Venik Lounge: Steam, Sweat, Drink

And you'll enjoy eating beets.

The brilliant idea behind Venik Lounge—to offer a little nip and nourishment after hours of peaceful sweating—is nearly foolproof. The location of this six-week-old bar, two doors down from its sister spa, Banya 5, makes Venik the prime place to go for a celebratory sip after a steam with friends. But somewhere in the 25 steps from shvitz to watering hole, the theme gets lost. With its cozy, rich interior, the small space is part hidden nook and part diamond in the not-for-long rough of South Lake Union. Its house specialties, vodka infusions, are some of the most thoughtful concoctions in town. (Each comes paired with a mini-snack, and for $14, the bartenders will plate a sampling of three infusions.) The organic cantaloupe is a brisk rendering of the light, cooling fruit, and its salty prosciutto chaser helps tame the heat of the potion. The balmy, pungent fragrance of lemon zest in the lemon-mint infusion mixes with sweet buttermint, coming off like designer limoncello. However, the house cocktails sap the infusions' vigor. In fact, they cause an identity crisis. With their cutesy names and bar-chef gimmickry, the mixed drinks appear to target a separate market from the complex and interesting vodka infusions. For example, the Berry Cherry cocktail mixes two of the house's liveliest infusions—tart blueberry and cherry—but then dumbs the drink down with the addition of whipped cream. The bar's garlic-and-pepper-infused vodka would make an amazing drink with much less effort than the bartenders put into the "Garlic This Mary!" (and the use of Demitri's Bloody Mary mix is unforgivable). It's trying too hard—any manner of fresh vegetable juices, like cucumber or celery, would shine with the vodka's multilayered heat. Do not even get me started on the economic wisdom of offering nine (nine!) wines by the glass for two dozen seats. The star of the food menu, the "Venik plate," provides exactly what I need following an afternoon of head-clearing heat and steam: salmon roe with sour cream, red onion, cucumber, and black bread. I can also recommend the bowl of chilled borscht with a dollop of sour cream. Eating beets just makes me feel healthy, and the sweet and earthy flavors of the soup gratified me far more than a gut-wrenching post-gym smoothie. Dishes like these left me craving more Russian specialties and less nondescript food. Why serve a clichéd seared-ahi salad instead of Russian vegetable salads? Does anyone really need a sausage pizza après-shvitz? Draw out my banya experience, don't make me forget it. Venik Lounge is 80 percent of a great idea. However, the bar needs to trim the 20 percent that gets in the way of its theme, losing what feels like the flourishes of a large corporate bar-restaurant trying to please the crowds. That requires sticking to the elements that shine, and committing to being Russian. Let your budem flag fly.

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