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[Review'd] Casa Ventura

Some people don't believe in ghosts & curses. Personally, The Blair Witch Project & the face melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark really freak my shit out. Tell me a story about how your roommate's friend saw a little girl sitting at the end of his bed one stormy night and I'll get radiating chills up & down my body as I imagine awaking to the same spectral sight.

The folks behind Casa Ventura, the new Latin American restaurant on 7th Ave & 3rd St that opens for dinner tonight in the former Barrio Barrio Plates Mix space, have no need for such supernatural tomfoolery. Sure the space has gone through some rapid changes recently. Sure it seemed like things were a bit askew a few weeks back. After sitting down with Avi Kravitz & Courtney Ebner (two of the partners in the business) and then trying the food last night at their opening event, all signs point to them ending whatever bad mojo had taken over the space.

The story of Casa Ventura starts back in the days of Barrio, when Jose Ventura (Casa Ventura's director of operations & fearless leader) and Devonna Middeleer (his wife) worked there. Avi & Courtney lived just upstairs and would always be in for dinner. After a while they struck up a friendship. Fast forward a few years, when the owner of Barrio offered to sell the place to Jose. He jumped at the opportunity & soon after, the two couples were in business together.

Jose grew up in the southern part of Puerto Rico in Ponce and eventually moved to the states, spending time at restaurants like Calle Ocho & Yushi. His older brother Giovanni (Casa Ventura's executive chef) moved here as well, working at what was basically the first Latin American restaurant in whitebread Stowe, VT. It had always been the two brothers' dream to open a place of their own, where they could serve good Latin American (and more specifically, Puerto Rican) food. Casa Ventura is that place.

So how do they plan on succeeding where others have failed? For many reasons, the owners think they're bringing something special to the space both in terms of ambiance & food.

They have a primo location with an outdoor patio area. In the past, that patio area has gotten hot as balls, so they've taken measures to ensure that it'll be a cool, relaxing place to grab a bite & a drink.

That same cool, relaxing idea holds true for the rest of the restaurant. Their idea was to create a comfortable place that reflected Jose & Giovanni's Puerto Rican heritage. Devonna's father Bill and his business partner Tom Blake, who have been friends for FIFTY-ONE YEARS after meeting at a boarding school for the hearing impaired as kids, made it all happen.

They've also doubled the size of the bar from the Barrio days.

They've built the walls out with reclaimed wood, and have lit the patio area with warm lighting. They didn’t want it to seem "theme-y," and it definitely doesn't, with only a few wall decorations & plants used for accent. With seating for 80, about half of which is in the patio area, they've got plenty of room for a lot of people to chill.

If the food sucks though, none of that shit matters, right?
When I stopped by last evening with FiPS Managing Editor Kerri for the opening event, we took a seat by a window out on the patio and ordered up some drinks. Since they're serving up Latin American fare, their cocktail menu is replete with mojitos, sangrias & margaritas, all made with fresh ingredients. Mixes be damned.

I started with the Mojto Clasico, made with white rum, fresh mint & fresh limes. While I'm usually a beer person, I could probably down a gallon or two of their mojitos, as they had a cool, mint flavor to them & weren't overly sweet. Kerri felt the same about the sweetness of her White Wine Sangria, which had little apple chunks floating in it.

As we sipped our drinks, we munched on Pan de Manteca, traditional soft dinner rolls with roasted sesame seed & honey whipped butter. Both the bread & the butter had a pleasant sweetness to them.

From there, we tried a few appetizers.

The first one--Tiradito de Atun Estilo Nikkei--was a marinated ahi tuna & radish-pickled ginger salad. It came with avocado chunks that complemented the softness of the tuna while the radish-pickled ginger added crunch into the mix.

Our second appetizer, the Empanada de Pollo Guisado, is made with Vermont organic chicken fricassee with mizuna-queso de bola salad. It managed to be flaky but not dry, with a nice mixture of peppers, cheese, chicken & sauce. [Ed note: I could eat this empanada filling by itself for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight snack. It was THAT good.]

Once we finished up the appetizers, we ordered up a round of Margarita Casa Venturas, made with Patron, fresh lime juice & orange liquor. Kerri was cool with hers, but I wasn't the biggest fan of the flavor. It wasn't overly alcoholic or anything. I guess I would've preferred if it was a bit sweeter. Just to make sure, I even ordered up a second one later. While it tasted better, there's a good chance that was just the alcohol coursing through my veins.

For my entree, I got the Bacalito Crusted Lenguado, a crispy fried sole fish with mojo isleno tomato sauce.

Kerri opted for the El Pollito Yeah Man, a Jamaican jerk chicken breast with rice & beans. FYI: I checked & “yeah man” totally means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English. My fish was light, with herbs baked into the batter & a sauce that screamed "high class tomato soup." As for the chicken, the meat was white & clean and though Kerri’s a wuss who can't handle spicy stuff, I thought the spice rub on the chicken was flavorful & peppery, and far from too spicy.

We finished with two desserts--the Flan & Churros with Chocolate Sauce. I'm not all that familiar with flan but this stuff was moist with a clean butterscotch flavor. As for the churros, made by head pastry chef Idemar Aldrey Morales (Giovanni's wife), I wish I'd bought some from a vendor on the subway platform at some point in the past so I'd have a point of reference. Regardless, these ones were cinnamon-y sweet & the chocolate sauce definitely enhanced them. While churros aren't really my style, Kerri liked them so much that she ended up taking some to go.

…so the foodstuffs we sampled were pretty damn good, and in the near future they'll have a lot more to the menu. There'll be ceviche & a conch salad, arepas, copious fish & 6-8 oz steaks. Casa Ventura will have a core menu, but they will always be adding new dishes. As Courtney explained, "We definitely found that we go in a lot of restaurants, and they don't really update, so we want to keep it fresh. We won't lose site of what our most popular dishes are but we really want to have those really great specials."

Initially, they'll be opening up for dinner all week long & brunch on the weekends, with near plans for a lunch service of quick dishes. They also hope to have extended bar hours with a full menu at the bar. With summer just around the corner & that big ass patio, you'd be a fool not to check the place out.

Casa Ventura, 210 7th Avenue (between 2nd & 3rd)

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