It’s getting harder to find many of the old restaurant classics these days, but not at Café Venice. As soon as I opened the menu, I spotted some of my favorites: bouillabaisse, a pork ribeye, osso bucco, lump crab cakes with authentic remoulade, filet mignon and country French pot-au-feu. They may not fit into trendy fusion-fueled, molecular-gastronomic menus, but oh, do they taste good.
Cafe Venice owner Kay Ann Kropac not only respects the classics; her kitchen has a subtle way of adding signature flourishes. The escargot ($9) on the appetizer section of the menu is an example. It’s a traditional rendition with the snails snug in their little cubicles, encased in a rich butter-garlic sauce, and it comes to the table bubbly hot with warm bread for dipping. But the Cafe Venice signature gesture is a sprinkle of sun-dried tomato on the top. The chewy little strips have the right amount of acidity to balance the butter sauce, and the tang of the tomatoes adds a welcome flavor to a dish I would have thought didn’t require improvement. Now I like both, the strictly customary and the colorful Cafe Venice house version.
Other signature dishes to appreciate are fried spinach, crispy with a sprinkle of sea salt ($5), or eggplant frites with white truffle oil and Parmesan cheese ($8). What’s not to love? The kitchen turns out a lively spicy Thai seafood soup made with coconut milk and mussels. It’s $7 for a bowl, and quite flavorful Asian comfort food. Brie butternut gratin is the starch accompanying some of the meals, but if your plate doesn’t include it you can order the gratin as a side for $5. It’s worth doing.
The Cafe Venice bouillabaisse is more tomato-forward than some versions of this classic French seafood stew. Using local fish and shrimp makes this dish a Florida bouillabaisse, and it’s a good one, rich with just enough spice. And the two large crostini (covered in melted cheese) that top the steaming bowl stay crispy throughout your entire culinary journey through the stew. If you crave a deeper saffron flavor, this bouillabaisse may not measure up, but I liked it a lot. My dinner partner opted for the veal chop, which was served with a mushroom glace, mashed potatoes and pencil-thin asparagus. He thought it both unexciting and delicious, just what he wanted. His comment: “Sometimes I don’t want cuisine, I just want good food.”
Other options we could have considered: the New Zealand rack of lamb ($32), grilled Atlantic salmon with artichoke cream, or yellowfin tuna with Thai sauce. The crispy bone-in duck comes with an orange-cognac glaze and is rich and satisfying. Many of the menu items are marked with a gluten-free indicator. And for vegetarians the Portobello stack ($16) should be a hit. The big tender mushroom is layered with roasted red pepper, cheese, asparagus, spinach and a drizzle of balsamic.
Desserts are house-made and include traditional favorites such as bread pudding, banana cream pie, raspberry truffle or crème brûlée. The chocolate mousse is the house specialty. The cocktail and wine lists are wide ranging, and the markup on bottles is quite reasonable.
The ambiance at Cafe Venice is polished and relaxed. The restaurant seats 150 inside and on the streetside patio. Tables inside are close together (maybe too close), but the noise is reduced somewhat by sound absorbers on the ceiling. The restaurant has a nice buzz, but you can converse with your table mates without shouting.
Tablecloths, cloth napkins, flowers and individual lighting on the tables contribute to a fine-dining aspect, but the hospitality extended by the servers keeps the feeling light and informal. Dinner at Cafe Venice is a pleasurable and civilized experience where the food won’t challenge your palate, but it will succeed in satisfying with good taste.
Cafe Venice Restaurant & Wine Bar
116 W. Venice Ave., Venice
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.