Restaurant Review - Maxim Prime: Gentleman's club

Maxim magazine launches the first of its new restaurants in downtown Atlanta

I've always secretly enjoyed Maxim magazine. Beyond the obvious booty-centric aesthetic (which I could take or leave), the tone and content have an appealing smart, smart-ass edge that's immensely enjoyable.

I didn't expect that the magazine's editorial department would have much say in the direction of the company's new foray into the restaurant business, but I did hope the tone would carry over somehow. Sure, we could expect gaudy decor and hot waitresses, but I also hoped for that wink the magazine excels at, that almost unexpected intelligence and quality under the salacious exterior. The magazine seems to say, "Just because you like to look at hot girls doesn't mean you want to read crap." Why shouldn't the restaurant provide us with eye candy but also quality, thoughtful food?

Maxim Prime is a collaboration between the magazine and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's China Grill Management. China Grill developed the menu under corporate chef Scott Ubert's direction. The same menu will appear at the chain's other locations when they open in Denver, San Diego, New York and the Dominican Republic. Chef Daniel Zoby is executing the menu here in Atlanta.

Located in the Glenn Hotel in the spot that originally housed B.E.D., another restaurant with a vaguely sleazy gimmick (eating in bed, in case you forgot), the downstairs dining area has been converted into a large bar and lounge. Walls are covered with plum brocade, huge neon-blue spikes descend from the ceiling above the bar like menacing icicles, and music videos are projected onto the walls in a constant stream. It's like Purple Rain on acid. The music is the restaurant's one detail that totally follows the Maxim aesthetic ­­– the mix of '80s hits and modern indie rock captures the fantasy of what it's like to be young, hip and upwardly mobile. I expected Carmen Electra videos but instead got INXS' mesmerizing young Michael Hutchence (my equivalent to Jessica Alba in skimpy undies).

A long spiral staircase leads to the main dining room. It's slightly less schizophrenic than the bar area and the wall projections here depict lazily swimming fish. Waitresses wear short, tight black dresses à la Robert Palmer. The restaurant has devised a new ploy in the game of up-sell, delivering guests to their tables without dinner menus. Instead, cocktail and "small plates" menus are all you get. The host actually said to my party one evening, "We ask that if you order a cocktail, you also get one of these tastes to get something in your stomach to help pad the booze." He was joking ... I think. But our tall, hot, bulldozer of a waitress with a thick Russian accent didn't bring the regular menu until we had complied and ordered hors d'oeuvres.

The theme seems to be luxury ingredients presented in man-friendly combinations. It's a strange aesthetic, a kind of high-end/lowest-common-denominator school of cooking. When it succeeds, there's some genius there, as shown in the bacon-and-truffle appetizer. Black truffle and caramelized onions top thick slices of bacon, the whole thing swimming in truffle oil. Of course, the truffle oil obliterated any chance of tasting the real truffle, but the greasy, sweet, smoky bite was the epitome of good, slutty fun.

"Millionaire devilled eggs" are tasty – well-balanced, not too sweet – but the addition of truffle (which I couldn't taste), sturgeon caviar and gold leaf reveals some of the gimmickry to come. This is food to boast about, not savor.

Elsewhere, the practice of inserting expensive ingredients into fun and safe-feeling foods falls flat. The foie gras PB&J pairs the fatty delicacy with an overly sweet raspberry jam and pine nut butter. The small plates menu says it comes on French toast, but what we got was more like a crouton, and the pronounced crunch obliterated the foie's textural beauty.

An entree of swordfish with lobster and béarnaise was intensely rich and overwhelming. There's one thing you can't accuse Maxim Prime of, and that's skimping on the goods – the dish was covered in lobster meat. A side of fries looked cute with lobster claws poking out, but the addition of lobster meat and sauce to the mix made for flaccid fries. It's one thing to sog up your own fries in goop; it's another thing when it's done for you.

Corn-fed "all natural" steaks satisfy a manly appetite, but don't do much for a refined palate. Big, rich sides such as creamed spinach and creamed truffled corn do the same. They're fine, but not fresh or exceptional.

The wine list accurately reveals Maxim Prime's main flaw. Markups are outrageous, and there's nothing much between pedestrian and hugely expensive. It's a list that jumps from Kendall Jackson to Opus One in a few bottles, with an emphasis on name recognition and nothing under $40. It's wine to drink if you're not into wine, and wine to boast about.

Maxim obviously wants to forward its brand, but it would do well to employ more of the intelligence in its dining ventures that has made the magazine so successful. I'm sure some Maxim readers are men's men with a disposable income who just want to impress their dates with a show of lobster and truffle and Opus One. But some of us are fans of substance – we read it for the articles, I swear.