The traditional steakhouse gait is a swagger. Fulton's new Venegas Prime Filet is an attempt at introducing some new steps to the dance - why not a tango, a promenade, even a salchow?
The former oZ chophouse space has been transformed with an eye for low-key romance and everyday comfort. I don't think you'd even call it a steakhouse. The seating arrangement is the sweeping kind; the restful palette is orange, copper and rust; and there are moments of high drama in the exuberant Spanish-influenced decor - there's a feel of old Hollywood, and the room suggests the potential for memorable dining.
After three months, and a few adjustments, Venegas Prime Filet hasn't realized that potential, and an evening there is memorable for its frustrations, the curious lapses in service and judgment, and the wildly uneven execution of the food. What feels particularly absent is the sense that there's a guiding vision of what an evening at Venegas Prime Filet should be, the kind of confidence that instills the same in a patron. Instead, faith steadily erodes - and as it does, the patron starts to see winged dollar signs floating over the plates and the wineglasses.
The steaks themselves, the filet and the T-bone that we tried, were very good - flavorful and juicy. They were also expensive - the range here is $22, for a marinated hanger steak, to $48, for a porterhouse. This is why other steakhouses soften diners with a "story behind the steak," the inspiring tale of how their beautiful beef was discovered, treated, aged and massaged. Venegas dispenses with all that but then doesn't fully implement the alternative methods - outstanding service, original appetizers and sides, and thoroughgoing excellence.
The basic Venegas way of treating steaks, I think, is lame, with a la carte sauces and butters served on the side for $1.50. For a $34 New York strip, the kitchen should handle the saucing, or at least that option should be clearly stated. I could maybe learn to live with this method if the sauces were wonderful - they are not. A horseradish cream sauce is wan and an au poivre sauce weird-tasting, with no peppercorn flavor, and not to be confused with the wonderful pan-prepared classic called steak au poivre, the kind of thing a skilled chef prepares for a grateful diner in a nice restaurant. The good steaks here don't necessarily even need a sauce.
And when otherwise proficient servers have not been properly introduced to, much less made passionate by, new menu items, it reveals a worrisome divide between kitchen and front-of-house. On each of two visits, a server had to consult with the kitchen when asked to identify the contents of just-presented entrees, both of which frankly needed some support. The Marco Pollo fuses, or glues, together dark and white chicken meat into crispy skinned pieces, an ambitious preparation undermined by its symphony-in-beige presentation and the cold, cold mashed potatoes. For a cooked-three-ways pork special, the upright portions of tenderloin, shoulder and belly looked enough alike to raise the question, "Which one's which?" (And another question - where were the crispy skins that were supposed to be topping the whole display?)
Some appetizers are encouraging. Tossed with avocado and jalapeno, splashed with vinegar and garnished with quail eggs, an Asian take on the tuna tartare appetizer is a bold and bracing success. But then there's carpaccio, a gorgeous rosy pinwheel, but missing the menu's promise of sea salt and Parmesan cheese, essential finishing touches. Perfectly grilled Australian lamb chops are undermined by an accompanying pile of shredded cabbage.
Side dishes are available for $5 each, enough for two to share, and are another disappointment. A pickled beet slaw is the right idea; Brussels sprouts with bacon were much better the second time than the first, but underdone both times; onion rings are absolute zeros; a mushroom risotto excessively salty; sauteed mushrooms and creamed spinach both underseasoned.
For dessert, another round of "Which is which," this time with a creme brulee trio - vanilla, pistachio and rosemary - identical to the eye; even the kitchen couldn't, or wouldn't, tell them apart. Venegas features the chocolates of Florida-based Norman Love, a dubious amenity in a restaurant without an espresso machine, when the chocolate course is explained badly on the menu, and when there's no one to present them in style. The Venegas version of "traditional" bananas Foster is not only not flambeed or composed, it tastes like baby food with Brand X vanilla ice cream on the side.
I wondered if maybe the dessert guy was off the night I was there, so I went back, and the same bananas Foster appeared, a thing assembled so lazily that it came to stand for every other thing - the clumsily arranged wine list, the inexpert clearing of courses, the absence of an espresso machine - that's keeping Venegas from realizing its potential.
Venegas Prime Filet Where:
8191 Maple Lawn Drive, Fulton
Open: Daily for dinner
Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor: