Cafe Reviews

When Plush Comes to Shove

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Indeed, how can we be penalized for twiddling our thumbs while waiting 15 minutes for pre-dinner glasses of wine? Or for playing tic-tac-toe with our breadcrumbs while enduring a 50-minute wait for appetizers? Or for losing another valuable 10 minutes in sending back our entrees, prematurely delivered before our starter seafood and soup courses? To their credit, VR staffers allow us to stay as long as three hours at a stretch with nary a nudge to the door.

Want to hear weird, though? We love every minute of the suspended agony spent waiting. Nursing glasses of wine (those with a taste for grapes will enjoy The Velvet Room's expansive selection, including one of my favorites, Caymus Conundrum), we amuse ourselves with the glitter gulch of guests surrounding the central bar.

Anchored by a 1920s saxophone converted to a draft beer pull, the rectangular bar is positively collapsing under the crush of 40-something first wives. Hair extensions tacked into bouffants? Tight white Guess jeans marred by visible panty lines, paired with $400 slingback shoes and Prada bags? They're here. Tanning-salon skin, absurdly orange under Acquanetta-esque raven black hair? Do you resemble a partially preserved Connie Stevens? The Velvet Room is your catwalk.

And the men. I've never seen such succulent specimens this far removed from Las Vegas. It's like a living wax museum dedicated to Wayne Newton, Sonny Bono and Hugh Hefner.

No matter where you're seated in The Velvet Room, you've got an unobstructed view of the entertainment -- both from guests, and onstage. One evening, we're crammed into a tight table directly under the piano backed by a 3-D relief of the New York City skyline. At first, I'm irritated; I can't push back my chair without hitting the stage (if you can get a booth against the velvet-draped back walls, you'll be much happier).

But the music is so good, discomfort quickly melts away.

The Velvet Room has put Big City effort into its music lineup, booking such notable crooners as Alice Tatum, Margo Reed, Joel and Delphine, and Sherry Roberson. Their smoky voices do beautiful justice to songs made famous by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Nat "King" Cole and, of course, Frank Sinatra.

If the music is retro, though, the menu should be repo'd. Some mistakes here are clumsy, others are downright negligent.

An appetizer of smoked-salmon crepes sounds decadent, tempting me with thoughts of Twiggy-thin sheets of salted pancake delicately draped with gossamer salmon. But they're not. These crepes, rather, are oddly purple and thickly tortillalike, exceedingly heavy over slabs of brackish smoked fish. A drizzle of crème fraîche is merely welcome moisture, a centerpiece of red leaf lettuce inconsequential, and a dozen-egg drip of oestra caviar much too stingy to appreciate.

Lobster-stuffed mushrooms suffer from clumps of overcooked shellfish in a witless blend of red pepper cream cheese. The best thing about the dish is an unexpected garnish of grilled red pepper, spinach and phyllo dough. Vegetable tartlet is much better, even if it's presented as a salad instead of my anticipated phyllo pie. I like the balsamic-dressed blend of roasted mushrooms, red pepper, artichoke, tomato and goat cheese, although the spinach is too bitter to be the baby variety promised by the menu.

There's nothing of note in the appetizer seafood platter. It's the hall of wax all over again, with rubbery representations of chilled Malpeque oysters in a watery "champagne" vinaigrette with teeny freckles of caviar. Our confidence is low from the start, as our server misidentifies the caviar type, labels the ceviche as lobster salad, and disregards the actual lobster salad altogether. After a few bites, I understand why. It's a room-temperature scoop of shellfish and chopped red pepper slicked with mayonnaise and white pepper -- boring. Ceviche, meanwhile, obviously has sat too long in the refrigerator; it's much too cold, its tortilla shell has gone stale and the halibut has overcooked in its bath of lime. Check the prep line, chef Casey -- I bet you'll find more poor plates like ours, dressed with wilted arugula, dead parsley and dried-out lemon wedges.

I'm happier gorging on The Velvet Room's fabulous breadbasket, brimming with freshly warmed soft pretzel cigars, crusty baguette and soft olive bread smeared with sweet garlic butter. That, paired with an evening's special of salmon and clam chowder, is nirvana. The soup is sumptuous, deftly balancing grilled vegetables, wine and seafood chunks served en croûte.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet