting platters of wholesome, seasonal comfort food from Northern California's organic produce, sustainable seafood, and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. Neither freezer nor microwave sullies the premises. The neighborhood's three farmers' markets supply the kitchen with Superior Farms lamb, Frog Hollow pears, Happy Boy mixed greens, and other impeccable ingredients. Drinks are made from organic Oakwood roasted coffee, Strauss Family milk, corn-syrup-free soft drinks, and multi-pure plastic-free filtered water. Best of all, most of the dishes soothe spirit, stomach, and taste bud enough to make the holidays seem positively festive.
The best way to begin your meal is with pan-seared scallops, some of the sweetest, most delicate we've come across. Draped in a light golden crust, they were accompanied by earthy chanterelles, tiny heads of buttery cauliflower, and crunchy apple matchsticks to counterpoint the barely briny gossamer of the seafood. The grilled calamari, while a tad overcooked, had a nice smoky flavor and a bed of verdant pepper-ribboned Bloomsdale spinach to rest upon. The kitchen's skill with fresh produce was exemplified in the squash salad, a potentially humdrum dish that combined spinach, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, a light and refreshing pomegranate vinaigrette, and rings of roasted delicata into a wholly satisfying cornucopia. The roasted beet crostini's crostini was on the stale side, but it's hard to argue with the beet-plus-goat-cheese-plus-walnut-pesto equation, vessel notwithstanding.
Venus really settles into its comfort zone when the main dishes come around. Take the roasted chicken, an organically raised, free-foraging Hoffman special that's as tender and juicy as it is enormous. Sharing its platter was a bed of puréed heirloom German butterball potatoes, pungent braised chard, and a pear-cranberry chutney that accented the bird's succulent flesh with a touch of autumnal zip and spice. The Superior Farms lamb shank was equally bountiful but not quite as endearing: Despite (or because of?) its pomegranate-based braising liquid, it was bland and unmemorable, with an overabundance of fat and only minimal assistance from the accompanying mashed potatoes, braised greens, and cauliflower. The petrale sole was tender and flaky and agreeable in flavor, but the best part of the platter was the remoulade sauce, a snarky retro-Mediterranean New Orleans mashup of anchovies, tarragon, garlic, and God knows what. (Try some on the irresistible fried-till-crunchy Nicola potatoes.) Best of all was the Argentine-style skirt steak, slender fillets of buttery beef served with seared polenta; Bloomsdale spinach; a succotash of green beans, red onion, zucchini, and peppers; and a marvelous cumin-edged chimichurri that added a hint of heat to the succulent steak.
With its all-out devotion to fresh, seasonal, and organic grains, fruits, and vegetables, Venus is an ideal place for vegetarians. Appetizers include the afforementioned beet crostini and roasted squash as well as two salads, radish-cucumber-field-greens and pear-endive-blue-cheese-walnut. Risotto-stuffed acorn squash with roasted cauliflower, chanterelles, spinach, and pine nuts makes a bountiful entrée, and sides include braised chard with toasted fennel, roasted cauliflower with almonds, mashed German butterball potatoes, and roasted padron peppers with feta cheese. Lunch features grilled polenta with seasonal vegetables and an elaborate tofu-mushroom-brown-rice-autumn-veggie stir fry, and don't miss the weekend Indian brunch of curried carrot-zucchini pancakes, tomato-cilantro scramble, banana raita, and mango aioli.
The brief but interesting wine list is almost entirely made up of sustainably, organically, or biodynamically farmed vintages out of France, Italy, Spain, and our own backyard, with most bottles in the $25 to $50 per bottle price range. Duvel Belgian ale, Berkeley's own Trumer Pils, and Drake's Amber Ale out of San Leandro make up the beer list. Venus also offers several quasi-cocktails based on wine or soju (sangrias, bellinis, Bloody Marys, mimosas); the fresh pomegranate soju mojito, while lacking the punch of rum, was nevertheless tart, refreshing, and delectable. Other unique sipping options include blackberry lemonade, a spritzer made from Austrian elderflowers, Mexican cane-sugar Coca-Cola, artisinal teas, and a wide variety of coffee drinks.
Dessert is the best part of the experience. The Scharffenberger chocolate cake was as rich and dense as a slab of Belgian chocolate, with chantilly cream and fresh raspberries — and it was our least favorite dessert. More exotic was the chai-spiced pot de crème, a lush, silky custard jazzed up with the flavors of ginger, saffron, and cardamom and draped with a refreshing persimmon salsa. The pumpkin cheesecake had the taste and texture of a really terrific sweet-potato pie, light and velvety and fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, with a dollop of coriander-scented chantilly cream on top and chunks of sweet-salty cashew-pumpkin seed brittle for roughage. Especially appropriate to this time of the year, though, was the warm apple and pear torte. Tender in texture, rustic in nature, and brimming with the season's sweetest and most evocative produce and spices, it's a belly-pleasing, soul-stroking way to navigate the shoals and eddies of this dark and chilly season.
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