I love Venus Restaurant. Too bad they don’t love me.
I’ve been dining here for years. It’s in downtown Berkeley, making it convenient to public transportation and several theaters, both of the live and cinematic sorts. Prices are comparable to nearby La Note, but it’s much easier to get seated, and Venus boasts fresh, seasonal cocktails (as opposed to only beer and wine). The menu changes monthly and features local, sustainably-produced ingredients, but one constant is the Niman Ranch slow-roasted pork sandwich, which too often I find myself craving in the dead of night.
On a recent Friday afternoon, my mother and I attended a last-minute Eve Ensler appearance at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and I thought it all too appropriate to grab dinner at a restaurant named after a goddess. Unfortunately, while the food was delicious, the service was anything but heavenly. Brendan came to meet us after work, and when the three of us arrived at the restaurant at 6:30 pm, it was already almost at capacity. We were greeted by a frantic-looking server, who checked my reservation and then attempted to seat myself and my other half at a two-top, despite the fact that I had booked for three. When his mistake became clear, it turned out he did not have a table for us. Luckily, it was not long before the small booth in the back opened up.
We ordered a bottle of red for the table, and a basil gimlet for myself to start. The wine arrived promptly, and the server told me my drink would just take a few minutes to make, but when it came to the table five minutes later it was less than cold, suggesting it had been waiting for service.
Appetizers, too, were mixed. The fig salad was crisp and perfectly balanced — with shaved fennel, candied walnuts, and generous sprinkling of Gorgonzola. Coming off of my scallop success at Canteen, I was excited to try them at Venus, but while well seasoned, they were slightly overcooked. For $12.50 Canteen gave us two large, silky scallops, while for $14, Venus delivered two very small, borderline rubbery ones.
However, all was not lost. On to the mains, where I predictably ordered the pork sandwich, Brendan favored the trout with risotto cakes, and Mum (completely surprising us all) had steak. No complaints on this course. I tried tiny bites of both my companion’s meals (yes, even B’s fish), but I had my work cut out for me with my own entrée. Toasted bread lined with nutty aged gruyère, sweet gherkins, and smoky chipotle mayo is piled so high with succulent roast pork that you can barely get your mouth around it. The freshness of crisp lettuce and a juicy tomato brings the experience to a whole new level. I never get through more than half in one sitting, but that doesn’t bother me, since the other half makes a fantastic midnight snack. The mashed German butterballs on the side are well-executed, but seem merely an afterthought next to this masterpiece of flavor between two slices of bread.
In the end, despite the snotty remark from the server when we asked to split our check in some way other than 50/50, we paid the bill happy, and all left satisfied. It’s a little sad to think about, how much I’d adore this restaurant, if only they’d treat me with–if not love–a little more respect in return. I wish I could say that inadequate service is a rarity at Venus, but unfortunately, it’s not true. It’s just that that damn pork sandwich is so delicious, I keep putting it out of my mind.