“ Cuisine: Italian / Location: 41 Fourteenth Street, Atlanta, GA, United States / Tel: +1 404-875-8424 „
I wasn't impressed when I learned I had to go to Atlanta for the week of my birthday but my colleague who invited me (that's invite in the 'can't say no' sense of the word) promised me a nice dinner in the evening of my big day. Luckily it wasn't the day I was dragged to a Brazilian barbecue restaurant where waiters waived sticks of meat under my fishitarian nose causing some distress.
I was told the restaurant 'Veni Vidi Vici' was 'a bit special'. I should have been suspicious - 'a bit special' is the phrase we used to describe our squirrel-murdering-stay-away-for-a-fortnight pussy cat. The organizer of the meeting I'd gone to is Italian and a real foodie and apparently this place was his choice. Reviews I found online suggested it was spectacularly good and very highly regarded. Knowing how great Italian food can be in Italy, I went with an open mind to see what the US-version would be like.
The restaurant is on 14th street in downtown Atlanta. This was the only time I went into the city so I didn't get any sense of what the area was like or what was nearby. We drove through pouring rain, parked up in the car park next door and headed into the restaurant taking a route through the car park to avoid getting too wet. My first impression was that the restaurant is very big and doesn't look particularly Italian. That's not necessarily a bad thing; my local Italian has a mural of gondoliers painted (very badly) on one wall and fishing nets draped all over the place so 'not very Italian' isn't necessarily negative.
We left our coats in the cloakroom area and were led to a large table in a quiet area of the room. We passed tables with strange foodie things suspended above them and I was surprised to find a couple of TV screens around the outside of the restaurant showing sports channels. This wasn't a 'sports' bar so I thought these were very out of place. It's a fancy restaurant - surely diners can go an hour or two without watching TV.
As a large group we'd been asked to order from a set menu. Checking on the website the menu we had was very similar to their current private dining dinner menu. For me as someone who doesn't eat meat it wasn't very inspiring and if they didn't change the menu often, I would become very bored very quickly by the lack of choice.
Water and wine were brought to the table. My puzzlement about whether ANYONE in Atlanta ever drinks white wine continued and I had to fight to avoid the red and get a glass of white. It's possible that the red obsession was down to the personal preferences of the guy who arranged the dinner but I didn't think I was out of order to want something difference - it's not like I asked them to bring me a freshly squeezed celery and beetroot juice or something really weird, but I did feel like I was swimming against the flow.
Several plates of anti-pasti were brought to the table along with some bread. I can't claim I was very excited since the selection was very meaty. We were given a choice of two salads - a mixed green salad with mixed greens, zucchini, olives, basil and mint with a balsamic dressing and shaved parmesan or a Caesar salad. Not great if you don't like parmesan! (luckily I do). I went for the mixed salad and I'll have to admit it was very good but not the liveliest of starters.
Main course choices included a vegetarian pasta, five meat dishes and one salmon dish. I'd had fish earlier in the day and didn't want it a second time but the pasta did seem like a poor alternative to all the deliciously cooked meats. Somehow four-cheese pasta doesn't seem like a fair substitute for the meat dishes and if I'd been paying for myself, I'd have been really miffed. For the meat eaters there was a mixed 'rotisserie meats' dish with ravioli, braised beef with polenta, veal with mushrooms and pasta, grilled lamb chops with an eggplant stew or chicken with roasted potatoes and various veg. Almost every meat dish came with an interesting starch-based dish (polenta, roast potatoes, risotto etc) and fascinating vegetables. I'd have happily taken a meal made up of the sides that went with those dishes. You can imagine my bowl of dull beige pasta seemed like a poor substitute. Come on restaurateurs, we don't eat meat - that doesn't mean we want to get fobbed off with cheap food and no side dishes. We want a substitute for meat - not a substitute for imagination.
My pasta was nice, cooked well texturally but there's only so much excitement to be found in a cheese sauce whether it contains four cheeses or four hundred. My dining companions were all more than pleased with their dishes but I did sit there feeling a bit sad and sorry for myself.
I rationalized that it was my birthday, my food was boring and I really deserved a good pudding. I wasn't all that hungry - I think my stomach shuts down when it's not impressed or excited by the food - but I did decide to have a pudding. The choices were tiramisu, something called crostata di nocciole which was a nut crusted chocolate somethingorother or some strange dish based on pecan butter cookies with whipped cream and fruit. I asked for the nutty chocolate dish.
As I sat waiting for my pudding everyone else's arrived and then they brought me my plate with not one but two puddings and with Happy Birthday written round the outside of the plate in sauce. It was an incredibly nice thing for the restaurant to do and I tried my hardest but it was just too much to get through. Coffees were taken, drinks were drained and it was time to go.
Keeping in mind the great reputation of Veni Vidi Vici I have to say I found it disappointing. Admittedly the menu we were on was only around $50 a head and it's probably much nicer if you go a la carte, but I'd have rather been in my local with it's cheesy gondolier mural where the food is much more impressive than at Veni Vidi Vici. It's just not good enough in today's eating environment to short change vegetarians the way this restaurant did. We're not puritanical pleasure-deniers just because we choose not to eat meat so please, give us more choice and give us all the nice little complicated mixes of sauces and vegetables and side dishes that you give everyone else.