Sunday, January 31, 2016

Chow Time: Venice Room - STEAK Your Way!

At Monterey Park's Venice Room, it's strictly a case of "GYOS" (Grill Your Own Steak) - a novelty to which I would normally find myself entirely averse.  I mean, restaurant fondue is a definite fon-don't for me as I am morally opposed to paying for the privilege of preparing my own meal.  The charm also wears quite thin with things like shabu-shabu.  And the same holds true for pho; if I wanted to make soup, I would have simply stayed home and made soup!  While this has certainly prevented many a succulent encounter with Korean barbecue, I've learned that if you don't stand for something, then you'll fall for anything.  Principles.

Venice Room - Monterey Park, CA

Few things have the power to overcome my aversion to DIY dinners on the town like a mid-century steakhouse.  Opened in 1957, Venice Room is the true definition of a bar & grill.  In every sense, it is both a bar (about two-thirds of the facility is dedicated thusly) and a grill (literally, one communal grill in the corner that serves as the stage for steer-searing showmen of every variety).

Grill Masters enter here!!!

The dinner menu is limited at Venice Room.  So limited, in fact, that there is no menu at all.  As soon as our group of three was seated in one of the tufted, black-leather demilune booths, the lone waitress approached the table and, extending three fingers on her right hand, queried, "So...three steaks?"

"Beef, it's what's for dinner."

Sensing my hesitation, she quickly explained, "That's all we have - steak, baked potato, salad, and a roll."  My request for a dinner service sans steak was met with equal parts incredulity and pity.

I'm not going to say that non-steak eaters are considered second-class citizens,
but I could detect the sense of wonder as to why one who so staunchly abstains
from steak would come to a restaurant that specializes in nothing but. 

Keeping things ever more simple, only one cut and one size of steak is served at Venice Room.  But don't ask me what cut that is; I can't tell my T-bone from my top sirloin.

But even I could discern that this was quality meat.
I can definitely see some marbling and whatnot...

The method of food delivery is initially startling but pleasantly old-timey.  Guests are invited to help themselves (do you detect a theme here?) to the salad bar, a cafeteria-style affair complete with sneeze guard.  Moments later a platter arrives tableside that contains a foil-wrapped baked potato, a french roll the size of a football, and great slab of raw beef in wax paper.

I tend to err on the side of extreme caution when it comes to food contamination;
this little still life made me glad that I opted out but every other diner was licking
their chops in anticipation.
The steaks may be the stars of the show at Venice Room but behind every great steak is an even greater grill master.  Standing before a massive indoor barbecue, beneath the gleaming scallop trim of the copper vent hood, Ben cooked every morsel of meat to least according to Erika.  But it was Ben's first time.  His performance at the Venice Room grill was nothing compared to "Don Julio."

Ben vs. Don Julio
From grill marks to jackets there was one clear winner. 

Small but mighty, Don Julio escorted a beautiful bevy of local talent who swooned as he turned the seasoning station into a scene straight out of Cocktail.  Spinning sauce bottles and twirling tongs at the end of his nimble fingers, Don Julio skillfully choreographed the flames in a dramatic fire dance.  An obvious expert, DJ's system even included adding a bit of char to the rolls.

We might have been outclassed when it came to showy preparation but
nobody could beat us for sheer enthusiasm where eating was concerned.

All was well before the meat sweats set in...

The room was so dim that Mr. Tiny had no idea that the
house dressing could easily stand in for nacho cheese. 

We did such a thorough job in cleaning our plates that the owner (son of original owner, Joe Lombardo) came over to our table to congratulate us.  Peppered throughout our polite small talk, we were sure to include compliments on maintaining this landmark restaurant and its many fine furnishings. 

Walls not covered by murals of Venetian canals, are given the full
glamour treatment in the form of multi-color, paisley, foil wallpaper. 

The show-stopping highlight of  Venice Room's thematic decor is its black-lit backbar.
Peeking through the portico, Venetian ships rendered in neon sail serenely down the canals.

As lovely as the murals are and as much truth as there is in the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I am always looking at even the finest venues with a critical eye.  For simmering just beneath the jolly surface of this wacky tacky diner is a frustrated restaurateur and production designer wanting to create atmospheric and gastronomic perfection.  I just so happen to have a few ideas handy:

1. This one seems like a gimme but, in a Venetian-themed restaurant clad in canal scenes, it seems to me that the staff should be dressed as gondoliers (singing gondoliers would be a bonus).
2.  The "salad bar" - a term I use as lightly as a downy feather - could use some revamping.  It's a system that would certainly not suffer from the addition of tomatoes or a few shoestring beets.  My feelings would certainly not be hurt if somehow the "bar" took the form of a gondola...or maybe I'm just taking the theme one step too far.
3. This will make me sound gluttonous but nobody ever said, "That's too much butter!" Mathematically speaking, a pre-portioned teaspoon of butter simply isn't enough for a large baked potato and a roll as big as my head (a head that falls in the 99th percentile).

