Taste: Reviews: Water Works-in-Progress

The views at the Water Works Restaurant are so fabulous, it’s tough for the kitchen to compete

What are you looking at?

Probably not much, if you’re sitting at a restaurant table in Philadelphia. Though we’re rich in restaurants, postcard-pretty views aren’t our strong point.

What are you looking at?

Probably not much, if you’re sitting at a restaurant table in Philadelphia. Though we’re rich in restaurants, postcard-pretty views aren’t our strong point.

How magical it is, then, to step out onto the grand columned terrace at the Water Works Restaurant, high above the Schuylkill River behind the Museum of Art, to take in a vista as sweetly bucolic as a Thomas Eakins painting. The gentle splash of the waterfall, the sweep of trees along the riverbanks, and the spectacle of solo scullers gliding toward Boathouse Row under the setting sun may be the loveliest perspective anywhere within our city limits. This natural asset is the best feature of a restaurant that is still settling into its spectacular space, already drawing more than 400 eager customers for dinner on some evenings. The kitchen is on its way to rivaling the view; the waitstaff has some catching up to do.

This spot was a popular tourist destination in the 1800s, when people flocked to see an industrial marvel that pumped five million gallons of water a day into city households. By 1909, river pollution and newer delivery systems had put the Water Works out of business, and by the 1970s, the Greek Revival buildings had become ruins, around which many developers’ dreams swirled.

Enter Michael Karloutsos, a politically connected protégé of Philadelphia public schools chief Paul Vallas. Karloutsos, who moved here from New York to work as a consultant for the school district, is precisely the type of individual viewed by Philadelphians with suspicion: He’s an outsider, he’s persuasive, he hobnobs with Republicans, and he was confident that he could resurrect the Water Works as a fine-dining venue, despite the fact that he had never run a restaurant. But to see this city-partnered project through, political finesse was a necessity, not a negative. Three years and over $3 million in financing later, Karloutsos and his team have delivered a meticulous, easy-to-love update that respects this landmark and its hardworking past.

A cozy bar has moved into the building that was the caretaker’s house; the Engine House has become the main dining room, where a nine-foot water wall and a pair of massive crystal chandeliers draw our gaze up to the vaulted ceiling. Unfortunately, this room has very few seats with river views. Several choice tables overlook the river from two separate glassed-in areas outside the main dining room. There’s seating for 135 indoors, and 150 more on that magical outdoor terrace. Donovan McNabb and his family dropped by for dinner after an Eagles game, but you’re just as likely to see sophisticated seniors from the nearby Philadelphian condominium, or a young couple on a big date.

Karloutsos works the room like a proud papa, leaving the operational details to Ed Doherty, a smooth pro who was hired away from a similar job at Capital Grille. The menu is in the hands of 25-year-old Adan Trinidad, most recently executive chef at El Vez.

Excellent green and black olives, roasted red peppers, a small pitcher of Greek olive oil, and crusty dinner rolls arrive at the start of the meal, very handy if the appetizers are slow to arrive, which they can be. You’ll hear a pitch for the bottled-water list, 20 varieties in all, which you can feel free to ignore. Speak up when you need iced tea refills, or another glass of wine, or the check, because the staff won’t notice.

The best dishes are those inspired by the owner’s Greek heritage. The grilled octopus, which marinates for two days in a tenderizing cilantro/garlic/olive oil bath, is a standout. On one of my visits, the featured whole fish was a succulent one-and-a-half-pound grilled red snapper, resting on sautéed spinach with raisins and pine nuts. Chef Trinidad, who was born in Mexico, adds a tasty flourish from his own culture, topping the fish with a mojo made with chopped parsley, oregano, cilantro, garlic and lemon. Yogurt flavored with dill is used to enhance delicate slices of citrus-cured salmon, and yogurt flavored with lemon with the full-­flavored grilled lamb chops. The Water Works salad is a textbook Greek salad, combining tomato wedges, feta, cucumber and black olives, with no lettuce. At lunch, garbanzo “salsa” brings whole chickpeas marinated in olive oil with red peppers and onion, attractively presented in three miniature bowls with warm pita bread, making it an easy appetizer to share.

The more complex preparations have good elements in place, but at times it seems that no one has considered the dish as a whole. Pan-seared black bass fillet over mashed yellow split peas was nearly submerged in soupy saffron-infused tomato broth. I loved the warm, crisp-skinned confit duck leg served with watercress, but not the excessively tart dressing on the greens, nor the added grapefruit slices, some of which still had seeds. A roasted duck breast entrée was simply dull. Lukewarm lobster bisque lacked depth of flavor. The crabcake sandwich served at lunch was a mess — a fine crabcake trapped in an over-toasted bun, topped with grainy mustard aioli, pickled cabbage and sliced avocado. Oysters three ways was one flight of fancy that did work, because someone attended to the details of each component: one deep-shelled oyster is bathed in mignonette; another is panko-coated, deep-fried, and placed over an oyster shell filled with spinach and melted feta; a third comes in a shooter glass with mint froth, with a cucumber slice for a coaster and a Granny Smith apple chip on top.

Pastry chef Chad Durkin, formerly of Susanna Foo, turns out an appealing crème brûlée trio (vanilla, chocolate and orange blossom), and some intriguing ice creams flavored with dulce de leche and mildly tangy Greek yogurt. A chocolate sampler plate is a nice alternative to a single large dessert, bringing single-bite tastes of a wee tart and ouzo-filled chocolate fried dough, plus a shooter glass of chocolate froth.

We’ve waited 30 years for the Water Works to reopen, but we need to be patient a little longer as the restaurant adapts to the challenges of its rambling space and immediate popularity. The exquisite view doesn’t require a thing, except attention.