Raoul's Velvet RoomCafe Express,

Club Fed 

Raoul’s Velvet Room puts a little schwing in its menu.

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"Nah," griped another, as she swigged back her second glass of wine. "It's just that there aren't any men anymore. All the good ones are dead."

"Oh no," said our gorgeous young waitress. "They're just late. The good men don't start coming in until after 9:30."

This was the same server who had lured us to the combination appetizer platter: a jumble of calamari, lovely little crab cakes made with leeks and roasted tomatoes and a plate of fat shrimp rolled in goat cheese and wrapped with a sliver of salty prosciutto. Even that ubiquitous appetizer known as spinach cheese dip (which is so awful in most restaurants that I avoid it at all costs) gets high-class treatment here. Chef Breitenstein blends a heavy cream béchamel with onion, garlic, big chunks of artichokes, spinach, Parmesan and bubbly Chihuahua cheese. It's the classiest version of this dip in town, and we dug into it with blue, red and yellow corn chips.

Imaginative appetizers are only one of the surprises on Breitenstein's menu. I was impressed that the food wasn't of the boring, deep-fried "bar food" ilk, but Breitenstein later told me that "most people are surprised that we have food here at all!"

Because Raoul's is squeezed into a tight corner of the distinctly plebian Rosana Square shopping strip -- in a space once occupied by a sports bar -- it might come as a shock to first-time diners that this is no burger-and-beer joint. In fact, the salad selection boasts a wonderful concoction of romaine lettuce and red pepper, a cloud of crispy fried noodles and thin slices of seared, sesame-crusted Ahi tuna all splashed with a punchy vinaigrette. Even the five pizzas are fashionable, such as the thin crust spread with a freshly made basil pesto and dappled with roasted chicken, red peppers, artichokes and a blanket of mozzarella. I devoured it greedily, hating to share even the smallest wedge.

Breitenstein's menu presents only six entrees, but the luscious eight-ounce filet, lightly glazed with Madeira and perfectly grilled, is worth dancing about. It comes with intensely flavored garlic mashed potatoes, slices of grilled portabella and a few crispy onion rings. Even more glamorous (and overwhelmingly rich) is the same filet sliced and smothered in a lightly spiced reduction of veal stock flavored with ancho chiles. This little feast comes out with four grilled shrimp doused in cilantro-lime butter and a steaming, buttery mound of mashed potatoes blended with chunks of lobster.

Even the desserts were beautiful, though they turned out to be boring underneath the surface. "We import them from a chef in San Francisco," announced our pretty server, Larin Christensen. At that meal, we sampled two tiny tarts that arrived at the table as delicate and colorful as an orchid corsage -- but the cappuccino mousse version needed a bigger jolt of chocolate and the pistachio-passion fruit mousse was neither nutty nor fruity, but an airy little circle of creamy nothingness.

Judging from all the svelte figures surrounding Raoul's dining room, however, dessert isn't a priority. And after 10 p.m., the food isn't either.

"You should stick around," Larin said as she picked up our plates. "When the music starts, we clear away the tables and the dance floor gets absolutely packed! You can hardly move."

And that was enough to make me move -- right out of the place. For entertainment value, I pick food over music every time, but Breitenstein's cuisine is still a mystery to most of the Velvet Room's youthful clientele. That's too bad, because the food is just as sexy.

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