Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
The student chefs at Ventana offer gourmet food at deli prices
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009
Tue.-Fri., 11am-1:30pm, 5:30-8pm
Ventana11400 Burnet Rd., 339-3850
Tuesday-Friday, 11am-1:30pm & 5:30-8:15pm
Austin's branch of Le Cordon Bleu Schools North America requires advanced students to work in the school's restaurants, which in Austin are the casual Bleu River Grill and the white-tablecloth Ventana. The goal is to allow the students and instructors to practice on real consumers. Of course, Le Cordon Bleu has to do something to lure diners, so it offers bargain prices. At the stylishly appointed Ventana, you can choose from a two-, three- or four-course prix fixe menu, costing $15, $20, or $25, respectively. That means a four-course meal at Ventana can cost less than a simple entrée at a similar-quality restaurant.
Any concerns about a student-run restaurant evaporate when you arrive, because the school always has an instructor directly supervising the students both in the kitchen and the front of the house, watching over every single interaction between the customer and student, except for refilling glasses. While you might miss some of the casual niceties and drilled perfection you'd find at the city's most expensive eateries, everyone deserved an "A" for eagerness to please.
Ventana's menu is adventurous, but it's also short (three appetizers, two salads, five mains, four desserts), which helps make it easier for the students to master. We started off with oyster beignets, a plate of three tempura-fried Gulf oysters that are perfectly crisp without a hint of oiliness, sitting on a bed of leeks with a rich sambal rémoulade sauce. The textures of the oysters, batter, and leeks are all ideal. The vichyssoise is classic: rich, velvety, and flavorful, if a tad too thick.
Ventana's Salade Maraichere is its take on the classic French salade maraîchère au chèvre chaud, complete with a delicious disc of lightly breaded and flash-fried goat cheese. The Mediterranean stacked spinach salad is a huge portion of roasted tomatoes, along with mushrooms, olives, onions, and eggs, all dressed with a very rich feta-based dressing. This one dish is big enough for most folks' dinners.
The Gnocchi Parisienne is a bold dish for students. Getting the little dumplings perfect takes a number of steps, a steady hand, and a skilled cook. The cook scores an "A" for getting the texture and taste just right. The dish comes with arugula, shallots, shitakes, and Gruyère cheese. Ventana's Market Catch is the only item on the menu for which a student creates the recipe; in this case, a simple piece of snapper with matchstick-sized cuts of perfectly textured and flavorful fresh vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil, all done en papillote. The surprise showed up on the side, a small plate of haricot verts with slivered almonds. I was expecting a throwaway side dish. Instead, they are perfect in every way, just the right texture, a perfect amount of salt, and just enough oil to enhance the bean's flavors. Give that cook an "A+"!
Both desserts were huge. The apple tart has a yummy caramel sauce and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream and is only slightly marred by a puff pastry that bordered on tough. The best choice on the dessert menu is the Candy Bar, a flourless chocolate cake along with a scoop of almost black chocolate sorbet and a scrumptious peanut butter and caramel sauce.
You might be wondering if anything went wrong. Well, yes. The wine prices at Ventana sport markups close to steak-house levels. I hope it changes the pricing, and it would help if the restaurant allowed folks to bring their own wine, which is perfectly legal since it doesn't have a mixed beverage license.
A most hearty congratulations to both students and staff. Ventana's food can compete head-to-head with all but a handful of Austin's best and most expensive eateries and does it at a bargain price.
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