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State-of-the-Art Dining

At four museum restaurants, the art on the wall inspires the food on the plate.

Food has always had a place in art. Consider Caravaggio's Bacchus, surrounded by a pile of luscious fruit, or even Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans. But lately the relationship between food and art has taken a new turn: a number of museums are opening serious restaurants. The trend started several years ago at such places as Sette MoMA in The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and Patinette (a star turn by chef Joachim Splichal of Patina) at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Today even museums in smaller cities like Denver and Santa Fe are bringing in top culinary talent.

The reasons are apparent: museums are always trying to come up with new ways to lure patrons, and a wonderful restaurant will draw both art lovers who like food and food lovers who like art. In large museums, where it can take hours to view the various collections, a good restaurant is a boon to hungry visitors who don't want to leave the building for a meal but who refuse to settle for tuna on a soggy croissant or some other halfhearted effort from an institutional cafeteria.

Chefs have their own reasons for choosing to open restaurants in museums. "We can take fresh inspiration from each exhibition," explains Jim Dodge, the consulting chef at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, who oversees the ambitious Fine Arts Restaurant. "We can pass that along to the museum visitors and give them a more complete aesthetic experience." On the following pages are profiles of four exciting new museum restaurants, along with a signature recipe from each that proves, once again, that chefs are artists too.

Denver Art Museum

Kevin Taylor called it serendipity when the Denver Art Museum gave him the chance to run Palettes(13th and Acoma Sts.; 303-629-0889). "I'd recently eaten one of the best meals of my life at the Louvre's Café Richelieu, so I knew how terrific a museum restaurant could be," Taylor recalls. "Shortly after I returned from France, the Denver Art Museum phoned." He accepted the job eagerly, even though he was already part owner of two of Colorado's hottest restaurants--the classical Brasserie Z in Denver and the experimental Dandelion in Boulder. He'll also be opening Kevin Taylor and Jou Jou, both in Denver, next month. "Having several restaurants keeps you from becoming stylistically stifled," Taylor says. Palettes, which is now a year old, offers both traditional and creative choices, from simple gazpacho to seared tuna with napa cabbage salad and mango chutney. Taylor also creates new dishes for each exhibition. For a show of ancient Egyptian art, he came up with an Eastern-influenced dish of orzo, currants and pine nuts.

The current exhibition, "600 Years of British Painting" (on display through March 1999), showcases a broad range of works, from a 14th century depiction of the Crucifixion by an anonymous artist (rare because so many similar canvases were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation) to the expressionist landscape Storm, painted in 1996 by Howard Hodgkin. Taylor's challenge was "to serve something that sounded classically English without feeding people steak-and-kidney pie." A trip to London gave him inspiration. "Chefs there are using typically British ingredients in innovative ways," he says. His homage to new English cuisine is pan-roasted pork chops with caramelized apples in a Madeira-brandy sauce. (Scroll down for the recipes.)

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As a pastry chef in San Francisco, a restaurateur in Hong Kong and an administrator at a cooking school in Vermont, Jim Dodge has traveled the country and the world. But when he settled at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts two years ago, he created a culinary landscape there that is almost as varied: at least half the menu at the Fine Arts Restaurant (465 Huntington Ave.; 617-369-3474)changes to reflect the spirit of each new show. For a David Hockney exhibition, Dodge focused on California cuisine, with such items as a salad of black Mission figs with red currants and watercress.

This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts is the only American venue for "Monet in the 20th Century," an exhibition produced in conjunction with London's Royal Academy of Arts. The show, the first dedicated to the last years of Monet's life (from 1900 to 1926), contains more than 80 pieces, including several enormous water lily murals that have never before been publicly displayed. The paintings will remain on view through December 27.

To create dishes for the show, Dodge did his own research. He was inspired not only by Monet's interest in the Mediterranean but also by the larger culinary forces of Monet's era. "The most important chef in France during Monet's lifetime was Escoffier, so we looked at some of his cookbooks," Dodge says. The menu Dodge put together includes bouillabaisse, duck confit wrapped in a chive crêpe and an almond-flavored cranberry financier cake that is a tribute to Monet's taste for simplicity. "He did not like his food embellished," Dodge explains, "and the financier is a very simple dessert."

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe

The wellspring of Georgia O'Keeffe's art was the natural world: animal bones, desert stones, sea shells. Her passion for the earth explains why she grew her own vegetables and ate only pure, unprocessed foods. So when the O'Keeffe Cafe (217 Johnson St.; 505-995-0785) opened in The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, menu consultant Deborah Madison (author of the best-selling Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) and proprietor Michael Dyer knew they had to keep the menu simple and seasonal.

The museum itself gives visitors a powerful sense of O'Keeffe's long career. The collection covers the artist's work from 1905 through the Sixties, with two periods especially well-represented: her early years in Texas and New Mexico, where she painted vast landscapes, and her residence in New York City, from 1929 to 1949, where she experimented with cityscapes and produced her enormous flowers.

The three-month-old O'Keeffe Cafe evokes the artist's pared-down adobe house in Abiquiu, New Mexico. There are rice-paper-and-bamboo lamps, granite and black river rock accents and clay- colored walls. The menu reflects O'Keeffe's interest in local ingredients, something Madison also champions as a board member of the Santa Fe Farmer's Market. The café's most popular items are a corn, chile and chipotle tart and an apricot and toasted almond shortbread. Another strong seller, an apple muffin cake filled with fresh fruit and pecans, epitomizes the kind of food O'Keeffe respected.

Philadelphia Art Alliance

The Philadelphia Art Alliance may support local talent, but the restaurant it houses, Opus 251 (251 S. 18th St.; 215-735-6787), has been making news on a national level. Its chef-owner, Alfonso Contrisciani, considered a career in the visual arts when he was a high-school student in Pennsylvania, but cooking gave him another way to express himself. "I make very architectural desserts, and I do a lot of food sculpting," he says. His signature dessert, a six-inch-high assemblage called a lantern, illustrates his penchant for extravagant design: a candle illuminates a thin cookie cylinder atop a round chocolate sabayon. It comes with a ginger crème brûlée and a nutmeg ice cream sandwich.

Contrisciani changes much of his menu with every show--there have been 13 in less than two years--but he sees the relationship between food and art as a constant. "A meal," he says, "should have all the components of a good piece of art: harmony, a focal point, a combination of textures."

Through December 6, the Art Alliance will be showing "Photo: Synthesis," with works by 12 regional artists who use photography in mixed-media pieces. "Creation is instantaneous in photography," says curator Juliet Cook. "These artists prolong the process." One of the contributors, Richard Harrod, has transformed an entire room with computer-processed photographic images. (In past shows, he has papered walls, floors, windows, even furniture.) At Opus 251, Contrisciani is creating his own mixed-media works, transforming snapper with layers of flavors--encrusting it in sun-dried tomatoes and topping it with a sauce of sautéed fennel, artichokes and olives.

Published November 1998
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