Making the Grade
On campus at the Bleu River Grille and Ventana, the Texas Culinary Academy's training restaurants
Ventana11400 Burnet Road #2100, 339-3850
Tuesday-Friday, 11am-1:30pm, 5:30-8pm
Here's a great idea. When advanced students at the Texas Culinary Academy take their haute-cuisine lab course, they can work in a bona fide restaurant. Located right on the TCA campus, Ventana is both a classroom and a true fine-dining restaurant, complete with tablecloths, silverware, nice crystal, and superb raw ingredients. It also has real live customers, something the students will have to eventually face. We thought it would be fun to see what Ventana has to offer.
In return for taking part in their students' training, Ventana offers diners excellent food at very inexpensive prices and a high staff-to-customer ratio. Even better, we also benefit from an energetic, enthusiastic, and unjaded staff whose only negatives are that they are still learning and a little nervous.
Ventana has a clean, contemporary look. Though it was originally part of an office, the designers have done a good job making the place feel elegant and classy. There are comfortable chairs and tables with plenty of space to move. The room is sparsely decorated and very echoey, but the customers are generally low-key, and the noise level never gets out of hand. Six of the tables have an open view to the kitchen, a good opportunity to see the amazing teamwork that quickly develops among the cooks. Watching the kitchen action from the restaurant, the only giveaway that the cooks were students happened when one had a question and the chef would come over and give them a patient explanation. Most chefs wouldn't take the time or be so tolerant.
Ventana's menu changes quarterly to take advantage of fresh ingredients. The fare is very much like you would find at a French brasserie and includes four appetizers, two soups, three salads, and six entrées. Four of us went on a Tuesday night at 7:45. Ventana was about one-third full, with an interesting blend of customers, from young foodies on the hunt for a bargain to elderly couples just enjoying the cuisine.
Our server was a young woman with a dream of owning a B&B. It was her first night, and she was trying to do everything just right. She had some trouble with the wine opener and got a little flustered. Luckily, she had already learned the lesson that a smile and a good attitude mask most problems. The main difference you'll notice between Ventana's students and a seasoned professional is that, instead of service being an effortless application based on experience, the students working the front of the house have to stop, think, and occasionally ask the chef a question.
After checking the decently priced wine list, we ordered appetizers. The best of the bunch was Crêpes Newburg ($4.95), made with paper-thin crêpes and a healthy serving of sautéed shrimp in a delicate sherry cream sauce. I'm always a sucker for homemade sausage, and the Charcuteries du Jour ($4.95) featured an apple-smoked version that was delicious. Unfortunately, it was so lean and cut so thin that the sausage fell apart when you stabbed it with a fork. Plus, the serving was quite small. It still tasted great. Ventana's French Onion Soup ($3.50) had an appetizing veal stock, but the huge chunk of bread swamped the bowl and made the smallish portion of cheese more noticeable. Their Soup du Jour ($3.50) that day was cream of spinach, and it was both rich and filled with healthy green flavors.
We tried two salads. Vert et Blanc ($4.25) featured green and white asparagus with baby field greens and a nice orange vinaigrette dressing. I was especially impressed with how perfectly the asparagus were prepared -- still crispy and fresh tasting. Though there was plenty of greens, I wanted more than the four small asparagus on the plate. Their Caesar Salad ($3.50) was tasty with fresh and crispy romaine lettuce. Caesar salad is served everywhere and ranges from sublime to soggy. Ventana's version was better than about 75% of the competition. A little work on the jumbled visual aspect would take it even higher.
We tried three entrées. The Trout Meuniere ($12.95) featured a huge slab of ruby-red sea trout, juicy and tender. A simple lemon, parsley, and butter sauce was delicious enough that we asked for more. Whoever was doing the veggies that night showed a master's touch. Like the asparagus in the prior course, the side order of beautiful haricots verts was remarkable in texture and flavor. Mushroom Chasseur ($12.95), the sole vegetarian entrée, featured roasted portobello mushrooms filled with hearts of palms and a ratatouille on the side. Someone had used a heavy hand with the herbs, lending the dish a slightly medicinal aroma.
Two of us ordered Tournedos Rossini ($16.95). One loves steak but doesn't care for foie gras; the other can take or leave steak but loves foie gras. We asked for one dish to have additional foie gras and the other to have only a small amount. We noticed too late that she delivered the dishes backward. Nonetheless, it was delicious. To start, they made extravagant use of a rich demi-glace. Then, the perfectly cooked steaks had slabs of foie gras melting across the meat's surface like butter. The dish was finished with a small nest of crispy pommes frites. Gioacchino Rossini would have been proud.
At the end of the meal I asked if I could talk to the person doing the vegetables. In seconds, the chef walked out followed by four students. We gave them a round of applause, and they looked proud and thrilled to get some recognition. He introduced each of the students to us and told us what they had prepared for our meal. The students had a sense of eagerness and pleasure that was moving. How often do you find that kind of passion and care in a fine-dining restaurant? We complimented them, and they filed back into the kitchen. About five minutes later, the chef came back out with a young woman. She had been on break when the others came out. She stood, obviously ill at ease, while the chef explained that she had worked the grill. After some praise for her steaks, she lit up. I found the whole experience heartwarming.
Part of enjoying Ventana is your responsibility. If you go in demanding perfection with no tolerance for minor gaffes, you will be disappointed. After all, these are students, and they are learning. Personally, I like their open and excited approach enough that the occasional small lapses feel more charming than ungraceful. Plus, they make up for a student's lack of skill by giving a heartfelt effort. If you encourage the staff and overlook a little issue here and there, they will give you a fine meal at an unbeatable price.
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