Panorama (One Fine Arts Drive; 314-655-5490) 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun. (Closed Mon.)
Within its first few months of existence, the Saint Louis Art Museum's new restaurant, Panorama, acquired as much tarnish as a Bronze Age cooking vessel. It was so bad that the museum hired an outside consultant to provide an assessment of what was to be its culinary crown jewel. The advice was straightforward: Change everything, and do it as soon as possible. I was one of Panorama's harshest critics -- my review almost a year ago savaged the restaurant for bad food and spotty service. In fact, I consider it one of the worst meals I've had as a professional restaurant critic.
So to say chef Ivy Magruder didn't have a blank canvas to work with is a bit of an understatement. The veteran St. Louis chef (Vin De Set, Gamlin Whiskey House) was called in to replace Arizona transplant Edward Farrow. I was curious to see how Magruder and company could turn such a bad situation around, so I headed back. The difference is astounding -- aside from the location and name, it's not the same restaurant.
The most important change is that Panorama figured out what museum-goers want to eat after a long afternoon browsing the galleries -- well-executed café fare. A prime example is the Brie and apricot appetizer, wrapped in flaky puff pastry and baked, then dressed up with a Chambord-and-raspberry gastrique for a quintessential "ladies who lunch" appetizer. Roasted cauliflower and Gruyère cheese soup, lightly seasoned with warm, Cajun-like spices and finished with truffle oil, was a rich, earthy treat.
I expected hunks of shoulder in the smoked pork ravioli appetizer, but was surprised by a rich pork rillete filling. The dish, finished with walnut and sage brown butter, felt comforting and indulgent on a dreary autumn afternoon. Another starter, a vibrantly hued beef carpaccio, was a wonderful execution of the classic -- encrusted with black pepper, shaved paper-thin and served with stone-ground mustard, arugula, capers and lemon.
As I glanced at the salad selections, I recalled with horror the previous Panorama's disastrous "Ode to Autumn" appetizer (essentially some blanched string beans, sliced tomatoes and a shot of cold cantaloupe juice). Fortunately, the new offerings are far more approachable (and edible). I very much enjoyed the simple local greens salad, tossed with golden and red beets, tart goat cheese and dressed with a bright blood-orange vinaigrette. The sandwiches are much improved as well. Though not billed as a veggie burger, the Ozark Forest mushroom sandwich is like a meatless patty melt. The heaping portion of mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella, shaved red onion, arugula and horseradish mustard somehow sated my craving for a hamburger. The croque-madame featured a generous portion of thinly shaved ham, apples, sage and melted Gruyère, pressed between slices of sourdough bread. Creamy béchamel sauce and a sunny-side egg topped this excellent, fork-and-knife-necessary sandwich.
Panorama now offers the same entrees during lunch and dinner, including the vegetarian platter -- sliced zucchini, kale and mushrooms stacked atop goat cheese polenta and drizzled with vibrant red romesco sauce. It was as delicious as it was lovely. The Burgundy-braised short ribs were tender, but a tad dry and under-seasoned -- more jus would have solved the problem. The accompanying gnocchi was soft and well-caramelized, but the root vegetables were a touch undercooked.
In a nod to the museum's current exhibit Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia, Panorama serves a Polynesian pork loin, and it's a shame this dish will only be offered for as long as Atua is on display (January 4, 2015). The bacon-wrapped loin, glazed with a sweet-and-sour chile sauce, topped with grilled pineapple relish and served on a bed of rice, was one of the highlights.
The desserts alone are worth a trip to Panorama -- I can't imagine a better end to a day of museum-going than a glass of wine and the pumpkin crème brûleé. The sweet and salty pumpkin-seed brittle garnish is by far the best part. Magruder should package this and sell it in the gift shop. Another excellent offering is humbly billed as chocolate pudding, but is in reality a spicy, deconstructed s'more. Brûleéd marshmallow and house-made graham cracker are served beside thick, dark chocolate pudding spiked with fiery chiles. A spoonful warms the back of the tongue about three seconds after the first bite.
Magruder polished Panorama's tarnish to reveal a bright and shiny gem of a restaurant beneath. Finally, the museum has a culinary work of art to add to its collection.