Let’s play a game. I’ll describe some customers, and you tell me where we are.
First up is a couple who seems to have ordered meals from two different restaurants. He drinks red wine from a bowl-shaped glass and saws a rare steak contemplatively. She sips Coke through a straw and eats spring rolls with her fingers.
Now turn your attention to my wife, standing by the hostess stand and wondering aloud if she is overdressed. Let’s follow her dubious gaze as it pans through the dining room and lands on a young family. Dad tries and fails to carry off the Turtle from “Entourage” look of outsized athletic wear, gold jewelry and backwards ball cap. Mom rocks a baby in a car seat; 4-year-old bolts from his seat. But over there in that banquette sits a cashmere-swathed matron with sculpted grey hair and earring rocks so massive they would cause a lesser dame to keel over into her soup. And isn’t that manager in a natty suit Claude Guillaume, late of the Ritz-Carlton? This ain’t Denny’s.
Where are we? If you answer an upscale shopping mall, then you get one of my spring rolls. Second prize: two of my spring rolls.
Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse opened in late August in Phipps Plaza. Like many an ambitious mall eatery, it projects an image of special-destination grandeur but caters to the come-as-you-are reality of people shopping for convenient food. Swank crowd pleasers – prime steaks and chops, pastas rich with cream and truffle oil -– headline the menu. But the kitchen churns out scores of dishes for every palate and every mood. Some of this food is successful, some plainly awful, and much comes at pre-recession prices to make your eyes boggle. You have to figure out how to best use this plush newcomer if you are to enjoy it. (Hint: get a steak.)
This location, set in part of the former Niketown space, is the fourth link in a Boston-based chain that owner Steve DiFillippo began building 25 years ago. If you’ve ever spent any time in the Northeast, you might recognize the over-the-top indulgence native to a certain kind of New England Italian restaurant – the cadre of managers prowling the room, the mahogany wainscoting, the overflowing baskets of house-baked breads, the ritual of the dessert tray. It’s old-school swellegant.
And the menu! I counted more than 65 distinct dishes, from foie gras with a sweet potato waffle, to homemade sausage and beans, to hand-rolled gnocchi, to lobster risotto. One section lists Davio’s classics; another focuses on house specialties.
After dutiful exploration, I’ve decided it’s best to approach this menu in a steakhouse state of mind. How about a salad to start things off? A chopped salad ($9) holds bursty bites of green bean, chickpea, onion, pancetta, blue cheese and other pellets of pure flavor. Bibb lettuce leaves ($7) hold chopped tomatoes, bacon and bright-tasting dollops of buttermilk pesto. Bufula mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes ($14) come chilled to a fare-thee-well but are of fine quality. Still, I’m not sure what to think of the pile of sweet chopped pickle hovering alongside as if someone upended a Chicago dog on the plate. I don’t hate it, exactly…
Then have your steak, because it’s a doozie. The 14-ounce Prime New York strip ($42) has the gorgeous melt-on-your-tongue marbling you’d expect for that price. It is also seasoned right, with that canny level of salt that persuades the beefy flavor to bloom on your tongue.
Other simple entrees do the trick. Grilled fillets of rainbow trout ($18) are tasty, if on the dry side. A pan-crisped “Statler” chicken ($25) – boneless breast with the wingtip attached – beads with juices when cut and arrives in a raft of mashed potatoes so creamy-soft that we ask to box them with our leftovers.
The gnocchi ($18), alas, seem more like a bowlful of Gummi Bears doused in truffle oil. A lunchtime order of tagliatelle bolognese ($15) wallows in a pasty ragù of beef, pork and veal. Pasta at this restaurant feels heavy and indelicate.
Much of the food has a gut-buster quality, from an un-bite-through-able prosciutto panini ($14) to a side of barely cooked Tuscan kale ($6) gobsmacked with cream and salt, to a signature appetizer of the world’s crispiest chicken livers ($9) on a black pool of balsamic-port treacle that looks straight from the BP cookbook.
There’s also a kind of 1980s’ throwback thing going on here. That dessert tray is a hoot, and I find it hard to say no to the fluffy innocuousness of a slab of tiramisu ($9). Maine lobster ravioli ($29) with fresh peas is another dish I recall fondly from the shoulder-pad era, right down to the gummy pasta and irresistible cream sauce.
Which brings us to the trademarked Philly cheese steak spring rolls ($11) – fine if you like deep-fried tubes of meaty ooze. No shame. You might want the sampler platter ($13), which also includes shrimp, chicken parm and Buffalo chicken spring rolls set upright upon a disturbing abundance of sauce squiggles.
Me, I’ll pass on the spring rolls but spend time exploring the wine list with sommelier Robert Evans, previously with the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. Worthwhile Italian wines keep company with a compendium of heavy-hitting American cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays. But, man, the markups are steep. Cecchi Vernaccia di San Gimignano – a simple, well-structured Tuscan white that might cost $15 or $16 in the store and serves as a fine aperitif – goes for $45 on the list. Other commonly available wines sell for three times retail price.
No question that Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse rocks it old school – big, expensive, over the top. I do like seeing waiters in starchy white steward’s jackets rolling trolleys through the room, and I am thrilled to see the Ritz-Carlton’s Claude Guillaume again working his front-of-the-house magic.
In fact, on both visits I noticed him greeting many old customers of those dining rooms. Guillaume is the face of fine dining in Atlanta, and his presence brings out the best in this confusing mall restaurant.DAVIO’S NORTHERN ITALIAN STEAKHOUSE 3500 Peachtree Road, in Phipps Plaza, Buckhead, 404-835-8563 Food: Steaks, decorous Italian fare and spring rolls headline a vast menu Service: Old school, with long menu presentations and tableside service Best dishes: New York strip, Statler chicken, lobster ravioli, chopped salad Vegetarian selections: Quite a few, including pastas and a vegetarian paella Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m, Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday, and 5 p.m.-midnight, Friday-Saturday; brunch noon-3 p.m., Sunday Children: People do bring them in the spirit of all’s fair in a mall, but it’s an upscale environment Parking: Paid valet as well as self-parking in the Phipps lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Gets high enough on busy nights that you have to raise your voice Patio: Yes, a small one