Hundred Dollar Baby

Panorama and Il Bar are together known around town as a mecca for wine lovers. That wall-sized wine-preservation system is legendary, and the selection of more than 100 by the glass is truly astounding. In a world where restaurant mark-ups make it impossible for all but the wealthiest-or most fiscally irresponsible-to order high-end wine with dinner, Panorama turns it around and makes it downright affordable to taste all kinds of wine you never thought you would.

But I hadn’t heard much about the food lately, so I thought it was a good time to stop by and see how it was faring after all this time.

The experience itself is difficult to sum up; it was, after all, a very good meal, but there were also some problems, especially in the area of service, that were troubling.

Things started off well enough with the fried calamari appetizer special. The batter was crisp and well-seasoned, and the rings of squid themselves were extraordinarily tender. This, I thought, was a very good sign: Like spicy tuna rolls at sushi houses and corned beef sandwiched at Jewish delis, the calamari fritti is generally a reliable metric when it comes to setting the culinary tone at a trattoria-style Italian restaurant.

Entrees, however, were slightly less successful, though certainly flavorful in their own right. The pollo al forno con mele, for example, was beautiful to look at. Half a chicken, its top nicely caramelized, had been laid out atop a thin layer of savory reduced apple cider and was accompanied by a cleverly color-coordinated piece of mushroom bread pudding.

The autumn-color theme of the dish, set off by a pretty pile of zucchini and squash, as well as a red, green, and yellow apple-button garnish, looked like the essence of comfort food. If the appearance of a dish can possibly be reassuring, then this one certainly was.

And the flavors worked well together. The subtle sweetness of the cider, the homey depth of the chicken, the edge of earthiness from the mushrooms, all of them were neatly balanced. My only complaint was with that caramelized skin wasn’t nearly as crispy as I would have liked.

We also ordered the entrée-sized portion of the agnolotti di ricotta e mozzarella (pastas can also be ordered as appetizers). And while the filling itself was certainly tasty, the pasta was on the gummy side. The brilliantly green spinach sauce-a nice, understated combination of pureed spinach, a touch of cream, onion, garlic, and other traditional seasonings-helped it out, but that pasta simply overpowered it.

Dessert was an elegantly poached pear that was stuffed with a lovely hazelnut-sweetened mascarpone and plated with a drizzle of poaching liquid (moscato that had been reduced with a number of autumn spices). It was not too sweet, and made me feel fairly healthy for a few minutes-something I’m truly unaccustomed to.

Still, it was the evening’s unorchestrated service that lingered far longer than any thoughts of that dreamy dessert.

I had been running about ten minutes late in the beginning of the evening, and Ms. M., who arrived on time, had to wait for me. As soon as I arrived, the hostess, instead of greeting me and welcoming me to the restaurant, simply showed us to our table-in Il Bar, which was apparently the only room they were using that evening, though I had not been told that that at the time I made my reservation earlier in the day.

We were asked about our drink order barely a minute after we were seated. Entrees were brought out before our appetizer had been cleared.
You get used to these kinds of service inconsistencies when you eat out a lot. Not that their frequency should be misconstrued as acceptable. But at a restaurant of this caliber, only heightened by its well-known proprietor, Luca Sena, who brought Philadelphia the fabulous La Famiglia and Le Castagne, you would expect that service would be on par with the menu and atmosphere.

Dinner for two with a single flight of wine ($17.75), an appetizer, two entrees, dessert, coffee, tax, and tip, cost $109.24-neither terribly expensive nor particularly cheap. But for that kind of money, I would have expected a more consistent dining experience. With better service, I would have been more apt to leave with an unqualified smile. Maybe next time, I will.

Ristorante Panorama, Front & Market streets, Philadelphia, 215.922.7600; www.pennsviewhotel.com

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Click here to read previous installments of Hundred Dollar Baby.

AroundPhilly Staff

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