I'm tempted here to offer a loving and sincere eulogy to luxury and fine dining. In it I would expound upon grand traditions and grand dining rooms, the old ways, and these pesky young upstarts who think hip-hop is as appropriate for an upscale restaurant as Mozart once was. I'd cite the economy and the generation gap. I'd shed a tear for all those tuxedos left behind in favor of head-to-toe black worn by aspiring models rather than old guys with French accents.
I mean, fine dining's dead, right? Well, not exactly. Fine dining has changed. It's becoming more casual. Fine dining is all about fantasy, and customers are growing tired of the gilded royalty fantasy – they're more attracted now to the trendy jet-setter fantasy. Hushed rooms are giving way to flashy hullabaloos.
Don't tell that to the folks at NEO, an upscale Italian restaurant that's steeped in the hushed-room tradition of fine dining. NEO is located in the Mansion on Peachtree, a new luxury hotel that will also soon be home (in a freestanding building out front) to the Atlanta outpost of Craft, Tom Colicchio's temple of casual fine dining. But there's nothing casual about NEO, from the lush room facing a manicured English garden, to the strange formal service that seems like it was modeled on an "SNL" parody of fancy waiters ("Would you prefer still or sparkling water this evening madames?" "Uh, do you have tap water?" "Certainly madames, allow me to fetch that for you."), to the prices, which hover around $15 for an appetizer and just under $40 for an entrée.
The price is what bothers me about NEO, however, not the formality. The high-ceilinged room is lovely, and calming in its plush whiteness. And I've had good meals here. But I've also had mediocre ones, with dishes that appear much more representative of luxury as a concept than they are of true taste and pleasure.
Take, for instance, an appetizer of foie gras, an ingredient that is luxury incarnate. Served with a polenta cake and Granny Smith apples, the dish lacked nuance, intrigue and salt. The polenta was a nuclear-hot (seriously, I blistered the top of my mouth) disk of tastelessness. On the other hand, a rabbit loin, wrapped in pancetta and served with a jumble of macerated figs, had balance and finesse – sweetness, salt, soft and crunch.
The kitchen has architectural aspirations that often take precedence over flavor. An appetizer that highlights red and yellow beets had the vibrant vegetables chopped and molded into separate spheres, then dusted on top with ricotta and garnished on the side with lemon verbena. The resulting plate certainly had visual appeal, but tasted bland. Tossed all together with some subtle dressing, the dish might have worked as a rustic beet salad, but in this form it only works as eye candy.
Seafood dishes, such as a swordfish served over cannellini beans and peppers, were consistently pleasing. Baked seabass over a rich tarragon butter exemplified old-school upscale that works. Quality ingredients arranged pleasingly with a classic sauce and more bells and whistles than the home cook could muster used to be exactly what diners expected. If NEO delivered that all the time, I'd declare this venture a success, even with its throwback premise.
But veal raviolini with fried sage tasted like nothing much at all, and had me longing for a saltshaker. A side of eggplant parmesan was too gooey, not fresh or bright enough. Too ordinary.
While general manager Guido Piccinni probably sets the tone for the uptight-slash-overeager service, he himself is a charmer, especially when discussing the Italian wines on his impressive list. Allow him to pontificate about the super Tuscans and ask for recommendations. You'll most likely be rewarded with something new and delicious.
I feel as though NEO could take that title – new and delicious – and run with it, with perhaps a dial-down on the pretension and a dial-up on the seasonings. But part of the problem is that this is a dining style that many of us considered over a long time ago. And for folks who still buy into such a fantasy, I'm not sure it matters how honest or intriguing the food is – appearances are what count (on a recent Thursday evening, there was a showdown looming between the Botox set and twentysomething replacement wives).
So, while there's no eulogy here, there is a sad acknowledgement that most of us have moved on. Luckily for NEO, there are probably many "real" housewives in Atlanta that feel differently.