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.
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.
"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 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.
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"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.