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By Mai Pham
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I believe restaurateur Michael Valentine has an eye for architectural white elephants. Before he and wife Hanh settled on Evelyn Wilson's grand three-story building at 3704 Fannin for their new restaurant and piano bar called Valentino's, they took a shot at renovating a pigsty. Almost literally. They tried to bring the former Pig Live building at the corner of Richmond and Greenbriar back from the dead.
Before its nightclub incarnation, the Pig building housed a restaurant called St. Michel. At the time -- and this must be nearly 20 years ago -- St. Michel was one of Montrose's prettiest dining spaces, with a soaring, sun-dappled two-story atrium and a shady, stone-flagged patio. Today it's hard to discern the abandoned building's fine bones lost under layers of begrimed Pigdom, cheap carpeting still sticky with spilled beer, and filthy windows blocked with plywood. "It was just terrible inside. Even the four walls weren't steady," says Michael with a heavy sigh. "We spent all our life savings trying to renovate that place."
In the fall of 1996 the Valentines optimistically saw this sad old pig in a poke as a fixer-upper and dreamed of feeding the overflow from the then-thriving Shepherd Plaza club scene. Two years later Shepherd Plaza was locked into a hopeless downward spiral, and the Valentines and their savings were sucked into bankruptcy.
"It was a lot of bad luck," says Michael. "I'm good at finding wrong people and wrong places, I guess. But I've always had this crazy dream of having my own restaurant. I just can't get it out of my head." So the Valentines patiently started over again, from scratch. Their second-choice location on Fannin, just north of Alabama, looks like a much better bet, but it's still a gamble.
"I had always been fascinated with Mrs. Wilson's building," Valentine admits. He and Hanh held their wedding reception there in 1997; the following year they began the painstaking process of renovating it.
Now the interior of Evelyn Wilson's old building is beautiful, bordering on Pretty Baby bordello. The dining room is romantically candlelit even at noon. Graceful wrought-iron railings -- still monogrammed "HG" for Herzog Galleries, the occupant long before Wilson -- trim the stairways and upper landing. There are gorgeous fresh flowers, Singapore orchids, coral roses, on every table. Glossy armoires, sideboards and hall tables, on consignment from a Heights antique shop, stand about waiting to be purchased. On the far wall, an astonishing mural of a Venetian canal scene stretches a full two stories, from the floor behind the baby grand piano to the ceiling above the velvet-curtained dining balcony upstairs.
The risk for the Valentines here is that Midtown, midweek, is a morgue. On a recent Wednesday night a friend and I dined at Valentino's in solitary splendor. Something about the flickering candlelight on the hulking antiques, the ceiling soaring off into dimness, the echoing expanse of empty dining room, made me feel uncannily like Miss Havisham. "This is kind of creepy, don't you think?" asked Pip, er, my friend. But that night we had a good meal charmingly served by Hanh Valentine, which went a long way toward dispelling the ghosts.
We started with the cayenne crab cakes ($6.95), which were chock-full of moist lump crabmeat, nicely pricked with cayenne, lightly battered and fried. That night's potato soup ($3.95), though not exactly innovative, was satisfying: chunks of chicken and potato bobbing in a hearty stock flavored with bits of bacon. Pip liked it, especially with the bottomless basket of very good French bread.
He also liked Valentino's understated fettuccine Alfredo with chicken ($10.95). It was beautifully done; pasta is this kitchen's strong point. Thanks to an herbed marinade, the strips of white chicken breast were tender and moist in their bath of creamy sauce. Lightly sautéed ribbons of red and yellow bell peppers added a festive touch.
I got very excited when I read from the menu that Valentino's veal scaloppini ($15.95) is prepared with chestnuts. I can't remember the last time I've seen chestnuts on a menu hereabouts, and I could just taste those rich, roasted chestnuts with the delicate veal. So I was crushed when I discovered, too late, that this was a menu translation error: The chestnuts in question turned out to be water chestnuts, alas. An odd choice for veal, perhaps, but the combination worked well enough. The water chestnuts added a bit of crunch, if not much personality, to the colorful topping of sautéed mushrooms, red and yellow peppers, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. The veal was tender, and the buttery sauce flecked with green bits of cilantro was lighter than it sounds.
I like that each of Valentino's non-pasta entrées is served with a side of creamy fettuccine and several very good green spears of asparagus. I don't like the dinner salads that tag along for the ride, dominated by insipid iceberg lettuce and drenched with an icky-sweet, blood-red raspberry vinaigrette, the house dressing. Maybe it would be kinder to ignore the salads completely. The spinach salad ($6.95), for example, is a disappointing pile of enormous leathery leaves that require a good bit of sawing down to bite-size. They're sprinkled with a few token slices of fresh mushroom and black olives, but that's it: There's no bacon, no hot dressing to wilt with, no chopped egg or croutons. In short, no fun to be had. The salad that sounded most intriguing, the $7.95 Valentino combination salad (greens with smoked salmon pâté and fried caper dill sauce), is no longer available. "Not enough people ever ordered that," Hanh told me regretfully. "So we don't make it anymore."