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Culture

Cooking up what's foul at the market

Put your mind back to the halcyon days of the New Economy.

Put your mind back to the halcyon days of the New Economy. Remember the time, months ago, when the Internet was the modern Midas. Recall some of the riskier enterprises of this heady era--online furniture stores, Zap.com, Jim Clark's checkbook. And now enter the realm of unimaginable risk, of death-defying neocorporate heroics: the dot-com restaurant.

Internet thrill-seekers, I give you Venture Frogs.

The San Francisco restaurant, venture fund and charity--run by LinkExchange/Microsoft alumni Tony Hsieh and Alfred Lin--operates the way any good restaurant does, by serving up what's fresh at the market. So the Pan-Asian menu includes all the highfliers from the Golden Age of Internet stock speculation, including the Inktomi Asia Burger, the RealNetworks Cambodia Rolls and the Cisco Chinese Chicken Salad.

On its launch the restaurant was heralded as "pretty delicious" by SF Station. "What is surprising," concurred 123 San Francisco, "is how delicious the food is."

But now that the market has gone from fresh to foul, how has the Venture Frogs menu fared?

To find out, I made dinner reservations at the Van Ness eatery and deprived my 12-year-old son Vermel of lunch so we could order as many dishes as possible. First up were the Priceline Pot-Stickers, which drew Vermel's skepticism even before the food hit the table.

"If these are Priceline Pot-Stickers, how come they're $5.95?" he asked. "Don't we get to bid on them?"

Alas, they were prix-fixe pot-stickers, and mediocre ones at that. "I've defrosted better pot-stickers than these," Vermel said tartly. "In fact, I think I've defrosted these pot-stickers. Pass the duck sauce."

By the time an unfamiliar waiter arrived bearing the eBay Eggplant, Vermel was desperate for Chinese chili paste. The man looked perplexed at the request and went off to find our waiter.

"How predictable," Vermel observed dryly. "The eBay Eggplant server is either down or is not responding."

The dish itself was bland, undercooked and slathered in a gelatinous, too-sweet sauce. More successful was the Microsoft Minced Chicken in Lettuce. Within the cool crunchy lettuce shells lay the pleasingly tangy and tender hot chicken, like an Asian taco.

"That's the way I like my Microsoft," Vermel declared with gusto. "Finely minced."

Next was the CMGI Crispy Calamari. Vermel downgraded the issue from "crispy" to "rubbery."

Internet World Beef Bowl was our third piece of evidence that we're in a tough climate, reminding us that this market has been murder on bulls. Worse, it was depressingly oversalted.

Idealab Curry Chicken seemed to have made some questionable investments while eschewing basics, like flavor. "It remains unclear," Vermel said, "whether the market has any appetite for this kind of public offering."

For our last entrée, we decided to order a surefire winner, something with sound fundamentals, something that would surpass expectations. So we ordered the CNET Kyoto Salmon.

But it looks like my employer is having better luck on the bottom line than in the Venture Frogs kitchen.

"Is it salmon?" Vermel wondered aloud as he chewed dispiritedly on his dry and splintered strip of overcooked fish. "Or condensed insulation materials?"

Meanwhile, at least some people are still eating well off the dot-com explosion. Rumor has it that the founders of Eve.com, the beauty shop recently expelled from online paradise, received a sizable sum of cash from Idealab when the incubator took over operations and ownership in May. According to sources, co-founders Mariam Naficy and Varsha Rao nabbed $10 million each in the deal. Now that's a lot of chicken curry. Every week I have to cook up a new column, and my only ingredients are your rumors.