609 Eastlake Ave E, 624-4516
Mon-Fri 11:30 am-10 pm, bar until 2:00 am;
Sat and Sun 6 pm-11 pm, bar until 2:00 am.
Imagine, if you will, that a race of extraterrestrials with taste buds far more refined than our own has beamed down to Earth to improve the plight of diners on our big blue planet. I know it sounds hokey, but that just might be what happened at Cafe Venus and the marsBar, because everything you eat in this little punk joint tastes like our yellow sun has made it a little more vibrant, a little more lively, a little more yummy than other earthbound food.
To top it all off, Cafe Venus and the marsBar (CVMB as it will now be known) is a Monday night essential for beloved Strangercrombie hero, the Venerable Benjamin Exworthy (VBE as he will now be known). He first started eating and drinking there after long days of mountain biking. "I flirted with the owner (Katy Aversenti, who co-owns it with Mark Himple) for a while, but nothing ever happened," he said, but he kept coming back for the food. Make a beeline through the glossy red cafe (which used to be Aversenti's living room) and head toward the dark and smoky bar, and you just might get the chance, like I did one recent Monday night, to slurp carrot-cumin soup with VBE and his witty and attractive friends.
I was welcomed to join them at a veritable Algonquin roundtable of post-punk cool. There was VBE himself, wild haired and bespectacled, and his blond, wisecracking honey, Brit. Then there was his more stoic mountain-biking buddy Loren, rock-n-roll Jesse with a jet-black shag, and another Ben, AKA Juicebox, in a trippy printed shirt, who belted out fake gospel songs with the conviction of a real Holy Roller.
Almost everyone ordered the soup, which has a cultish appeal among VBE and his friends ($3.50)--no wonder, it was a thick, smooth tango of carrots and spice, with just enough heat to prick up the taste buds. As for me, I tucked into an atomic tomato ($6.50)--a hollowed-out tomato reengineered with a fine spinach cream-cheese dip inside, served with crisp baguette croutons and scrumptious artichoke hearts. I hoarded the 'chokes, but let the delightful dip make promiscuous rounds about the table until the tomato pod lay hollow and abandoned.
CVMB's sandwiches are a groovy blend of the familiar ingredients with a few savvy twists: Turkey gets tarted up with brie and cranberry cream cheese ($8.50), while a sandwich branded the New Sputnik ($8.50) hovers in Reuben territory, but substitutes pastrami for the corned beef and sweet, sweet caramelized onions for sauerkraut.
It is the pasta, however, that makes CVMB's menu so memorable. VBE has tried everything on the menu, he tells me, but he keeps coming back to his favorites, the aforementioned soup and the mac 'n' cheese ($9.50), which arrives at the table in copious portions. He gobbled it in lusty forkfuls, lassoing its golden strands of cheese into his mouth between sips of Maker's Mark. It is truly an otherworldly mac 'n' cheese, launched out of the ordinary with golden-toned saffron and a stiff spine of garlic. And, as with all good things in this world, for just $3.50 extra, it can come topped with a chicken breast. I savored my ravioli ($9.50), sweet and seductive pillows of pumpkin purée lolling in a lemongrass cream sauce.
I don't even need to tell you how luscious the cheesecakes ($4.75) were at CVMB (one vanilla, one lemon), accompanied by three--count 'em three--sweet 'n' slurpy sauces (marionberry, lemon, and caramel!).
After dinner I got to meet the intergalactically talented chef, Taylor Johnson, who has been crafting cuisine at CVMB for four years now. It turns out he's not just an exquisite cook, but a wrestler, too, and semiprofessional at that. ("The moves are like those in professional wrestling, but it's real," he explained.) No wonder he flips food in a hot frying pan with such wiry athletic grace.
There is only one downside to dining at CVMB. As a little friendly taunting at the table turned into a half-assed ice fight, Brit confided to me, "We're only allowed to throw food if it's not busy." And I've got a sneaking suspicion that now that the world knows that Benjamin Exworthy loves Cafe Venus and the marsBar, the place is going to be totally packed from now on. So leave your edible projectiles at home and get down to the business of eating this space-tacular food.