Photo by Anne Fishbein
IT'S A FRIDAY EVENING, AND WE EARLY BIRDS HAVE COME UNSTYLISHLY early to the stylish new Drake's in Venice. A congenial hostess checks off our reservation and, after a short wait, during which we gape at the painting of a Native American medicine man in a Prada suit, leads us into the impressively high, brick-walled dining room. Except for two booths, it is completely empty.
This is the old St. Mark's building, which was a jazz club way back when. It has now been refurbished by Will Karges, who formerly gave us Rix and Blueberry, and who has his own devoted following among the well-heeled, youthful, club-loving set. The vast rooms have been carefully and generously appointed, with canvas awnings over the booths, a whole Venetian gondola hung upside down from the ceiling, and odd pieces of art, such as a self-conscious collage of mirrors and photographs of famous Venice residents. Cooks mill in an open kitchen whose high racks are festooned with shiny copper pans. We're so busy looking around, it takes us a moment to realize that our pleasant-enough hostess, for whatever reason, has delivered us to the worst table in the house -- a floater in the middle of the room, under an air-conditioning vent, with an intimate view of the waiter's station.
Hey, welcome to Drake's.
Now, I am not a friend of the owners, or a regular, or a movie star, and therefore don't expect to be given that great booth tucked under the canvas awning, the one that everybody automatically wants and that, of course, is eternally reserved. But since we've duly made reservations in advance and arrived early enough to be gone by rush hour, it seems inhospitable that we're not offered at least an inconspicuous little spot, especially in the midst of such vast emptiness. And while we're finally moved to a nicer table against the wall, this first greeting lingers. There's a sense here that the customers' happiness matters somewhat less than the staff's exigencies, a feeling that's reinforced at a later date when I call to confirm a reservation and get treated with chilly skepticism until the hostess finally locates it on the rolls.
Or maybe this is just the way clubs are.
Drake's definitely feels more clubby than fine-dining establishment, especially as the night deepens. Early on, the crowd is partly 50- and 60-somethings, but as the evening progresses, the room fills with dressed-up young men and women, the latter often in their scantiest best. I have never stayed late enough to see how much, if any, table-hopping takes place as the music gains volume and time and alcohol work their magic. The room, however, is always chilly -- doesn't the staff notice all the women rubbing their bare arms and shoulders for warmth?
Chef Christian Shaffer, formerly of Pinot Bistro, Cicada and Patina, mans the kitchen, and his New American cooking is straightforward and frankly impressive, which is surprising, as I've learned not to expect such good food in clubs. The oysters -- Kumamoto, Sunset Beach, Malapeque -- are cold and achingly fresh. Sand dabs and rock shrimp are lightly breaded and fried, the golden leaves of fish cleverly served upright along with a good saffron-scented rouille. A bucket of steamed clams proves ample and is fun to share. Drake's version of the now-ubiquitous beet-and-goat-cheese salad is nicely proportioned, fresh and cleanly dressed, but the "red and blue thincruster," papery pizza lightly scattered with a pleasant-tasting combination of grapes, Gorgonzola and prosciutto, isn't very interesting.
Drake's declares itself primarily a steakhouse, and its Ultimate Steak, a hefty, fat-pearled rib-eye, is a fine piece of meat. But personally, I've fallen in love with the well-marbled, enchanting flatiron. This trendy new steak, which comes from the neck of the cow, is now appearing on menus all over town, and Drake's cut is the best I've had: tender, big-flavored, of generous size and reasonable price ($22). Sides come à la carte. Skip the overly cheese-heavy potato leek gratin and go for the almost fluffy creamed spinach.
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Slow-roasted salmon is virtuous, if quiet next to the steak -- and how disappointing that the root vegetables, the night we visited, were mostly boring old carrots and potatoes. But the pan-seared Alaskan halibut is everything we want from that fish: light, buttery, a pleasure to chew -- virtues kept intact by thoughtful pairings with fresh asparagus and shiitake mushrooms.
The strawberry shortcake isn't quite juicy enough, and though there are murmurs of pleasure for the banana crepes, I find them dry and prefer a brown betty with its crumbly, crunchy cinnamon topping and hot, juicy, slightly tart apples.
Folding a menu to take home, I notice three words emblazoned at the bottom of the page: Decadence. Desire. Indulgence. I look around at the well-dressed diners -- now louder and younger and slightly more rambunctious even than before -- eating Shaffer's fresh, well-prepared meals. Do these three words constitute a philosophy, I wonder? A mission statement? A design element? Perhaps just wishful thinking.
Drake's, 23 Windward Ave., Venice; (310) 450-7055. Dinner Tues.-Sat. 6 p.m.- mid., closed Sun.-Mon. AE, D, MC, V. Entrées $15-$29.