Ivory Merchant 

The piano's a draw, but is the food worth the price?

click to enlarge food11_lede_piano_148.jpg

Amidst the profusion of glassware, silverware, plates, white tablecloths, and past the grand piano, a tall, tuxedoed waiter carefully hands a menu to you filled with classic steakhouse choices. There are porterhouses, New York strips and filet mignons. On the other side of the menu, seafood dominates, from shrimp scampi to lobster, and sure-fire choices for children are thoughtfully tucked in on the left-hand side.

Ladies of a certain age genteelly sip wine at the bar under the restaurant's flattering, pinkish light, and the rest of the patrons talk quietly, with only the discreet clink of the occasional fork against plate rising above the piano standards emanating from the front of the room.

Fine dining and live piano music are a winning combination for a particularly gray-haired crowd, but at the Piano Club Steak and Seafood Restaurant, although the pianist is superb, the food is not. Like the oddly incongruous flat-screen TV above the bar tuned permanently to Fox News, the food fails to match its surroundings.

The oysters Rockefeller, described on the menu as "topped with fresh spinach and shredded Parmesan cheese baked in a light white sauce," arrive with a gooey slab of unidentifiable white cheese (mozzarella? provolone?) sloppily encasing the oysters and spinach with no observable sauce. The seared scallops are tough and overcooked, and the "zesty chili garlic sauce" is simply a squeeze of Sriracha from the bottle (that would be the red squiggle garnish on the side of your plate, as seen in lots of restaurants, most notably at Millie's).

The Caesar salad comes large, with an uncustomary sweet taste, and topped with prepackaged shredded Parmesan and store-bought croutons.

The personable waiter, "in the business for 20 years," talks (and talks) a good game, but wine is slow coming, the breadbasket never gets refilled, and the lack of attention stretches the length of the meal unaccountably long.

Steaks, when they arrive, are good, well-seared, and lush with meaty juices. They come with tender sugar snap peas, although the ubiquitous garlic mashed potatoes are dark and gummy. Better is the big, flattened haystack of buttery hash browns that snap off and crunch down to the last, hotly contested morsel on the plate.

The seafood side of the menu offers choices for preparation and sauce, but the loquacious waiter recommends grilling (not listed) and discourages the uncertain-sounding almond butter sauce for a standard white wine sauce instead. A chef who cooks meat well may not have as deft a touch with seafood, and the rainbow trout, like the scallops, comes ponderously overcooked with a red stain of paprika. Missing sauce and a lengthy wait for its arrival give you plenty of time to contemplate the age of the fish and wonder why rock lobster from South America is on offer, rather than the less distant variety from Maine.

Dessert choices, presented with a flourish on a tray, include an airy three-chocolate mousse that bears a striking resemblance to one available online at Costco and a leaden cheesecake drizzled in chocolate syrup.

Lunch caters to a midday, wine-sipping crowd with a sprinkle of business-lunchers. Some seem settled in for the long haul, but unlike the pace in the evening, service is brisk but deferential. The burger, described on the menu as a tenderloin "ground fresh daily," certainly has a meaty wallop that perhaps is more reminiscent of sirloin than tenderloin, but it's a cut above most burgers, and arrives cooked to order on a fat kaiser roll with crispy golden home fries to keep it company.

The "real roast beef" sandwich, however, is just a basic sub with a faint tang of horseradish and shredded iceberg lettuce, easily obtained at any downtown lunch cart for half the price. And here perhaps is the crux of the problem at the Piano Club. From the chandelier above the piano to the $35-plus price of the "Ship to Shore" (read surf and turf), every detail promises fine dining and all that such an experience entails. Unfortunately, what arrives on the table doesn't always live up to the expectations aroused by its wishful portrayal on the menu. S

Piano Club Steak and Seafood Restaurant $$$ NSS
7801 W. Broad St.
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight;
Sunday, noon-9 p.m.

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