The tricks photographers and food stylists use to dress up food for advertisements and editorial spreads are anything but appetizing. Elmer's glue is used to mimic milk, a coat of shoe polish and polyurethane give meat a faux juicy glaze and tampons soaked in boiling water are propped up behind cold food to make it appear steaming hot. The result of all these smoke and mirrors is mouthwatering food porn. Obviously, no one is supposed to eat any of it — after the shoot is over, it all goes in the trash.
See also: Panorama Restaurant Photos
The food at Panorama, the Saint Louis Art Museum's new fine-dining establishment, is similarly camera-ready as plate after gorgeous plate arrives as if plucked from the cover of Bon Appétit. This should come as no surprise. After all, the restaurant is located in a glass temple dedicated to world-class works of art. The stylized sparkle extends beyond plate presentation — Panorama's locally focused menu promises the splendor of ingredients at their peak. Its chef has a Culinary Institute of America pedigree, and the setting — perched atop Art Hill — is arguably one of the most lovely in the bistate area. In appearances, Panorama is an overwhelming success. However, after several visits, I wondered if — like the beautiful but inedible food from the magazines — the plates at Panorama aren't better suited for the walls of the adjacent galleries, rather than sustenance for hungry diners.
The dining room itself is something of a masterpiece with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer sweeping views of Forest Park in its autumnal, technicolor glory. The décor has a minimalist feel to it that captures the modern essence of the brand-new, $130 million East Building. The clientele oozes old money and private patronage; it's the kind of place where socialites go for pinot grigio-fueled power lunches.
A classic "New American" menu begs to be showcased in such a setting, and chef Edward Farrow is an avowed champion of the slow-food movement, committed to using environmentally friendly ingredients. His menu features the best the area's farms have to offer, from local game hen and lamb to Ozark mushrooms and Marcoot Jersey Creamery cheese. It's a testament to his skill that this recent transplant from the Southwest has captured the essence of Midwestern seasonal flavors; he comes to Panorama from the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum where, under his direction, the café was named 2012's Best Museum Restaurant by the Arizona Republic.
With all this working for Panorama, I was surprised at how underwhelming the food was. The meal began well enough, with a starter of andouille sausage that was a playfully deconstructed version of gumbo. The grilled sausage, served atop a vinegar-based potato salad, satisfied with its smoky spice, and pickled onions gave the dish a refreshing tartness. However, the accompanying crawfish, tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette, had a somewhat musty flavor, causing me to question its freshness.
The "Ode to Autumn," a platter of seasonal vegetables, was visually stunning, but its appeal ended there. The dish was billed as a way to showcase a cornucopia of autumn produce. What was served was a plate with blanched, unseasoned string beans, Brussels sprouts and radishes, a few pieces of grilled squash, some sliced apples and a shot glass of cantaloupe juice that was awkward for sharing. These beautiful ingredients needed a little manipulation — at least something more than 30 seconds in a steamer. It tasted like something Gwyneth Paltrow would order while in the middle of one of her crazy cleanses.
On the other hand, I have to commend Panorama on its crab cake. As someone who recently moved back from the D.C. area, I have been spoiled by fresh Maryland crab and look with suspicion at anyone outside of the area who tries to replicate this regional delicacy. Surprisingly, Panorama's version is brimming with crab meat, a novel concept for a dish that all too often resembles a crab-flavored hush puppy. The meat was not jumbo lump, but it was fresh, and the cake was not complicated by unnecessary filler. A squash coulis and crisp apple pecan slaw completed the plate. They're just as good as those served dockside in Annapolis.
The heritage pork meatballs contained an overwhelming amount of fennel seed. The meatball was so studded with the anisey spice that I couldn't discern any other flavors. This completely masked the rich sweetness of the high-quality pork. The one highlight on the plate was the grilled polenta. Its bittersweet earthy char was the one flavor strong enough to shine through the fennel seed. The tomato-mushroom sauce was chunky and tart, but unlike the refined presentation of most of the other dishes, it was slopped in the bowl and did not escape the fennel seed infusion.
The roasted Missouri trout filet tasted fresh, but a little overdone. A salad of shrimp dressed with a Niçoise and saffron vinaigrette enhanced the simple fish with a salty note, although the shrimp itself was also a touch overcooked. The biggest problem of the plate, however, was the tomato and wheat berry salad, an odd choice considering the seasonal theme of the menu. At this time of year, it was no surprise that tomatoes had a mealy texture, and they were overmarinated to the point of seeming macerated.
I was also surprised with the choice of ground lamb for use in the lamb stew, as larger chunks of meat hold up better in such a preparation. The piquillo pepper comingled with the lamb juices to create a deep, rich sauce, but it was incredibly salty — almost to the point of being inedible. The stew was served with a side of brown rice and vegetable salad that paired strangely. Perhaps it's boring, but I would have much preferred some sort of potato accompaniment in the place of the rice. Bizarrely, the stew was not served with a spoon. I can excuse an oversight, but if this was intentional, it was a flaw as it made the dish difficult to eat.
My dining coconspirator often says that anyone can make bread pudding, so we were disappointed with how lackluster Panorama's turned out to be. The dessert was missing the rich, custardy stickiness that defines good bread pudding and instead seemed more like a coffee cake. Three dollops of caramel served as little more than plate decoration and could not make up for the lack of moisture in the bread pudding. The buttery and salty pecan brittle provided a bright spot to an otherwise mediocre dish.
The pear crostada was also a disappointment. The crostada itself was not flaky and buttery, but instead more like a dry muffin. It broke apart so that one needed a spoon to scoop up the crumbles. The center was a sparse offering of diced, overcooked pear pieces. Although bright and tasty, I was confused as to how to incorporate the rosemary honey crème anglaise. Because of how the crostada broke apart it was impossible to dip, but pouring it over the crostada from a ramekin seemed awkward as well.
There's no denying that Panorama is — like the rest of SLAM — a feast for the eyes. The trouble is, it's a restaurant, not food-themed performance art. What's funny, though, is that in all likelihood I will be back. The setting is so lovely that it (nearly) makes up for Panorama's numerous shortcomings. After all, it's said we eat with our eyes. My taste buds, however, will be out of luck.
See also: Panorama Restaurant Photos