Usually the only way for a Penn student to score a chic meal is if Mummy and Daddy can be conned into going during NSO. If your parents are foolhardy enough to give you free reign over the city, you may just want to consider the newly opened Water Works Restaurant and Lounge for a truly upscale Philadelphia experience.
Ideally set along the Schuylkill behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the riverfront terrace boasts one of the most picturesque views in the city, with a direct westward view of Boathouse Row and the setting sun. The wait staff is not only attentive, but also capable of explaining the menu with both precision and a broad smile. The soaring Roman columns and the self-described "neo-classical cuisine" can be intimidating at first, but by the time the waiter carries out the first course, the restaurant already seems like a comfortable neighborhood fixture.
"Neo-classical" does not exactly explain what sort of food Water Works serves, but one glance at the appetizer menu reveals Mediterranean fare with American flare. The grilled octopus, which the chef marinates for two days before grilling, lacks the chewy, rubbery consistency of other calamari-like dishes. Rather, the octopus boasts a firmer texture and a citrus aftertaste that make the dish a shining star on the appetizer menu. The crab cakes also reflect the kitchen's preparation and skill, cutting out the bread stuffing filler that makes run-of-the-mill crab cakes taste mealy. To round out the front end of the meal, the arugula salad features a sprinkling of feta cheese and pine nuts atop champagne-marinated pears.
As explained by the server, Water Works specializes in contrasting tastes and textures, a tenet that readily applies to the entrees. With a crispy exterior, the rack of lamb accompanies goat cheese pillows and a crown of arugula. Although the seasoning along the outside of the lamb may initially seem too salty, the sweet basil pesto around the dish compliments the meat. The goat cheese pillows are neatly wrapped in wonton wrappers and then fried, but due to the chef's careful hand, the cheese inside was soft and warm with a hint of tanginess. These somewhat odd individual elements make the rack of lamb one of the truly standout options on a menu that's already exceptional.
The restaurant, however, may have made a slight misstep with the vanilla butter poached lobster. The kitchen removes the entire lobster from the shell, a decision that makes the meal mess-free yet also removes a basic tenet of the lobster-eating experience. A dollop of horchatta foam from the traditional milk and cinnamon Mexican drink is meant to throw another interesting flavor into the mix, yet after a few minutes the foam slowly collapses, leaving the lobster to fend for itself. Although the dish still certainly satisfies, the individual pieces don't seem to click.
The desserts at Water Works further showcase the restaurant's skill. The Water Wheel is a sampler of chocolate desserts that are handmade by the restaurant's award winning pastry chef. The chocolate "shooter" is like a thin espresso mouse served in a shot glass, while the Neapolitan resembles a thick, chocolate version of baklava. A center of dark chocolate crŠme fills a cake-like pastry, while the white chocolate tart is dense and extremely rich. The candied orange rice pudding provides an alternative dessert choice, with light and fluffy rice pudding taking on the flavor of the orange.
The restaurant's specialty drinks heighten the whole experience. Notable drinks include the pepper martini, with two actual peppers on the swizzle stick, and the blueberry cosmopolitan, with five actual blueberries along the martini glass's bottom. The bar also features an espresso cocktail, made with real espresso, which serves as a great finish to the meal.
Water Works succeeds because it accomplishes what it originally set out to do: integrate unique flavors and textures throughout their menu and drink selection. At times, these concoctions don't necessarily work as well as expected and are merely good dishes. Overall, however, the restaurant succeeds with flying colors. If Daddy is willing to pony up as much money as possible for a meal with a view, Water Works is the place to go.