796 Main Street
Venice, CA 90291
The literal translation of "amusé bouche" from French to English is “amuse mouth.” What an amusé bouche really is, though, is an appetizer or an hors d’ouevre. It’s a small, one- or two-bite portion meant to “tickle the tastebuds.” The key word is “small,” and defines everything about Amuse Café in Venice, the first restaurant from Brooke Williamson and Nick Roberts of Beechwood. In fact, saying small is a little generous. Everything about Amuse Café is tiny. Not tiny-cute. More like, tiny-annoying.
The parking lot is not a lot at all – it’s just a few parking spots scribbled onto a driveway. I could only pull into it half way, blocking the sidewalk, my rear end sticking dangerously out into the street before the valet came to take my car. Some might call the house in which the restaurant itself resides, “charming,” but that’s just a nice way of saying it’s a gaudy sunshine yellow gingerbread house. There’s no room downstairs for anything but a kitchen, so the dining room is tucked away at the top of a steep, creaky narrow staircase. On the second floor and crowded with 98.7 degree human heaters, it’s just two tick into too-warm. But if you’re sitting next to one of the windows that have been thrown open for relief for the rest of this attic-like space, then it ticks back the other way to a hair too-cold.
There are only about a dozen tables, some of them uncomfortably close to each other, where I’m eavesdropping on my neighboring diners without even trying. The tabletops seem to be about a square-foot too small to hold all the little things that are overflowing on top: place settings, candles, flowers, water glasses, wine glasses, a basket of bread. Would we be eating with dinner plates in our lap?
The theme of Amuse Café’s menu is also on small, with “Little Plates” as the first and largest section of offerings. There are five “Bigger Plates” at the end, and squashed right between the two as a sort of strange afterthought, two sandwiches. Sandwiches aren’t bad; they just seemed out of place.
The caramelized onion and gruyere tart with fennel and arugula is something that has gotten a bit of buzz around the local food world. We asked our server how big it was. She gave a very vague answer, but basically implied that it was really small because, duh, it says “Little Plates.” I thought – small, like a single tiny golf ball sized crab cake is small? But no, not only was it two pieces, but each one was a fairly sizeable triangle of a puff pastry crusted tart that was really an $8 name for a $4 pizza. For some reason, it annoyed me that the server said it was small, so that we ordered two, and they weren’t small. Wasted order-space that could have gone to something else.
That said, the tart was probably the second best thing we ordered. The onions were sweet and caramelized as promised, but I barely got the flavor or the texture of the gruyere. No matter, though, because I got enough cheese with the best thing we did order, the mixed cheese plate with quince paste, balsamic, and toasted baguette. It was Manchego, a little too much Cabrales, and not enough burrata. Unproportioned, but still, by comparison, it was better than everything else.
Actually, the grilled calamari with sugar snap pea and pesto could have been the best thing on the menu, but I wouldn’t have known. Admittedly, I didn’t even venture a taste. The word “pesto” was enough to scare me off, but the clutter of calamari in a paltry puddle of broth all the way at the bottom of an enormous bowl looked like a lab test sample of aliens swimming in what they spewed on a motion-sickness-inducing landing on earth. It didn’t look the least bit appetizing to me. And pesto. *shudders*
Yes, the cheese plate was better than everything else, but that’s not to say that the other things were bad. They were okay. A romaine heart and white corn salad with Cabrales vinaigrette was okay. The corn was sweet and crisp, as were the leaves of romaine. Lentil hummus with Kalamata olives, pine nuts, and scallions was also just *sigh* okay. It was an interesting and pleasant change from the usual garbanzo bean hummus, but it was actually the one thing that was almost completely untouched by everyone else. I took almost all of it home in a box. (But I didn’t throw it away!)
It’s hard to have an extreme emotion about things that are as simple as a chicken sandwich. If it had been $6, or even $8 like the rest of the small plates, it would have been okay. However, for $12, even with Brie cheese, avocado, sun-dried tomato, and pesto, it seemed a little lacking. Okay, so though the cheese plate was the best thing, it doesn’t deserve any real praise because well, the cheesemakers are the ones who made the cheese, not Amuse Café. Of course, I will not hesitate to most humbly eat my words if I were to find out that Amuse Café makes their own cheeses. However, the one thing that does deserve a tiny applause is the spaghetti. I didn’t expect it to be outstanding, but with sweet corn, zucchini and chili flakes, it was actually pretty good. The menu said eggplant puree as well, but I neither saw nor tasted it. Too bad. They could have had me at spaghetti.
I looooove eggplant.
Though much of Amuse Café is about small, the desserts are not. Unfortunately, unless something is good to begin with, making it bigger doesn’t make it better. The warm bittersweet chocolate brownie tasted a little dry – I couldn’t tell if that was done on purpose so it could soak up the chocolate ganache and mint chip ice cream that was melting into it, or if the ganache and ice cream was there to cover up an oops! dry brownie. The chocolate Krispy banana split was a little hard to eat. Bananas shooting upright out of a tall glass could only be broken off in pieces with fingers, and the chocolate Krispies were just a little too cutesie. But I loved it because it had a birthday candle in it for me. :)
Again, I have to say that I am the luckiest girl in the world with friends and family who so very affectionately spread their love and celebration of my birthday over a whole week! Though my birthday was on the 21st, dinner at Amuse Café was my first birthday dinner with my girlfriends the week before. I loved the company and the conversation (and the gifts!), but the food at our dinner at Amuse Café was only okay. Nothing was horrible. Even the prices were fairly decent, though I am still suffering from mild sticker shock on the $12 price of chicken sandwich. If it weren’t for all the other little things about Amuse Café I might consider going again. Did I also mention that Amuse Café has a small schedule? They’re only open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Sure seems like it’s putting up with a lot of little things for food that’s not a big deal.