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Cafe Panache in Ramsey, NJ - what's the story here? (LONG)

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Cafe Panache in Ramsey, NJ - what's the story here? (LONG)

cat | Sep 1, 2004 12:28 PM

Give me a hand here if you will, Chowhounds, because I've just had a -very- disappointing dining experience at a place that's supposed to be outstanding, and my poor, ravaged taste buds are begging for an explanation, or at least some moral support. ;) Somewhat harsh review follows.

While en route from New York to our home near Philly last night, my boyfriend and I opted to stop for dinner and consulted our handy pocket Zagat guide. Now, Zagat is iffy at best and we've had our share of sometimes violent disagreements with their ratings, but as a general guideline, we've found that if a restaurant has earned a food rating of 25 or more it'll be a safe bet.

So, after consulting with both Zagat and a map, we decided to give Cafe Panache in Ramsey a try, since we recalled seeing glowing reviews elsewhere in addition to Zagat's and the restaurant was conveniently along our way. So far, so good. We called for and secured a reservation, were greeted rather stiffly by the maitre d' but not yet particularly upset or bothered by it, seated, and settled in at our little table for the evening.

Our first sign that something might have been wrong was the wait for, well, a waiter. It took about fifteen minutes for someone to show up and offer us water and menus, and another five or so until someone else turned up with bread. Not tragic, but in a restaurant that is supposed to be fairly high class, as Cafe Panache seems to advertise itself, it was a little unexpected and not particularly welcome. At any rate, we shrugged - no harm done, it's just an unexpected little burp in service quality and the place was pretty busy - and ordered.

This is where we started wondering if we were either insane or just incredibly unlucky, because the food ranged from decent but nothing memorable to outright bad. The chef's technique seemed sound, and if the ingredients had matched the execution, the food would have been leaps and bounds above what we experienced. Unfortunately, the ingredients were sad. They were mediocre. They should have been retired to the compost heap instead of being served to paying patrons.

My wild mushroom salad consisted of a few rubbery, watery, tasteless chunks of oyster and shiitake, buried beneath a mountain of tough, overgrown, slightly elderly arugula, garnished with some long parmesan flakes that had formed that greasy film that develops on parmesan that's been sitting out too long, and everything was anointed with a truffle oil vinaigrette which was nothing to speak of and had little to nothing to do with truffles. A bottle of truffle oil might have been in the same room as the salad at some point, but that seems to have been the extent of it.

My boyfriend had a seared foie gras atop a lightly poached pear, all drizzled with a pan glaze, which he said was probably the high point of the dinner. It was good, and it was well-executed, but it was...well, we've had other renditions we've liked better. No biggie. Had the entrees been comparable, we likely wouldn't have considered the restaurant a keeper in any case, but wouldn't have been particularly upset by our experience. No such luck there.

For our entrees, we both opted to try the loin of boar - pan seared, then crusted with panko and thyme and served along with baby artichokes, shiitake mushrooms, a pan sauce, and an artistic little dollop each of mashed potatoes and a carrot puree.

Worst complaint? I had to leave most of my food on the plate, because the boar loin was slightly off and rancid-tasting. Second worst complaint? The thyme and panko crust consisted mostly of thyme, overpoweringly so, well beyond that which even a gamey meat like wild boar might call for. For the rest, the pan sauce was burnt and bitter and generally uninspiring, the shiitake were more of the same sad and kind of oldish ones I had experienced in the aforementioned salad, and for the rest...good, not great, and certainly not compensation for the disappointment everything else on the plate was. We skipped the dessert and coffee, and at that point opted to leave quickly, get home, and end a long day with a stiff drink. In hindsight, not complaining was a mistake, but at that point we were bloody tired and didn't want a scene, so just wrote it off as a loss.

Now, we've got a couple of considerations here, to play devil's advocate. One, we had seen reviews of this place online prior to this, and given that and the glowing Zagat reviews (and the prices - the bill ended up at $106 for two people, before tip), we might have built our expectations up too much. Perhaps we were being excessively picky - but truly, the food was a waste of perfectly good calories, and no amount of good technique can make up for bad ingredients.

Two, maybe we were just unlucky to be there on an off night. Maybe the chef was ill. Maybe the fact that we weren't regulars and had last-minute reservations on a Tuesday night didn't count much in our favour. That being said, given the price of eating there and the strong impression we got of this restaurant's desire to pass itself off as a high class, fine dining establishment, we expected much better. We expected more than polite disinterest and a grunt of farewall from the maitre d' after he'd done his duty and seated us (particularly since we saw him dancing attendance on a couple of nearby tables full of apparent regulars to the exclusion of all others), we expected not to have to wait for menus and water and then repeatedly try to flag the waiter down afterwards to clear our plates and bring us the check, and we certainly expected far better food than what we ended up with - no matter the day, no matter our status as regulars or as complete unknowns.

So, after all that, tell me - were we just spectacularly unlucky? Have things at Cafe Panache gone downhill or gotten inconsistent lately? What on earth is going on here?

Oh, and if you have read this far, in any event, thank you for your patience and courtesy in bearing with me so long. ;)

- cat

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