If a focus group of young professionals living in Fort Greene were asked to describe an ideal neighborhood dining spot, the participants would come up with someplace like Veliis.
They’d dream up proprietors like Kicca Berre and Misha Chiporukha, an attractive couple who cater to regulars and newcomers with equal warmth. Veliis, which opened in 2003, is their first entrepreneurial effort.
The team created an enormously appealing space with a view of Fulton Street. The big rectangular room has the earmarks of a French bistro with a brick wall, gilt-framed mirror and comfortable wooden tables and benches. It’s spare yet warm, comfortably intimate but not confining. Atop a wall above the open kitchen, there’s a screen where black-and-white subtitled movies play soundlessly throughout dinner. It’s an amusing touch that appeals to the crowd.
The name, according to the restaurant’s pr, "is based on the Latin "velis," meaning "pleasure found through all that is rare and exquisite." The two "i’s" transform the "me" into "we." The "we" being the owners and the community.
Marcus Olson (formerly of the Cumberland Hotel in London) was hired in November to serve as the executive chef. His well-written menu of French and Italian fare is enticing. Who wouldn’t want to taste braised short ribs with chocolate-tinged "espagnole" sauce? Or lusty pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, mascarpone cheese and shaved white truffles? And can anything be more alluring to a carnivore than Angus steak with "pommes frites" and bone marrow reduction?
Olson’s menu writing is well honed; what emerges from the kitchen, though, could use editing. Take a starter of crisply sauteed, prosciutto-covered scallops. They’re salty on the outside with a moist, briny center - and very rich. Accompanying them is a dollop of parmesan-corn mousse with a touch of sweetness. Separately, each partner is delicious; together, they’re overkill. A little circle of shaved asparagus and dabs of sweet saffron sauce are superfluous.
I have a similar objection to a salad of roasted beets. The thick slices of the earthy vegetables, splashed with a bit of chive-goat cheese sauce and paired with greens dressed with a slightly sweet beet vinaigrette, have enough going on for one dish, but an unctuous asparagus mousse crowds the plate.
The smoked trout terrine is on the ornate side too, but all the elements in this stack of moist fish - layered between well-seasoned soft discs of potatoes; pieces of tart, braised escarole; and bits of creamy goat cheese - harmonized.
Lots of components need a suitable base to sit upon, which brings me to the food’s presentation. If a restaurant focuses on small-plate dining, where there’s no set first, second and third course, then serving each dish on the same size plate is acceptable. If an eatery has a standard appetizer, entree and dessert format, like Veliis, then the starter should be plated on a smallish dish, the entree served on a larger plate and dessert on a little dish for practical reasons: the biggest plate signals the most important course and its size allows for a generous serving of food.
At Veliis, everything appears on appetizer-sized plates, which poses a problem: many entree components piled precariously on an undersized plate makes for messy dining.
One of the simpler entrees of pork loin with warm apple-fennel salad, for instance, needs to be cut carefully to avoid splashing a light sherry-laced sauce.
On a larger plate, splatters wouldn’t be an issue.
Otherwise, the meat glazed with mustard and flavored with lavender is boldly seasoned, with the herb lending an arresting floral note.
I like slices of rare tuna dusted with ground porcini mushrooms, too, but the melange of broccoli rabe, slivers of asparagus, wild mushrooms and cannelloni beans taste flat.
I’d re-think the warm banana cheesecake. There’s too much fruit, not enough cheese and the preparation doesn’t work. Olson rolls the filling in a crust and fries it. It’s served in large, diagonally cut pieces over very good, vanilla-laced creme anglaise.
The crust is crisp without being tasty, and the filling edges into baby-food territory.
As lovely as the honey-lavender creme brulee sounds, it’s dense, not creamy.
The sophisticated clientele that Veliis attracts looks for a bistro that serves familiar dishes with some flair. Generous helpings at reasonable prices are important, too. My guess is they’d still be pleased if Olson took a less-is-more approach to food pairing and cut back a bit on portions, a change that would make his dishes more appealing.
Employing larger entree plates wouldn’t hurt either. Where they’re concerned, the bigger the better.
Veliis (773 Fulton St. between South Oxford and South Portland streets in Fort Greene) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $10$25. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is available from noon to 4 pm on the weekends. For reservations, call (718) 596-9070.