The Venue was the hottest thing around when it debuted in 2008. Certainly Tampa Bay's biggest dining-nightclub complex to open in our young millennium, it was geared more toward those of us who are flattered when a bouncer demands ID.
Grownups, or those of us who should be, could choose from an ultra lounge, martini bar, deck bar, Champagne lounge, private wine room, cabana deck, VIP rooms, sushi bar and tapas restaurant, or perhaps flit from one to the next without ever fishing for car keys. It emerged as a heavy-duty girls'-night-out locale, as well as where hospitality industry folks mingled weekly over discounted drinks.
Enter the subprime mortgage crisis, market crash, waning consumer confidence, soaring unemployment, etc. Enough to make you forgo that second Cosmo, right? The slow demise of the Venue was more than just a function of the nation's economic meltdown. Management decisions led to the expansion of the live-music component and the dumbing-down of the complex's two restaurants. A tapas bar called Viaggio, rechristened the Venue Grille, ended up with food not much better than what a vendor passes down the aisle to you at the Trop.
In May the complex reopened under the name "V." The voicemail still says "the Venue" and the Venue's website whisks you quickly onward to that of the V. In short, the new owners aim to maintain the customer base established by the previous tenant. But what the agenda is beyond that is somewhat muddy.
They have minimally tinkered with the components of the 28,000-square-foot complex. The Venue Grille space has gone back to a tapas bar called VIN, the sushi restaurant remains sushi under the new name Crave, there's the Main Stage Martini Bar, Speak-easy Sports Lounge, Tropical Patio Bar and Club Five. They hired longtime local chef J. Sean Squires (most recently of the Kitchen in the Jannus Live complex) to reconceptualize the food across the board.
The food is better than it was late in the Venue's tenure, but not as ambitious as it was in 2008 when Robert Uzzillia oversaw the kitchen at Viaggio and Tada Kohazama was at the sushi bar's helm. But maybe that's by design — perhaps the new owners have deemed the V more of a drinking place than an eating place. A shame, because it doesn't take advantage of Squires' skills and it makes for a lot of empty restaurant seats. On our visits both dining rooms were nearly empty for the duration, servers left to loiter disconsolately.
A small plate menu and a sushi menu are available in either location, the latter a fairly pedestrian array of classic American-style, more-is-better rolls (volcano, Philly, spider). We tried several, from a Tampa roll ($8) with tempura grouper to a drunken grouper roll ($10) with rum-infused pineapple and golden raisin jam (raisins in sushi!). Presentation was tidy and careful, but in most cases the fish itself didn't sing with freshness or take center stage among a crush of ingredients. With so many competent sushi restaurants in St. Petersburg, the V will have to pump it up a little.
And the tapas/small plate menu features a number of contemporary tropes. There's pork belly with scallop congee ($10.70), a dramatic tower of onion rings and thick-cut Nueske bacon capped by peanut brittle ($12.60) and lobster mac and cheese ($11.30). And there are some ideas that are plain whackadoodle (fried calamari with "peanut butter dust").
Overall, execution is mixed. A beef tenderloin ($18) brings rounds of fillet so thin that medium-rare is unachievable, presented with a fan of flavorless portobello slices and a bit of balsamic-kicked red onion. Not a bad dish, but at $18, there are lots of other steak dishes in the area that merit higher praise. On the other hand, a bananas foster creme brulee ($5.40) brings a perfect plush custard, a lovely bruleed top and a garnish of banana with bitter caramel bark that most pastry chefs would be proud of.
If the V hopes to bring back the glory days of the early Venue, with lines out the door and a full parking lot, it needs to commit: bar/nightclub or dining destination? And if it's the latter, I'd like to see what Squires could do with a little more latitude to woo Tampa Bay diners.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.