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Venetian Bistro & Pastry Shop

Flaky Pastry

"What's that smell?" I asked.

"It's paella," a customer standing beside me at the counter told me.

I wasn't thinking about eating dinner at the bakery, but I immediately changed my plans. I asked the woman behind the counter if I could have some paella to go. She said it wasn't done yet and to come back in 20 minutes. When I returned, the aroma was even stronger. Like a hungry shopper at the grocery store, I went wild. I got some paella, some roast pork, a Cuban sandwich, a Sicilian sandwich and a couple of pastries for dessert.

The pastry chef at Venetian is a genius.
Troy Fields
The pastry chef at Venetian is a genius.

Details

Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Cheese pastry: $1.99

Mango mousse cake: $2.99

Fresh-squeezed juice: $2.99

Cortadito: $1.59

Empanadas: $1.99

3821 Bellaire Blvd., 713-662-3500.

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The bill came to $40.01. I handed the woman behind the counter two twenties. "It's forty dollars and one cent," she said pointedly. I searched my pockets waiting for her dispensation to forget about the penny. But it never came.

"You really want me to go out to my car and search for a penny?" I asked her. Her shrug indicated that she did indeed expect me to go scrounge under my car seats for change. When I returned with the copper coin, I made a big show of placing it in her hand before I took my food home.

I was all excited unwrapping the food at the table. Unfortunately, the paella was a wad of gloppy yellow-rice mush. The seafood in it was skinny crab legs with no meat worth excavating. No one at my house was interested. No one was willing to eat the dry, overcooked roast pork either. The Sicilian sandwich was a pile of cheap cold cuts and cheese slices on a plate with a dense roll beside it. The Sicilian bread wasn't bad, but it was ill-suited for use as a sandwich.

The only thing I brought home that was worth eating was the Cuban sandwich. And it was only so-so. The bread was fine and the dry-roasted pork tasted okay with ham and cheese on a sandwich. But the sandwich-maker hadn't pressed the thing long enough and hard enough to really flatten it in the sandwich press.

We went back to Venetian for breakfast a short time later and ordered scrambled eggs. The counter person said they were cooked with onions and peppers. In fact, the eggs that came to the table were cooked with absolutely nothing — not even salt and pepper. We also had some wonderful chicken empanadas and a great ham-and-cheese breadstick with a big piece of ham rolled up inside, as well as a powdered sugar-topped napoleon that was fabulous. But while the eggs came on china, the pastries were served on Styrofoam squares, despite the fact that there were plenty of clean plates stacked up next to the cash register and we were sitting at a table in the restaurant. Likewise, the fabulous fresh juices come in a plastic cup.

There is no written menu. The prices of the pastries are listed on the wall, but the restaurant doesn't carry some of the listed items (like guava bread), and they don't list all the ones they do have (like the bread pudding). For the price of ravioli, soup, paella or other entrées, you have to point to a plate or bowl on which a stale and dried-out version of the dish is displayed and ask: "How much is that?" It quickly gets tedious.

When I went up to pay my bill at breakfast, the same woman who had sent me to my car for a penny was working the cash register. She took my money, but had some trouble assembling my change.

"Is it okay if I short you a penny?" she asked.

"You're kidding, right?" I asked. No, she wasn't. She didn't remember me at all. I let her keep the penny, but I fumed all the way to my car.

Pastry chef Hugo Penaranda at the Venetian Bistro & Pastry Shop is a genius. Get a coffee or a fresh juice and taste his breads, empanadas, meat and cheese pastries, dry pastries, cold creamy pastries, Danishes or anything else in the baked-goods case.

Maybe the Venetian will figure out how to cook the other stuff eventually. They have only been open for a month. And as for the service, be prepared to eat gorgeous pastries off of cheap Styrofoam squares. And be sure to bring some pennies.

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