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The delicate crust on the cheese pastry at Venetian Bistro & Pastry Shop on Bellaire shatters into tender, buttery flakes as soon as I take a bite. The mild cheese inside tastes like a cross between farmer's cheese and cream cheese. This is the first course of my Venezuelan-Cuban breakfast. I wash it down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and the frothy milk-and-espresso drink known as a cortadito among Cubans (a cappuccino to the rest of us).
To decide on my second course, I stand in front of the four-level glass display case and try to choose from a dozen varieties of ornately decorated pasties. There are two kinds of éclairs, one glazed with chocolate and the other with dulce de leche. And there are two varieties of the layered pastry-and-custard confections called napoleons. One is topped with chocolate and the other with powdered sugar.
The most spectacular thing in the case is the mango mousse pastry, a stop sign-shaped creation with a bottom level of yellow cake and green icing topped with a deck of mango pudding and decorated with glazed strawberries and decorative chocolate shapes.
Cheese pastry: $1.99
Mango mousse cake: $2.99
Fresh-squeezed juice: $2.99
The teardrop-shaped passion fruit pastry is a close cousin to the mango mousse, with the same beautiful cake construction, but with passion fruit pudding on top and a blueberry garnish. Opera cake is made of coffee-flavored custard and chocolate and decorated with a thin treble clef artfully drawn on top of the dark chocolate in white icing.
I decide on the undecorated but rich-looking bread pudding, which is cut in a rectangular slice. It pulls apart in big, sticky clumps. The inside is spiked with orange peel and currants. It tastes more like a moist cake than a pudding, but I'm not complaining. It's a pretty good breakfast.
I had an even better breakfast here yesterday. I tried Venetian's ham-and-cheese pastry, which features a thick wad of ham and creamy cheese covered in a breadier crust sort of a cross between a pastry and a kolache. I washed it down with American coffee and a freshly made mango-and-pineapple juice. For dessert, I had a fantastic cream puff pastry that looked something like an éclair, but instead of a single tube of filled pastry, this one featured two cream puffs covered with dulce de leche and anchored side by side onto a pastry plank. The filling was a thick custard that tasted like the ricotta cheese mixture you get inside a cannoli sweet, but not too sweet. It was the best thing I tasted at Venetian.
While I was eating breakfast, I saw two of the owners of the Venetian Bistro & Pastry Shop behind the counter when I went up to refill my coffee. I struck up a conversation with manager Emiliano Lorenzo and pastry chef Hugo Penaranda.
Both men were born in Venezuela. The seemingly odd name "Venetian" is sort of an inside joke on the name of their home country.
In 1499, while exploring the South American coast, cartographer Amerigo Vespucci observed villagers living in houses built on stilts above the water. It reminded him of Venezia (Venice), and so he named the region "Venezuola," meaning "little Venice" in Italian. So the name Venetian is not so strange after all. And the owners don't mind if the public gets the impression that the Venetian is a European pastry shop. After all, the pastries are modeled on the European classics.
Strong coffee and sweet pastries are an obsession among Cubans, Central Americans and South Americans. During the last decade, the two men worked in Florida, opening more than 30 Cuban-style bakeries for various corporations. But when they decided to build a Latin-style bakery of their own, they left Florida and headed for Space City.
They chose Houston because of the cheap real estate market, the large international population and the lack of competition. "Houston is a virgin market for good bakeries," Lorenzo said.
In the four visits I have made to Venetian, the customers seemed to be primarily gorgeous South American women. Sometimes they are alone, sometimes they come in pairs and sometimes they come with boyfriends or husbands. But they invariably end up standing in front of the pastry case oohing and ahhing about the sweets of their childhood.
The Venetian also serves such South American specialties as arepas and empanadas. The flaky empanadas are delightful; I like the yellow chicken empanada the best. The arepas are too tough for my taste. They taste like fried grits gone stale and cold.
Terlingua Texas Border Cafe, Venetian Bistro & Pastry Shop and Antone's Famous Po' Boys & Deli form a brand new restaurant row in the Braes Heights neighborhood on Bellaire just east of Stella Link. The Antone's has been there for quite a while, but the Terlingua and Venetian are brand-new.
I stopped into the new Terlingua Grill location to see what it looked like. It has a big bar and rough-hewn dining room with an upscale Tex-Mex menu, just like its sister restaurant on Studemont. Then I took a look inside the Venetian a few doors down.
When I walked in the door, I was frozen by the sensory overload. The place itself was inviting, with lots of small tables covered with what looked like leather. There was a sofa in the front if you wanted to hang out and a sign advertising free wi-fi. Meanwhile, I was standing in front of a case of fantastically colorful pastry creations, and the aroma of garlic and seafood filled my nose.