It always strikes me as odd when people have to qualify their opinions about food based on where it’s served. As in, “For a bingo hall, the food’s not that bad.” Or, more likely, the left-handed compliment is to a nightclub or even a strip club.
Here’s my problem with that: A) the food is either good or it isn’t. Would you drive to your local government palace for lunch based on a recommendation that, “for jail food, the burgers are OK”? And B) I don’t go to those kinds of places — strip clubs, jail, or swanky nightclubs — often, and if I do it’s not for the food, so who cares?
Which means, of course, that the story that follows is about finding myself assaulted by the disco lights and thumping music at the upscale Vee Lounge Restaurant & Bar (500 Taylor St.), a new downtown eatery and club owned by the folks behind Rick’s Cabaret.
The occasion was a friend’s birthday party. Predictably, the lights and music were too much for me, but the place was packed with young things in sparkly dresses (mostly women) and slicked-back hair (guys) who seemed to love it. So, see (B) above: Who cares what a crotchety food columnist thinks?
Our server, who had all the charm of a DMV clerk, seemed annoyed that we wanted food, rather than something from the long menu of lava-lamp-esque cocktails. Still, she was attentive, if disinterested.
The food menu was a pleasant surprise. In addition to the standard-issue guy food, there were offerings like mussels and paella that sounded better than “good enough for a nightclub” fare.
The appetizer of mussels ($12), served swimming in a white sauce, was decent. But the little shellfish were covered in bits of feta cheese, whose flavor clashed with that of the seafood. I spent several minutes picking off the cheese bits. The grits in the shrimp and grits plate ($9), with lemon butter, cilantro, and chile oil, were excellent, but the shrimp were a tad rubbery.
My gut told me to take a pass on the paella entrée ($34), with striped bass, mussels, shrimp, house-made sausage, and scallops. No way a place that pumps loud techno music could do the Spanish staple justice, the gut said. And I should have listened. The shrimp was overcooked and the scallops slimy. The sausage added a nice touch of heat, but the dish was severely lacking in spice. It was served in a skillet, so the kitchen gets some points for presentation. But it needed salt, pepper — something.
All was not lost. The grilled calamari steak ($20) was tender and not at all rubbery. The pomodoro sauce on top was traditional Italian, light with a nice touch of acidity, and the accompanying ragout of white beans, spinach, and caramelized onion was also delicious. All in all, it was a fantastic plate of food.
The menu clearly aimed to be more than just a solid foundation for the liquid entertainment. But that’s all I felt it achieved. It wasn’t bad … you might even say it was actually pretty good for a nightclub.
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