Tom Catherall has moved out of his monosyllabic comfort zone again to name his new restaurant Lola, an unabashedly girly name for an unabashedly girly restaurant. Lola is prettier, in warm oranges, pinks and browns, than any of Catherall and his company Here to Serve's other joints (Strip, Shout, Posh, etc.), and seems more eager to please – especially the ladies. Here is a restaurant that specializes in fruity, fizzy, often pink drinks. Hello?
Lola screams "drinks with the girls" in more than just its striking Johnson Studio-designed looks and dedication to pink beverages. The place really is a knockout, with a grand open kitchen and long light fixtures made to look like rows of fat candles, as if they had jumped from the bedroom scene of a good trashy romance novel. There's a section of the menu dedicated to dieters, where all the dishes are less than 600 calories. There's the antipasto bar that encourages nibbling. There's the bar area with its high tables that looks casual yet refined, and has been packed, understandably, with Buckhead babes. All of this is to be expected.
What is less expected is the quality of the food, which is consistently the most flavorful and well-executed I've had from a Catherall-run kitchen. This is Catherall's first foray into Italian cuisine, and for executive chef he's hired Martin Burge, who has come to Atlanta from New York, where he worked at Gotham Bar & Grill and then had his own restaurant, Fresh. While the food at Lola isn't particularly pure in its Italian roots, the act of adhering to a cultural aesthetic has done well for the kitchen, providing focus and clarity that has often been missing from Here to Serve's other ventures.
But let's begin with those bellinis, because officially, "bellini bar" comes before "restaurant" in the place's name. The best on the menu is the original: prosecco mixed with peach puree. They get wackier and sweeter from there, veering quickly into the electric-blue, sweet-as-hell, girls-gone-wild version that is as nasty as it wants to be.
Lola isn't going to get any high marks for trailblazing in the brave new world of culinary cocktails, but it does try for some sophistication on the wine list, with some less obvious Italian selections (Orvieto, Soave, Valpolicella) among the exhaustive chardonnays and merlots. Servers also offer a small complimentary taste of prosecco when you're seated, which seems like a nice touch, but would be even nicer if it were chilled.
The large antipasto selection can be a tad overwhelming with 39 choices, but you're not likely to go particularly wrong with anything you choose. From the melty crunch of roasted fennel to the luxury of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around ricotta, these cold vegetable selections are pleasing and straightforward. Even better are the seafood antipasto and appetizers. Grilled octopus with garbanzo beans is firm and flavorful, the char lending smoky integrity to the dish. Two large, meaty fresh sardines come on the fried sardines plate, and they are mild and savory. Tuna poached in olive oil is offset nicely by white beans, and while I recommend it as part of an antipasto spread, it got lost and desiccated as the anchor for a lunch salad.
Thin-crust pizza is decent, but doesn't hit any great heights and can sometimes suffer from too much salt or not enough fresh flavor.
But the restaurant's take on Italian/American classics can be fun, such as a tangy and tender egg-and-cheese-battered chicken piccata, with an almost over-the-top lemony sauce spiked with capers and caperberries. Roasted branzino with fennel is a lovely rendering of the rich white fish, cooked perfectly and seasoned softly.
Desserts are wheeled around on a huge dessert cart, which seems like overkill, particularly because they are not that thrilling to look at. In fact, seeing all the desserts in one place underscored how uniformly beige the choices were. Tiramisu was basically a big plate of whipped glop without any of the boozy goodness of a real tiramisu, or even any ladyfingers. The almond tart, which is basically almond paste in crust, was offset nicely by the dried fruit medley spooned over the top.
I found service to be pleasant, knowledgeable and often a little rushed and forgetful. Nothing too outrageous happened – a forgotten coffee refill here, a harried expression there, that lukewarm prosecco at the beginning of the meal. But I also saw genuine pride in the product from the floor staff rather than forced corporate service.
What I have come to expect from Here to Serve are restaurants that excel at creating an atmosphere, a buzz and a crowd of lovely ladies and their man-hunks. Looking around the dining room of Lola, you get all that, but this isn't just a pretty face with a hollow soul. At Lola, the surprise is that behind all this artifice, there's some real quality to be found.