Somehow, I didn't let the indicators scare me: the mall location, the chain restaurant status. Even the boxes of frozen spring rolls that line the entrance to Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse, as a welcome and sales ploy and bizarre décor choice, didn't dampen my spirits. For some reason I had confidence in this place.
The new Phipps Plaza restaurant comes with a pedigree that's hard to dismiss. The original in Boston is almost universally loved (for its "grown up room," dry-aged steaks and impressive service), and its owner and founder Steve DiFillippo is one of those rock star restaurateurs in whom people seem to place a lot of faith. The chef in the new Atlanta location is Bennett Hollberg, who, until recently, served as chef at the Ritz Carlton's Atlanta Grill. The general manager is Claude Guillaume, who oversaw the service at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton for many years. And the concept is undeniably appealing — Northern Italian fare, heavy use of the grill, simple hearty food, a mainly Italian wine list, and big, honkin' steaks. What's not to love?
Let's start with what is to be loved: those honkin' steaks. Wet-aged, and therefore juicier and less tangy than their dry-aged counterparts, these babies are the stuff vegetarians cry themselves to sleep over. Not only that, the kitchen at Davio's knows how to handle them, cooking the meat so it retains its gushy succulence while acquiring a beguiling charred exterior.
But steak isn't exactly where creativity and nuance make or break a cook. And much of Davio's menu beyond steak lacks just that — creativity and nuance.
Cioppino, a seafood stew with a "spicy tomato lobster broth" lacked spice and personality, although its shrimp, scallops, mussels and fish were cooked well and obviously fresh. Tuna tartare was a mush of large tuna pieces, cucumber, and sesame-soy dressing, topped with fried squid. The flavors were acceptable if not a tad played out (Asian fusion raw tuna anything can die for all I care), but the texture was pure slop. Crispy chicken livers were entirely too crispy, and the "port balsamic glaze" tasted like Hershey's chocolate syrup. Gnocchi was doughy, its mushroom sauce lacking in flavor and character.
And then there are those spring rolls. Davio's has made itself known in Boston and beyond for its, um, creative takes on the spring roll, resulting in atrocities such as the Philly cheese steak spring roll and the Buffalo chicken spring roll. As I mentioned before, you can buy these frozen to take home, or just pay $10-$13 for the kitchen to open a box and cook them for you. They're greasy and crispy and tasty in a that-would-be-good-if-I-were-really-drunk kind of way.
This bald-faced selling out wouldn't bother me so much if the core aesthetic — to cram in as much salt, cheese, fat and crowd-pleasing sluttery — didn't seep into the rest of the menu. Potato and goat cheese fritters sound OK, but the salty doughnuts that have been fried and rolled in more cheese are just unnecessary, and not that enjoyable. Desserts such as chocolate mousse and tiramisù straddle that line between boring and acceptable. There's no heart here at all.
Service on my first visit was of the condescending, pushy, jokey variety, the kind of waiter who asks "Are we all still friends here?" after the food arrives; the kind of waiter who tried to push me toward the California Pinot Noir by the glass after I ordered an Italian Pinot Noir from the list because "they're both Pinot Noir, and that way you can see if you like it before I open a bottle." In fact, the whole evening took on a farce-like quality. Glasses were dropped, wrong dishes delivered. ("Oh, that's not what you ordered? Well, do you want what you ordered? How about you just keep what I brought you and I'll take it off the check?" I was charged anyway.)
Another evening my server was far more pleasant, professional and eager to please, but that didn't stop our food from taking 45 minutes to arrive, or keep it from being stone cold when it did. An entrée priced at $28 on the menu cost $31 on the check. Taken one at a time, these slipups are minor. But as a whole, it's obvious that Guillaume has a huge job on his hands. Managing the hoards of servers it takes to run an operation like this is a vastly different task than overseeing the hushed and intimate Dining Room. And while I admire the fine-dining aspirations of correct table settings and the like, I'd prefer hot food, the dishes I ordered, and relief from being treated like a child by someone who knows less about wine than I do.
After a few meals at the restaurant wherein I spent more than $200 each visit, I was still confused. Shouldn't this place be better? In some ways, isn't it almost good? Were the lapses in service, taste and execution just flukes?
Upon reflection, unfortunately, the answer has to be no. My guess is, that if you happened upon Davio's on a particularly good night, got one of the better waiters, and ordered exactly the right things (perhaps a half order of pasta, a simple arugula salad, and a rib-eye with grilled asparagus), you could enjoy a perfectly nice meal. And if the high cost of that perfectly nice meal didn't bother you, you might leave feeling satisfied. But the chances of that happening are simply too slim for a restaurant with this talent, price point and ambition.