The restaurant is on the first floor of its namesake, a lovely Tudor-style hotel. It occupies a cursed space that has housed eateries from Chez Louis and Bernard's to Beaux Coo, the second restaurant venture of extraordinary chef Steve Gontram of Harvest. Even celebrated chef David Slay has taken a crack at it. Rumors have circulated that the inn's management has been uncooperative, refusing to arrange for guests to order room service from the restaurant. Now Mike Bozada, a 22-year veteran of Kemoll's, has been named executive chef. He seems to have established a satellite kitchen at the Gables, drawing up a menu of Italian warhorses that don't seem to represent any particular region of Italy. The predictable dishes -- bruschetta, risotto, linguini marinara, veal saltimbocca -- are inoffensive but, to my mind, rather dull. Bozada's menu also includes a few puzzling items, such as Cajun seafood dishes.
But let's start with the glass half-full. Blackened grouper, the seafood selection one evening, was dredged in a fiery dry rub and then grilled. The fish had a little backbone, like a potent gumbo, though it lacked the crust that forms when it's fried in a hot cast-iron skillet (Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme's original blackening technique). Blackened-shrimp cocktail was also dusted with peppery spices. The chilled shellfish were served with Cajun rémoulade, mayonnaise spiked with chili sauce and other ingredients. Linguini marinara was tossed with calamari, shrimp and green-lipped mussels, creatures with luminous turquoise shells. The marinara sauce, described on the menu as spicy, was actually quite tame. A hefty ribeye, grilled medium-rare as requested, was complemented by roasted root vegetables, including sweet potatoes and turnips. Veal saltimbocca, made with pale, silky meat, was layered with mozzarella and prosciutto. The salty tang of the cured Italian ham nicely offset the mildness of the veal. To compose his signature entrée, chicken Bozada, the chef sprinkles two neatly crosshatched chicken breasts with seasoned Italian breadcrumbs. He finishes the dish with a sherry-laced garlic-cream sauce and a handful of toasted pine nuts.
Some dishes were less successful. In the "chef's seasonal selection" of tomato-basil risotto, the rice was undercooked, the grains crunchy rather than al dente. The unripe tomatoes, cut into a tiny dice, were the same pinkish shade as cooked shrimp. Jumbo lump-crab cakes, served with tartar sauce, were lackluster and not in keeping with the Italian menu. Only a few desserts are available, and the ones we tried were ordinary at best. A confection described by our server as a "chocolate-mousse torte" was indistinguishable from plain chocolate cake (a dry specimen, at that) with chocolate icing. Bread pudding had an unappealing spongy texture. It was studded with walnuts, Granny Smith apples and reconstituted dried cranberries, making it an odd choice for a summer dessert. Because we were dining in an Italian restaurant, we ordered cannoli one evening. The deep-fried tubular pastry shell was so thick, stale and leaden that it shattered like a brittle bone when we hacked at it with a fork. The vapid ricotta-cheese filling had a sandy texture. Even the chocolate syrup on top -- which we suspect was poured right out of a Hershey's can -- couldn't make this dessert palatable.
Most of the dishes we sampled were perfectly acceptable, though, so what's to carp about? To begin with, we would have liked the chef to use a more artistic hand in garnishing the dishes. Plate rims were unimaginatively decorated with alternating pinches of paprika and chopped parsley. One entrée after another sported a wan sprig of basil and came with a Milquetoast medley of steamed broccoli, cauliflower and mandolin-cut carrots. At other restaurants in this price category (which is admittedly lower than that of many Clayton restaurants), side dishes are carefully conceived to either mirror or counterpose the flavors in each main course.
Another disappointment is that Bozada inexplicably uses few Italian cheeses, which are among the best in the world. He reaches for the same ones -- Asiago, mozzarella and Parmesan -- again and again. Asiago, for example, is used in the bruschetta, in a spinach salad and in a penne-pasta dish. What about the fontina, the Taleggio, the ricotta salata? Similarly, the wine list neglects Italian wines such as Soave, Barbera and Dolcetto in favor of French and Californian crowd-pleasers such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet.
Finally, like the restaurant's cellar, its menu is simply too safe. It's true, of course, that a dish we consider one-dimensional might seem refreshingly unfussy to someone else. Many diners value consistency and approachability over novelty and depth of flavor. Maybe that explains that popularity of places such as the Pasta House and the Olive Garden. Italian restaurant cuisine, as familiar to Americans as a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli, requires authentic imported ingredients, a fanciful imagination and clever execution to deliver it from the conventional. Instead, Bozada's food is like Ted Koppel's voice: agreeable but monotonous.
The restaurant's service, prompt but not polished, left an equally bland impression. Our servers did not rush us, which we appreciated. One young woman, however, whipped through her unpracticed spiel like a nervous understudy, forgetting to mention the soup of the day, the risotto selection, the bread-pudding flavor and other details. Another server was more deliberate and seemed to be better rehearsed. Still, during both dinners we found ourselves without such basics as bread, napkins and proper utensils. Wines available by the glass are printed only on a chalkboard next to the bar, an area that is out of diners' view. When we inquired about the wines, our servers reeled off the trendy choices, such as merlot, but not the more interesting ones, such as syrah and Riesling.
The restaurant offers three pleasant seating spaces: the patio, the formal dining room and the "French country" piano lounge next to the bar. We don't quite understand the point of the latter in an Italian restaurant, but the wingback chairs, low-slung sofas, beamed ceiling and fresh flowers make for a comfortable -- if not chic -- space. And that might suit you just fine.