In retrospect, the signs were obvious that our meal at Pancetta might not be a good one: The basically empty restaurant at 6 p.m. on a weekend night, the abandoned hostess station that forced us to actually hunt someone down inside the restaurant to be seated, the way the server at the table next to us explained an item on the menu as just a case of "the chef liking to use big words." Still, our hopes were high for the relatively new restaurant in the Marriott downtown that opened when the hotel chain took over the former Peabody, jettisoned the ducks from the lobby, and decided to give this whole "farm to table" concept a whirl.
To be sure, the menu is festooned with all manner of claims about the restaurant's commitment to supporting local farms, and it was the first thing out of our server's mouth as we sat down. To which we reply: When the phrase "farm to table" goes out of vogue, it will be bitter parodies of quality dining with locally-sourced ingredients like Pancetta that kill it dead. The sourcing of the food we ate in that lonely, dimly-lit dining room didn't matter one single bit — and it never will when the preparation is so poor.
We began our descent into Pancetta's menu with the Crawfish-Tasso Gravy & Hoecake ($8), a listless, bland puddle of slightly congealed white sauce dotted with crawfish tails that tasted like small chewy bites of absolutely nothing at all. The tasso consisted of a few sad cubes that looked to us more like the small pepperonis that appear on cheap frozen pizzas rather than the spicy pork shoulder we expected. The hoecake portion of the dish was a thin, dry corn-meal pancake that added nothing to this dish other than some extra texture.
If the hoecake was disappointing and bland, the Sauteed Mussels ($11) were outright anger-inducing. It's hard to actually know where to begin with this dish. Maybe with our server, who didn't think to bring us a side-bowl for our shells? Or perhaps with the shellfish itself, which in addition to being overcooked to rubber-ball chewiness had the added misfortune of being so fishy tasting that our table was honestly scared that they might have turned. If that weren't enough, the wine and butter sauce was so oddly flavored that our normal post-mussel tradition of mopping up the sauce with a bit of bread wasn't observed for the first time ever.
Woeful entrees pushed aside, we moved on to the main course, where we found nothing much better to quell our mounting disappointment. The Gulf Shrimp and Chorizo ($27) suffered from the same freshness issues that our mussels did, and the chorizo brought back the overcooked theme from that self-same dish. The butternut squash bread pudding that formed the centerpiece to this disaster was the most compelling thing on the plate, but it's hard to recommend bread pudding drenched in an over-salted sauce at this price.
For our (thankfully) last dish of the night, we had the Southeast Family Farms Shortribs ($30), a slab of slow-braised beef shortribs served over cheese polenta with greens and a veal jus that suffered from the same saltiness issues as our shrimp dish. The creamy polenta was a nice spot on the plate, with a good texture and flavor that was almost completely ruined by the bitter greens that tasted "earthy" in the exact worst sense of that descriptor. The beef was cooked well, with a fork-tender consistency that was far better than the uninteresting flavor. This was probably the best dish of the night, but one we can't forgive given that we finished it thinking that we had just paid $30 for a chunk of stringy pot roast.
Perhaps Pancetta feels they can get away with this sort of thing because many of the people who eat there will be tourists or business guests who will plonk down their hard-earned cash due simply to not knowing any better. Slapping "we support local" on the menu doesn't translate into a good restaurant, and repeating assurances to diners about the talent of the kitchen staff — which our server did so many times we decided she must be trying to convince herself — doesn't make the statement true. In a city where there are true "farm to table" restaurants serving up quality fare at cheaper prices, Pancetta is like someone trying to speak a foreign language by mimicking sounds phonetically without knowing what the words mean: It might pass to someone who doesn't speak the language, but it'll be an obvious phony to any native.