First Look: Venkman's
Dinner and a show at the new Old Fourth Ward restaurant and loungeWednesday November 11, 2015 04:00 am EST
Housed in the former NuGrape soda factory, Venkman's — the new restaurant from partners Nick Melvin, Nick Niespodziani, and Peter Olson — sets the stage for a dining experience unlike any other in town. First off, there is music. Not just a guy in the corner with a guitar, but bands — often big bands that fill the warehouse-sized room with tunes. Niespodziani and Olson, frontmen of '70s light rock celebration Yacht Rock Revue, book an array of live music ranging from bluegrass to funk seven nights a week. Sometimes they even spin their own vinyl collections and have been known to take stage for some smooth, impromptu yacht rock. The rotating booking roster allows for evenings where kiddos can dance to bluegrass while their parents chat over dinner, or nights when Yacht Rock Revue plays to a full (and loud) house. There is not a bad seat in the house.
Showmanship in the kitchen is brought to you by executive chef Nick Melvin. He riffs on family recipes fine-tuned with his culinary school background and fine dining experience. In one swoop, Venkman's achieves what had previously taken multiple Uber stops to attain: noteworthy dinner that is not "bar" food and a show.
Venkman's is named after Bill Murray's parapsychologist character in Ghostbusters, a movie that reminds the partners of good times in childhood. Located across from Bantam Pub on Ralph McGill Boulevard, the restaurant has a cavernous, lounge-like dining room outfitted with a custom sound booth, professional lighting, and a stage. Maroon velvet curtains lend an old timey lounge feel and soften the room's soaring exposed ceiling and concrete floors. The wall opposite the entrance wall is lined with cushy leather booths and displays pieces of framed memorabilia meaningful to the partners such as a photo of Yacht Rock at the Playboy mansion, a knife that has been in Melvin's family for generations, and a 1968 photo of the Rejects, Niespodziani's father's band. The corner bar area is situated between the stage and entrance.
The menu is unconventional and hews toward unpretentious comfort food with regional and Asian influences. The apps are listed in a section called "Make Friends." Smoked trout beignets ($11) piled atop crunchy slaw are crispy outside and soft, smoky, and briny inside, like a doughnut of the sea — er — river. Venkman's chicken wings ($12) are brined, smoked, and tossed in a spicy-sweet gochujang pepper jelly. Mushroom lettuce cups ($10) are so meaty and savory you may forget you are eating chopped button mushrooms, shiitakes, and bits of peanuts wrapped in bibb lettuce.
The celery salad ($9) with peppery arugula, sliced celery, salted almonds, and cucumber is tossed in burnt lemon vinaigrette with curls of Parmesan. The little gem salad ($9) comes lightly dressed in buttermilk herb dressing and is mixed with pickled beans, radishes, and buttery rye croutons. The "Roadies" section lists a half dozen sides such as dry fried okra ($5) with an Asian umami twist of fish sauce caramel (think Vietnamese wing sauce with caramelized sugar and onions). Entrees are substantial and range from pastrami-wurst on a pretzel bun ($11) to smoked lamb shoulder ($25). The cast iron fried chicken ($18) is half a bird drizzled with a spicy honey hot sauce. Although the skin was extra crispy and the meat moist, the accompanying side of cold pickled mustard greens was a slight shock to the palate. Briny and plump Georgia clams ($18) come swimming in a zesty garlic butter sauce with a generous serving of boudin balls (think meaty fried balls of Cajun dirty rice) and crusty ciabatta for sopping. This should never change. The burger ($13) made from a house grind of brisket, chuck, and short rib is topped with white cheddar, bright pickled slaw, and Melvin's dill mustard and tomato jam on a sweet potato bun. An egg or bacon can be added, but the burger's crunch, sharp cheese, and slight smokiness doesn't need an addition.
Beverage director Bradford Tolleson's (formerly of Restaurant Eugene and Pura Vida) cocktail menu is clever, often with drinks matching southern rock. Love Shack ($5) is an herbaceous beer cocktail made with Creature Comforts Athena and topped with a green chartreuse meringue. Blue Sky ($10) combines rum, mezcal, lemon, maraschino, violet, and a smidge of black pepper. Similar to what it was probably like hanging with the Allman Brothers Band in the summertime — it is smoky, a bit floral, and packs a little heat. Tolleson's Ecto-Cooler ($7) pays homage to Venkman's movie namesake. The bright green, vodka-spiked slushie gets its citrus sweetness from fresh lemon juice and tangerine puree.
Rosé flows from a tap as well as a few local beers. Beautiful high-top communal tables are great for a drink while catching a show. Beer choices at Venkman's range from Miller Light to craft sours and Belgian blonde ales. The wine list is eclectic and reasonably priced with bottle prices topping off in the $40 range. There is a range of Old and New World wines, plus several offerings from Georgia wine country (Dahlonega).
Much like the beer list satisfying both the High Life and the craft beer drinker, Venkman's is a hybrid that's able to suit different tastes. Your food nerd cousin would be happy here alongside your brother who just wants a burger and a beer, and so would your friend who would like a nice glass of wine and a local salad.