Going Public

Venture Frogs

I suppose I should just come right out and say it: In my opinion, "Venture Frogs" is not the best name for a restaurant. Sure, I can think of worse names. "Dog" would be a bad one; "Old Sock" would surely fail; "Squeegee" might earn some giggles, but not so many customers; and I bet "The Swedish Friend" would completely freak people out. No, wait: I actually like "Squeegee" (carwash cuisine?), so let's remove that from the list.

Of course, names like Venture Frogs don't just drop out of the sky, so here's the story behind it: Once upon a time, two guys helped found LinkExchange, an Internet start-up purchased by Microsoft two years ago for a cool quarter-billion. Then, the same two guys started Venture Frogs, the venture capital firm, and now the two Venture Frogs have opened a restaurant with the help of one Venture Frog's mother. The cuisine is Pan-Asian, the prices moderately low, and -- here's a gimmick -- each dish is named after an Internet-related company (eBay Eggplant, Sequoia Spring Rolls) as a tribute to the bustling New E-conomy.

I did some calculations: Either this was a sign of things to come here in the city, or a concept so hokey it could never possibly be repeated. In other words, I absolutely had to check it out, so I enlisted the help of my friends Michelle and Ruth and headed down to Venture Frogs one Saturday night, ready for just about anything to happen.

Details

409-2550. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (bar open until midnight). Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: $1 per hour with validation at 1000 Van Ness, otherwise difficult. Muni: 38, 42, 47, 49. Noise level: moderate.

Priceline Pot Stickers $5.95
Microsoft Minced Chicken in Lettuce Cups $6.95
Benchmark Baby-Back Ribs $6.95
Business 2.0 Wild Mushrooms $9.95
Founders Ahi Tuna $14.95
LinkExchange Flourless Chocolate Cake $5.25
Lycheetini $6

1000 Van Ness (at O'Farrell)

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Venture Frogs is the layout: A corner of the lobby of the AMC 1000 Van Ness multiplex has been walled off with glass partitions, affording views of the old Cadillac showroom's impossibly high ceilings, flooding the place with the chatter of passing moviegoers. A holograph of the Venture Frogs logo spins on the floor near the entrance, leading to a cafeteria-style dining area and a bar embedded with computer chips, the latter of which throbs in a colorful, not entirely displeasing xyz kind of way. Also, I'm pretty sure we met the aforementioned mother of the aforementioned Venture Frog, and from what I've seen she's running a tight ship out on the floor: The service is friendly, prompt, and pleasantly casual, and we never felt anything less than welcome.

The food itself is a bit less consistent. At times the kitchen surprised us and produced some pretty decent edibles, while at other times it seemed as though the Venture Frogs themselves were back there and had no idea whatsoever how to cook. The pattern was established early: One of the first dishes to hit the table was an order of lightly browned, non-greasy Priceline Pot Stickers stuffed with a mix of chicken, cabbage, and scallions, then dusted with black sesame seeds. These were quite tasty, as opposed to, say, the Excite Little Dragon Dumplings: four steamed lumps with a semigelatinous, pastelike outer layer and a nice, crisp, frozen pork center.

For the most part, everything else fell between those two extremes, which made for an adventurous meal. One thing that could be improved is the beverage list, which seems to have fallen victim to a computer spell-checker ("Absolute" and "Kettle One" vodkas). Another would be the specialty drinks: We tried a sweet, cloying, Midori-based Lycheetini with a lychee floater, a sweet, cloying, Midori-based Electric Margarita, and a sugary, synthetic-tasting (in other words, sweet and cloying) Singapore Sling. On a brighter note, the wine tasted fine, and 15 beers (three on tap) and five sakes are affordably priced.

Looking for a healthy alternative to popcorn at the movie theater? Look no further than the delightful, salt-dusted Series A Edamame (soy beans in the pod) at Venture Frogs. An intriguing post-movie nosh? The WebTV Korean Pancake with shrimp, scallions, and a wickedly pungent dipping sauce smelled like the feet of ancient Stalinists, but tasted great. The Yahoo! Thai Beef Salad could have used more basil and mint, but the mélange of chilled beef, cucumbers, tomatoes, and watercress hit the spot quite adequately, as did Ruthie's Benchmark Baby-Back Ribs. Lie awake at night wishing someone would combine star anise with french fries? I don't -- it tasted like the inside of a computer -- but if you do, the crisp, abundant Sun Sichuan Fries will do you right.

The Business 2.0 Wild Mushrooms bordered on excellence: stir-fried oyster and shiitake mushrooms in a mild gravy, accompanied by fresh, crisp baby bok choy and a trio of pillowy steamed buns. Meanwhile, the DSL Don-Don Noodles suffered from a somewhat pasty spicy peanut sauce, the Iconoclast Mongolian Lamb suffered from a mildly cloying chili orange sauce, and the sauce-free steamed rice (no sponsor) didn't suffer at all.

A salty-sweet AOL Miso-Glazed Cod with thin-sliced fried onions and baby bok choy offered a nice array of textures and flavors, while the seared, sesame-crusted Founders Ahi Tuna scared us half to death, since the raw part of the tuna looked a bit ... gray. Actually, entirely gray. Michelle and I each took a microscopic nibble, then discussed the wisdom of eating more. Unfortunately, we were unable to suspend our prejudice against gray fish, and so we did something I've never done during a restaurant review: We sent the tuna back.

That's when things got interesting. First, the light over our table grew dimmer, then brighter, for no apparent reason. Then, our waiter returned with the same plate of tuna and informed us, quite politely, that it was supposed to be that color. I'd give a hundred bucks to see the look on my face at that moment, and since none of us was too keen on eating gray fish, we sent it back again.

Then the lights dimmed and brightened yet again -- what was happening? -- and then the aforementioned potential mother showed up with the same plate of tuna, explaining at great length that this particular grade of ahi was a different one -- not better, just different -- and had been specially selected by the chef. She was a stubborn one, but we stood our ground and sent the tuna back an unprecedented third time. Then the lights went entirely ballistic -- brighter, darker, brighter, darker! -- as if the restaurant itself was displeased.

"I'm scared," said Michelle.

And so was I: Who was going to show up with the tuna next?

And then, as if to prove that amazing things really can happen anywhere you go, our good friend Massimo showed up with three incredibly fine young Italian females from L.A., and before I knew it I was rubbing elbows with the lovely Elisa -- the absolute last thing I expected to happen at Venture Frogs. After sampling a bite of everything we'd ordered, our new friends selected the cod, the pot stickers, a light, adequate Fast Company Vegetable Fried Rice, and Elisa's delicious Microsoft Minced Chicken in Lettuce Cups. Though I lost Elisa to competing plans shortly thereafter, I wish Massimo could show up every time I step out to eat.

Desserts did their best. We had a rich, gooey, LinkExchange Flourless Chocolate Cake with Tahitian vanilla ice cream, followed by Zappos.com Ginger Crème Brûlée with a perfect caramelized top and an incredibly terrible liquid center. There's no excuse for that, I suppose, but still, when I added it up, 10 out the 16 dishes we tried proved worthwhile or better. In baseball, that would yield a spectacular batting average -- .625. Of course, the restaurant biz isn't quite as forgiving, and something tells me the Venture Frogs won't be quitting their day jobs anytime soon.

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