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Odd, but Awesome 

Venezia's chef may be a tad off, but his food is spot-on.

Tuscan white-bean salad entices the eye with its radish ring. - PHOTO BY WALTER NOVAK
Sometimes dinner is more than a meal -- it's an exercise in value clarification. Cook or dine out? Upscale setting or bargain prices? Cookie-cutter chain or someplace, shall we say, unique?

In this last category, consider Venezia, Moroccan-born chef Moha Orchid's pretty little dining room in Lakewood. Obviously, Orchid is not like you or me. For one, he's a hell of a better chef. And the beat to which this guy dances definitely comes from a different iPod.

Yes, the vibe inside Venezia is a little strange. Take the endlessly looping DVD that plays on a monitor perched on a dining-room banquette: Moha Orchid cooking with Martha Stewart; Moha Orchid on a Big Apple news show; Moha Orchid's former Greenwich Village restaurant, Cookies and Couscous, featured in a 2003 roundup of Zagat-rated restaurants (where, by the way, it was rated "very good" for food, "fair" for décor, and "good" for service). All praiseworthy achievements, certainly. But the thing's been playing nonstop for nearly a year now. Maybe it's time to give it a rest.

Then there's the friendly, well-intentioned, but sometimes tentative service -- provided by the restaurant's one and only waitress -- and the fact that Orchid's tiny, labor-intensive kitchen is purely a one-man operation. As a result, the dining pace is leisurely at best. Should something go awry, the entire operation can come grinding to a halt -- as it does on our recent Saturday-evening visit, when Orchid has unexpectedly been called out of the kitchen.

"Bad news," the waitress says, in her soft Romanian accent. "The chef's not here. He went out to deliver a cake, and he never comes back. Maybe you don't want to wait?"

Well, no -- we don't want to wait. But we're here "on assignment," so we don't have much choice. It's a sort of quirkiness that might fly in New York -- Sometimes the chef doesn't even show! How edgy! -- but as we wait, we wonder how Orchid's oddities will play on Detroit Avenue. Luckily, we don't wonder long: Orchid slips through the back door about 20 minutes later, and soon we're sinking our chompers into some of the kitchen's well-worth-waiting-for focaccia -- warm, dense, and brushed with a combo of olive oil, kosher salt, and basil.

If eccentricity alone doesn't distinguish this spot, Orchid's delicious fare -- bold but nuanced flavors, a polished presentation that belies the sometimes-disorganized vibe -- and its eminently reasonable prices should.

As the name implies, Venezia's seasonal dinner menu tilts toward the Italian, with gourmet pizza, pasta, and osso buco among the main attractions, joined by beautifully composed salads, savory soups, freshly baked pastries, and homemade gelatos and sorbets as refreshing as a garden breeze.

Among starters, summery bruschetta features two toasted crostini, spread thick with buttery chicken-liver pâté that's been enlivened by a touch of cognac and heady herbal aromas. Two more crostini are chock-full of juicy freshness: topped with finely diced cukes, red onion, ripe tomato, and cilantro, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil. Chilled watermelon-tomato gazpacho -- humming with hints of melon, lemon, and cilantro -- is equally irresistible, puréed to utter smoothness and served with a tidy rectangle of seeded watermelon floating on top. And one night's hearty soup du jour -- with chicken broth, tomato, mushrooms, zucchini, and plump cheese ravioli -- is like mellow minestrone, only better.

In a world awash in awful versions of the classic Caprese salad, Orchid's take is refreshing, thanks to flawlessly ripe tomato, creamy mozzarella, and drops of grassy homemade basil purée. And Tuscan white-bean salad -- a neatly composed mosaic of ivory cannelloni beans, red tomato, and celadon cucumber, topped with ruby-ringed slices of translucent radish, centered on a plate garnished with poufs of baby lettuces and three sections of lean and fennel-y Italian pork sausage -- wins our hearts with good looks alone. And its taste is as lovely as its appearance.

For simple, rustic eats, there's no fault in Orchid's thin-crust pizzas. The crisp-edged dough is slathered with a savory, slow-simmered sauce and garnished with a variety of wholesome toppings -- anything from roasted green pepper and goat cheese to basil purée and a pileup of flawless, fresh greens.

For main events, it's hard to beat the broad, snappy tagliatelle, freshly made and tossed with plush strands of herb-piqued pork in a sleek demi-glace. Also, the giant portion of osso buco is so meltingly tender, it threatens to dissolve beneath a stern glance; its accompaniment of mashed potatoes, blanched zucchini, whole mushrooms, and a few tortellini prove dull on their own, but just right for sweeping through the mellow merlot sauce. And while neither dish is warm-weather fare -- for that, try the clean-tasting poached salmon, topped with a juicy "salsa" of chopped veggies -- they are worth their heft in knockout savor.

Save room for dessert too: the delicate chocolate mousse, say, or a warm plum tart with marzipan, in a flaky pastry crust. Or better yet, try Orchid's homemade gelato, whipped up sans corn syrup, preservatives, or stabilizers, in varieties that include vanilla bean and a smashing, semisweet chocolate ganache. Or taste his fragrant sorbets, in floral flavors like peach-rosewater or mango-lavender.

Yes, the Venezia "dining experience" can seem a little odd. But for food this delicious and well-crafted, it's a price we're happy to pay.

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