A few quibbles notwithstanding, Venice Room is practical wacky tacky perfection - particularly if you are the type who wants to grill your own steak in front of a live studio audience (I'm looking at you Don Julio).  On this point, I am certainly willing to concede to a landmark with a record of nearly 60 years of successful service.  So make your way for steak your way!

Venice Room Bar & Grill
2428 S Garfield Ave
Monterey Park


Mr. Tiny

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tiki Time: Taking Island Shelter on San Diego's Shelter Island

"Most people live on a lonely island lost in the middle of a foggy sea.  
Most people long for another island, one where they know where they will like to be."

These days, I really do find myself muddling through a fog, longing very much for another island.  As she always does, Southern California steps up to provide my every need - even a little bit of island paradise right where the West meets the water.  It may seem a little "on the nose," but in the Port of San Diego, there sits an island-themed island, a place where tiki gods rule and every building is wiki wacky tiki tacky!

At just over one-mile-long, Shelter Island packs a powerful punch of Polynesian Pop!  As it has no permanent residents, every visitor immediately becomes part of the island ohana.  Spending a few sun-kissed hours soaking up the mid-century splendor of this tropical paradise was enough to refresh my spirits and restore my faith in my own native island.


Trader Mort's Liquor (1965)

The first stop on our self-guided tiki tour was Shelter Island's preeminent liquor emporium.  Since 1965, Trader Mort's Liquor has stood sentry at the gateway to the island's many tiki delights.  Under swaying palms and that magnificent roof, Trader Mort's offers thirsty vacationers a place to stock-up on umbrella-drink essentials.

With a roofline is punctuated by the gods, we knew 
that we were walking on holy (haole?) ground!

"I'll take potent potables for $1,000, Alex"

The sparsely-decorated and wonderfully-worn interior remains lost 
in time, shelving a host of tiki mugs and other ceramic cocktail vessels.


Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites (1961)

The next stop on our tiki tour was Shelter Island's Hawaiian-style hideaway.  While it would be a challenge to get lost on the island (it has but one road), it is more than easy to get lost in the lush gardens of Humphreys Half Moon Inn

Since 1961, the sprawling gardens of Humphreys Half Moon Inn have been studded with half-hidden tikis nestled between verdant foliage and serene water features.

There is even a "See-no-evil," monkey-topped, tiki totem by the pool.

While Humphreys is in the midst of a "remuddle," (board-and-batten siding is quickly being replaced with stucco and questionable, silvery, slate corner caps), the grand porte-cochère proves that it isn't too late to fully embrace the genius of the original architecture.  Time and modern sensibilities, however, are rarely on the side of wacky tacky.

Such is the case with Humphreys' restaurant/music venue.  With an inviting a-frame entryway, Humphreys by the Bay, promises a dimly-lit interior replete with ancient fisherman's floats and blow-fish lanterns.  Instead, guests are treated to a dining room completely refashioned in white leather and chrome.

The exterior is not faring much better.  As seen in this photo, the rafter tails are crumbling and the edifice shows only shadows of the original decor (tiki mask/signage?).  See a vintage photo here.

All things considered, our complaints are few and our gratitude plentiful for an ownership who is actively maintaining a vital part of California's historic tiki architecture.

Including this enormous lantern with which I became completely obsessed...  It was so big that a human could easily fit inside it, reminding me of the cages from one of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies.


One part conch shell and two parts starfish, James Hubbell's "Pacific Portal" sculpture is an obvious photo-op on the tiki tour.  Directly across the street from Humphreys, the larger-than-life art installation conjures images of Verne-ian voyages and feats of Cousteau-ian courage.

Like this handstand-y show off...

Not to be outdone, Ben & Erika performed some highlights from their own acrobatic repertoire.

And they even stuck the landing!!!

The view from the bottom...


Bali Hai Restaurant (1953)

A brief visit to Shelter Island's most famous outpost concluded our tiki tour.  Considered by many to be the jewel in Shelter Island's tiki tiara, Bali Hai Restaurant began life as "The Hut" in 1953.  Flagging patronage in its earliest years encouraged an overhaul that set a precedent for many updates over the next half-century.

One enduring element of the original restaurant is the iconic "Goof" on the roof!

The Real Goof

I'll admit it; slightly underwhelmed by Bali Hai, I assumed an even grumpier
attitude than that of Mr. Bali Hai, the establishment's less-than-amused mascot. 

Somehow, I feel like I have shirked my responsibility by never before dropping anchor at Shelter Island.  But now that I have, I know I will be a regular visitor.  If you are ever in San Diego and you hunger for a veritable pu pu platter of Polynesia, then get down to Shelter Island.  Who knows, you might see me there!

"If you try, you will find me where the sky meets the sea."

"Bali Ha'i" - Sarah Vaughan with The London Symphony Orchestra

Trader Mort's Liquor
2904 Shelter Island Dr
San Diego

 Humphrey's Half Moon Inn & Suites
2303 Shelter Island Dr
San Diego, CA

Bali Hai Restaurant
2230 Shelter Island Dr
San Diego, CA

Cheers & Aloha!

Mr. Tiny