By Kaitlin Steinberg
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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."
At lunch, we found more company at Valentino's, and a very different menu. An elegant bevy of black women, very stylishly dressed, dined at the table next to us. Two wore witty little hats that made me feel frumpy. Across the room, a group of suit-and-tie white businessmen conducted a power lunch in a semiprivate alcove, while a gang of theatrically pierced students held a rainbow coalition court over by the piano. (That's what I like best about Midtown: It supplies the random eclectic touch that I miss, particularly now that downtown and Montrose have grown so homogenized.)
Although Valentino's has been open since January, the lunch menu still has an experimental feel. Perhaps that's because chef Miguel Roman, formerly of Brennan's and Baroque, joined the Valentines only a couple of months ago. (Even the piano player disliked the Valentines' first chef. "He was just the wrong chef," Michael admits.)
The lunch list hops, skips and jumps across the board from shrimp poor boys ($7.95) to spaghetti with meat sauce ($6.95) to the big-deal salmon Valentino with crawfish and scallops ($12.95). It's as if Roman and the Valentines weren't exactly sure what Midtowners might want for lunch, and so anxiously tried to cover all the possible bases. "Caesar salad? Tiramisu? This menu is just so '70s!" crowed a friend. I have to agree.
But hey, the catfish ($6.95) was impeccable, with a salty cornmeal coating fried flawlessly crisp and an accompanying stack of very tasty french fries. We also liked the $8.95 chicken Parmesan -- there's that '70s thing again -- a juicy chicken breast pounded and crusted with bread crumbs and Parmesan, then lapped with a sweet red marinara sauce and a chewy topping of stretchy white mozzarella.
I was less enthralled with the "coffee and pepper crusted" strip sirloin ($11.95), which reminds me of that coffee-bean encrusted tenderloin Dacapo's used to dish up over on Allen Parkway. Perhaps it's my fault I didn't like Valentino's rendition -- I'm not crazy about black pepper, and this steak is thickly studded with whole peppercorns. I should have been warned when darling Hanh assured me that you really can't taste the coffee flavor. She's right. It's drowned out by those peppercorns, which are not only too strong but also unpleasant to bite down on, like trying to eat BBs. I scraped off as many corns as I could, and the picture improved. I could finally taste the coffee and even detected a faint whiff of cilantro from the avocado-cilantro sauce. This is a dish that needs paring down: Either go with the coffee-pepper medley, I think, or stick to the avocado-cilantro concept, but don't throw all four contenders at once onto a defenseless steak.
By the time we got to dessert I was hearing Partridge Family tunes in my head. Yes, we got the tiramisu ($4.95) and found it fluffy and sweet and inoffensive, perfectly suited to my mental soundtrack. Ditto for the crème brûlée ($4.50), pleasantly light and crackly-topped with caramelized sugar, exactly as you'd expect. And to complete the Watergate-era picture, there's chocolate mousse ($4.95), though this is a more memorable concoction of triple chocolate, alternating layers of cake and mousse finished with downy frosting.
Valentino's is a white elephant worth riding again, I've decided. If you like a rococo room and reassuringly retro food, you're going to like this restaurant a lot. And if you were fond of the Partridge Family, or are too young to remember either David Cassidy or CREEP, well, then, so much the better. Valentino's, 3704 Fannin, (713)522-1403.