Opening a second restaurant less than two blocks from the first sounds like (a) a crazy idea, (b) a way to fend off competition, or (c) an act of exuberance? Steve DiFillippo, who made it big after he moved his Davio's from Newbury Street to a larger Park Square space, opened the smaller Avila late last spring in the bottom of a luxury condominium building on the edge of the Theater District. The restaurant has many of the same style features that distinguish Davio's -- a huge, freestanding bar; soothing color tones, here in terracotta and yellows; lighting that flatters the skin (very important for the crowd a restaurant like this attracts); and a lack of booming music (though plenty of noise).
The ambience of Avila also depends on the service, a lot of service. On a recent Thursday, the ratio of serving staff to customers seems to be about 2 to 1. Owner DiFillippo is working the room like a politician, greeting long tables of guests dressed in business attire and smaller tables of couples and foursomes. The sommelier, Rowan Welch, appears quickly and suggests a Spanish chardonnay that is both supple and quite reasonably priced from a lengthy list. The cooking staff, led by executive chefs Rodney Murillo and Paul King, rush in and out of the visible part of the open kitchen. Although the tables are fairly widely spaced, there's so much staff that the room seems crowded in a lively, bustling way.
In a phone conversation, DiFillippo says he wanted another restaurant beyond the Italian-influenced Davio's to explore his mother's Portuguese culinary background. Avila's cuisine is called Mediterranean, and there are references to Spain, Portugal, Greece, and beyond. What the menu does, though, is flood the field: There are enough choices to send one's mind spinning -- 18 small plates and appetizers; five pastas; eight entrees plus eight more grilled dishes that can be matched to sides. By the time the waiter starts describing specials, the mind swirls. Something for everyone seems to be the motive.
So then the trick for the diner is navigation. The first directional advice would be to decide what fried or super-caloric dish you're dying to try -- will it be crispy fried sardines? The whole crispy fish? The braised beef short ribs with corn colada? The chocolate- dipped churros? Then plan accordingly, balancing the fried with the grilled, the fat with the green and lean. Otherwise, you'll leave feeling the effects.
Each of these dishes definitely cries out to be tasted. The sardines are lovely little crunchy mouthfuls, with enough peppery spice to offset lemon mayonnaise. The whole crispy bass comes with yucca sticks and asparagus protruding from its gills, an almost comical presentation. But as is true of really good deep-frying, the skin crackles and the flesh underneath is silky and moist. And a smoked tomato sauce is just the right accent. I first tasted the braised short ribs in late spring when the dish seemed a little heavy (although it was chilly and rainy). It's one of those dishes you'd associate with Davio's, the essence of heartiness, meltingly tender beef in a slightly sweet, deeply winey sauce, matched to a corn puree (here called a colada) and fava beans. The short ribs outshine a similar preparation of veal shanks, hearty but lacking as much depth of flavor. The feta cheese risotto with the shanks sounds odd -- feta and risotto? -- but tastes just fine.
Some lighter compositions shine, too. Steak tartare is just about a perfect rendition of the classic, the beef a clean and vivid taste, augmented by capers and a tarragon sauce. A stacked salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta holds up by being both refreshing and bold. An amuse-bouche one evening, a tiny bowl of corn chowder with truffle oil, is so ethereally good that we almost ask for seconds.
But other straightforward dishes fall flat. Maybe I'm just bored with the coriander-crusted tuna routine: Though I'm sure it's high quality, the tuna's kind of blah. Spaghetti with Jonah crab, guanciale (pig's cheek), and yellow cherry tomatoes is pleasant enough but seems light on the crab. A potato-crusted cod with artichoke puree is dull to look at and not much more exciting to eat. And hamachi ceviche lacks that sprightly punch of citrus and chili heat that can make the dish sing.
However, there's so much to choose from that disappointments fade quickly. Another pasta dish, this one with seared scallops in woodsy-flavored sauce over linguine, is delicious, a prelude to autumn. Lamb tenderloin souvlaki makes you rethink the ever-popular lamb rack because here the meat has a full and fragrant measure of herbs and great meaty taste, but it is greaseless and almost light -- well, as light as lamb can be. We mix cuisines a little and order a Spanish-influenced side dish of chickpeas and chorizo, and it's a lovely combination with the lamb.
Desserts are presented on a tray. Although Tom Ponticelli, also Davio's pastry chef, is a master, this array might benefit from a little tweaking, specifically more color. Who would argue with churros, the Spanish doughnut-like pastry that's popping up everywhere, when they're so airy and delectable with a thick chocolate sauce. Or with a mousse-like chocolate confection with a fan of hazelnut-studded chocolate. A rice pudding with rhubarb sauce draws moans of delight one evening, as did a Portuguese flan with pineapple spears on a subsequent visit. But I found myself wishing for something more palate-cleansing after a meal with so much gravitas.
After all, this is such an expansive menu that one can feel emboldened to ask for anything. And the answer to the question at the beginning of this review must surely be (c).