Dinner and a show. It’s the stuff that date nights are made of. Smart are the businesspeople who cook up a plan to get customers in the door with quality food and keep them in their seats with good live music.
Situated in the bustling Old Fourth Ward, Venkman’s is the brainchild of musicians Nicholas Niespodziani and Peter Olson, who hail from the popular local ’70s hits-strumming band Yacht Rock Revue, along with chef Nick Melvin.
Melvin has spent time in such notable area restaurants as Parish, Empire State South and Rosebud, and he founded the food product label Doux South Pickles a couple years ago to satisfy his passion for pickling.
The large industrial space impresses with high ceilings and natural light that lend an airy, breathable feel. There is a stage against one wall, an open kitchen opposite that (where pickled everything is on display) and a backlit bar to one side. On the other side, above a row of banquettes, is an eclectic art collection ranging from a Native American leather beaded purse to an ancient Israelite musical instrument known as a kinnor harp, plus all sorts of random framed 2-D pieces. Together, these elements create a funky, cool vibe that’ll make you smile as you take a seat.
“Venkman’s is the place where you can bring a first date who you really want to impress or your truck-driving uncle from Mississippi,” the website says. “We strive to be that location where you can come hear great music, eat amazing food and sip on fantastic drinks.”
On my visits, I heard great music. Jazz from the Mar-Tans and acoustics from Kent Aberle Duo were thoroughly entertaining. There was quite the buzz of anticipation before Yacht Rock Revue took the stage one night.
Amazing food and fantastic drinks? Not so much.
The kitchen strives for creative takes on comfort food, yet the results don’t always strike the right chord. An appetizer of smoked trout beignets barely hinted of trout. In a special of stuffed mushrooms, the fungi was lost amid a nondescript stuffing and encased in a heavy batter, but redeemed by a horseradish crème for dipping.
When it came to meat dishes, the burger was the star. It features toppings of white cheddar, tomato jam, pickled slaw and dill mustard, but my brain registered Big Mac in the very best of ways. And the accompanying fries served with a creamy pickle sauce were outstanding.
Meanwhile, other meat offerings disappointed. The smoked chicken wings were tough. The cast-iron fried chicken was juicy and tender, but an Asian-style honey-hot sauce combination did it a disservice. It was paired with a roasted radish and turnip salad that was palate-pleasing and satisfying.
I hoped that when my teeth broke through the casing of the pastrami-wurst on a pretzel roll, juices would run down my chin, as happens when biting into a brat. Instead, the sausage was dry.
The chicken-fried tofu has the potential to be a solid vegetarian option, but the liquid from the tofu wasn’t sufficiently pressed out. Battered and fried like chicken, then served with slaw on a sweet potato bun, the tofu’s wet interior outweighed a nicely crunchy exterior.
For dessert, the mousse-like Nutella pudding served in a mini porcelain honey pot was wonderful on its own, and even better with a topping of crushed pretzels and Heath Bar. But the Memphis Mafia, a gelato sandwich, sat untouched after a couple of bites; the totality of flavors from roasted banana cheesecake gelato swirled with bacon fat caramel between peanut butter vanilla wafers was discordant.
On the brunch menu, down-home comfort dishes didn’t comfort.
The breakfast poutine tasted more like roasted potatoes ladled with mushroom gravy. The Georgia Hot Brown, a play on the open-faced hot sandwich specialty of Louisville — which sees layers of sliced turkey, bacon, Mornay sauce and tomatoes atop thick slices of toast — felt needlessly complicated, with tough confit pork loin and crispy pork belly. The duck egg hash suffered a similar problem. The chicken and grits — red chile chicken over grits with avocado, radish pico de gallo, cotija cheese and a well-executed poached egg — is an interesting marriage of Southwest and South, but the dish was warm at best.
Yet, that winning burger holds a spot on the brunch list. And I hope the Big Ass Sticky Bun, which lives up to the name, sticks around. The massive, fluffy pastry is studded with bacon bits, topped with toasted pecan and bacon crumbles and drizzled with decadent bacon fat caramel.
If you are into craft beer, you’ll find a drink to please. Boozy slushies are goofy concoctions that’ll leave you sugared. Get On Up, described on the menu as an herbal Cuba libre, held gin and mint in addition to the standard rum, cola and lime; mint overpowered the cocktail. Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee, a sweeter and more floral take on a Manhattan, was tasty and well-balanced. I’d order it again if the glass were chilled.
Service was slow and spotty. On one visit, despite an uncrowded room, a dining partner and I waited 20 minutes for drinks to arrive. We passed the time watching a handful of servers and bartenders gather at the bar to unpack supplies from a box. Later, when a runner delivered our food, we had neither silverware nor napkins.
The musical performance component may require a little pre-homework. Some concerts are free, others are not. You’d do well to check the schedule online, where you also can purchase tickets in advance. If you purchase them at the door, they are slightly more expensive. You can come just for the food, but you’ll have to leave before paid concerts begin.
Venkman’s hits a high note for music, offering a nice variety seven nights a week. Your truck-driving uncle from Mississippi probably will have a good time. But, to impress your date, you’ll have to rely on Yacht Rock Revue.
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