She was a jaded restaurant critic. He was a glam new spot with all the right celebrity credentials. Could it be, after all those sleazy encounters and sickening disappointments, that she could find true love in Atlantic Station?
She had made a point of distancing herself from the allure of the sparkle and sheen of overdesigned restaurants. But Dolce was different. One step in through his powerful, swinging doors and her defenses were stripped bare. Curved leather booths, white and black, lent the room a racy theme of contrasts, evoking a sexed-up Othello board. Sheer fabric draped from ceiling to floor, forming partitions that made the space dramatic yet intimate. Chandeliers twinkled. She noted the plasma screens with their simulated images of fire, meant to evoke warming hearths, and she reminded herself of her surroundings.
This was Atlantic Station. What was she thinking, being so easily seduced?
As she was led to her seat she couldn't help but notice the waitresses' ample curves peeking out from their skimpy tank tops. It seemed only natural that a restaurant whose ownership includes Ashton Kutcher should employ servers who easily could take his place on the red carpet without looking amiss. The waiters – clad in black shirts adorned with gold graphics on their rugged shoulders – were the best-looking she had seen in the city.
As she sat, she admonished herself for her impure thoughts. After all, she was a serious critic! She needed to get her mind back to the food. She tried to focus on chef Don Diem's Italian menu, and avoided thinking about the other outposts of the restaurant in L.A. and Reno. She had learned the hard way that a restaurant with a roving eye for other cities rarely had the chops to claim her heart.
The menu snapped her to her senses, as did her waiter, Tony, who was no Adonis in the classic sense but had enough pep to start his own rally.
"I love him!" her friend whispered across the table. "If he was my roommate I would be the happiest girl in the world! We could have pizza parties in our underwear and read Us Weekly together!"
It seems that Dolce inspired fantasies of all stripes.
They started with the burrata platter, burrata here being fresh mozzarella soaked in heavy cream, alongside "charred" tomatoes and prosciutto. The burrata slid sensuously down her gullet, the prosciutto feathery and sinfully delicious. The tomato was barely charred and a little mealy, but looked sexy on the plate.
Tuna tartar arrived at the black pleather table on little fried wonton crackers (she had no idea her Italian stallion pulsed with Japanese blood!), and managed to turn up the heat – at least on her taste buds, thanks to a generous dose of Sriracha chili sauce mixed in.
Next her heart tangled with a bowl of pesto gnocchi, and it was obvious that the pesto had been made fresh. This was just as good as any Little Italy version she had ever let between her parted lips.
Sadly, he was destined to betray her. A rich forest risotto promised fresh porcini but delivered only criminis. A pork entree came out dry. On another evening, the restaurant's signature dish of veal over saffron risotto was manly in its heft, but when she really had to be honest, the whole dish was disappointingly bland, even down to the tantalizing scoop of bone marrow hidden inside the veal bone.
"What is that dish missing?" her friend asked. "Garlic?"
"Garlic. Salt. Red wine. Rosemary ... anything would make this more interesting," she responded.
This time they had lucked upon one of Dolce's dreamboat waiters, who had charmed her with his smile and then promptly forgotten about her table altogether. In fact, it took an army of would-be models to find her guy at the end of the night so she could have her check and leave, crestfallen. Despite her cold exterior, she secretly longed for a restaurant that would truly ravish her. She had to admit that this undeniably alluring confection was not up to the task.
And so it seemed that her romance with Dolce had been doomed from the beginning. Even at dessert, his tiramisu mousse with somewhat dry ladyfingers failed to stir the kind of desire she so desperately wanted. But then, as if fate itself had come to her rescue, Dolce produced a sweet surprise: velvety crème brulèe topped with a mince of luscious strawberries.
Could it be that he truly ... loved her?
"Oh my darling," she heard him whisper, "you're mine forever."
Like a trashy romance novel, or the supermarket tabloids that cover Dolce's celebrity owners, the restaurant is a guilty pleasure that ultimately rings hollow, and should not be taken too seriously. But a healthy fantasy never did anyone any harm.
Love pork belly.
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