Are fine art and fine dining the new power couple? Like luxury retailers, the important art museums of Manhattan seem to realize that having an exclusive, buzzed-about restaurant is mission-critical to their success. How else to explain that some of the most exciting restaurants in the city right now happen to be housed in museums?
We here at Dandelion Chandelier decided to investigate. After all, art and food can separately serve as comfort and inspiration. So we figured that the two together should be a little slice of heaven. And as it turns out, that’s true. Here’s what we found:
The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art. Our Boston Bureau Chief came to town a couple of weeks ago, and we met up for lunch at the MOMA. Long one of our favorites, and sporting two Michelin stars, it’s as splendid as ever. The dining room decor is austere, all the better to bask in the sunlight splashing through the two-story windows that look out onto the Sculpture Garden. The windows are lined with tables for two; larger parties are seated at tables nicely spaced though out the rest of the room. The patrons looked cheerful and chic, and for the most part, they seemed to be New Yorkers, not tourists (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The table-settings are coolly elegant: sleek gunmetal grey spiral napkin rings, snow white chargers and linens. The only color on the table came from a small spray of birds of paradise. The service is swift, attentive and knowledgeable – our captain asked what time we needed to be back at the office before we ordered. Nice.
What to order? Chef Abram Bissell’s menu changes with the seasons, but if you go before winter ends, you cannot go wrong with what we had. The amuse-bouche that day was beet chips and goat cheese dip, served with a “tea” made of dried beet strips and chicken consommé. The bread selections were pretzel, whole wheat, and cranberry pumpkin seed rolls (seriously, who could decide among them? We had two out of the three).
As a starter, we both chose the roasted cauliflower, served with crab, tarragon puree and almonds – it was so buttery-good that our conversation stopped dead for a couple of reverential moments. For entrees, I opted for pork tenderloin, served with a pear poached in olive oil, pear puree, and Cipollini onions with buttermilk cream. The Bureau Chief went for crispy duck with sweet potato puree, cabbage and ginger. These were both extremely delicious. I truly meant to share mine, but somehow that didn’t happen. My bad.
The desserts were, appropriately, miniature works of art. My apple-themed choice had a dramatic spiral of honey crisp apple tuile atop a meringue shell filled with panna cotta and Chantilly cream; on the side were muscat grape jelly, angelica (a sweet herb) ice cream and a brunoise of diced apple. My companion had something involving pears and Poire William sauce, but the concept of sharing was completely gone by then and I have no idea what else was involved.
Suffice it to say, a merry time was had by all, and we suspect you’d have one, too.
Flora Bar at the Met Breuer opened in October with chef Ignacio Mattos at the helm, and it recently received a rave review from the New York Times. After viewing the Kerry James Marshall exhibit, I met our Asia Bureau Chief there for lunch. The subterranean space is a mash-up of unfinished grey concrete, white marble, leather seating and soaring windows – all of a piece with the Brutalist design of the museum – it feels a bit like dining near the mouth of a cave inside a huge mountain. It’s fairly noisy, and it was completely full when we were there, so there was a cacophony of sound – utterly different from The Modern’s dining room – much more like its casual bar room.
The wait staff took all the commotion in stride, and kindly explained some of the more mysterious menu items to us (anchovies and boquerones turns out to be “salty fish, two ways.”) The options are inventive and wildly varied – there’s a shrimp sandwich, a maple-bacon-and-egg open-faced sandwich, and steak and potatoes. You’ll definitely find something to suit your fancy.
Only one kind of bread was offered, and it was ambrosial – a variation on sourdough, it disappeared rather quickly. We decided to share a starter of tuna tartare, potato and truffle (it also has flax seeds and shallots). Like many dishes here, it comes shaped in a perfect disk (a signature element seems to be that the kitchen is enamored of crisp geometric shapes). It was a great choice: fresh, citrusy, and well-composed, with textures and flavors complementing each other perfectly.
For a main, I went with the lamb ribs with yogurt and mojo verde, and the Bureau Chief decided on the halibut with wild mushrooms. He gave his choice good reviews – the fish is served with a large cabbage leaf and a delicious broth with the distinct flavor of daikon (no circles or squares here). My lamb was probably the best preparation I’ve ever had – the meat is tender and moist, and four pieces per order are served on the bone with a thick charred crust. It’s billed as an appetizer, but it’s so rich I couldn’t finish it as an entrée (so if you get it as a starter, plan to share).
For dessert, we shared a chocolate parfait with Amarena cherries – it was nothing like what you’d expect a parfait to be, but it was pure icy cold chocolate bliss. And yes, it’s shaped like a precisely drawn circle.
Our take? This is an inventive, somewhat challenging menu – it’s nearly as provocative as the art – but well worth a visit. We didn’t delve into the wine and cocktail list, but they’re extensive and other reviews say they’re well-chosen. Just be sure to make a reservation in advance – this is a very hot ticket right now.
Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In a bright and airy space on the ground floor of the Whitney, Chef Michael Anthony presides over a friendly noisy casual cafe that just happens to serve outstanding food. On a recent rare day when I had a couple of free hours around lunchtime, I snuck out to see the latest exhibits at the museum, followed by a solo lunch at Untitled. This is a very fine way to make yourself incredibly happy.
The cheerful restaurant is a glass box, with floor-to-ceiling windows two-stories high on three sides (our short slideshow, below, is from my visit). The gracious host seated me right next to a window, at a table with a great view of the High Line and the surrounding neighborhood. The ambiance is playful and fresh: upholstered red chairs, no tablecloths, and simple cutlery paired with gingham napkins. The floor is rough stone, and the light and window fixtures are a quietly brushed stainless steel. The wait staff is outfitted in red, black, white and grey.
The lunch menu changes frequently, and it’s fairly extensive: there are 9 starters and 7 entrees on offer, plus a salad-and-soup lunch combo that changes daily.
The kitchen is open and reasonably loud, so I can hear my order being placed: roasted sunchokes with goat cheese, chestnut and Romanesco, followed by roasted and fried chicken with yellow-eyed beans, kale and delicata squash. If you’re alone and fascinated by the inner workings of a professional kitchen, this is the perfect listening post. You can get a snapshot of which dishes are popular just by eavesdropping on the orders flowing in. The choreography of a well-run kitchen is actually energizing and engaging — lots of moving parts, high heat, tight deadlines, and it all works. Good lessons in people management to be learned from them, no doubt.
Warning to cold caffeine seekers: the restaurant doesn’t serve Diet Coke! Only regular Coke. Instead, you can try one of their homemade soft drinks: lemon-mint (the most popular), spiced pear and homemade root beer.
The people-watching is first-rate and instructive. The crowd is a mix of young and old, and nearly everyone is dressed in a comfortable but interesting way, which is what you’d expect at a contemporary art museum cafe: a grande dame in leopard print boots; an ingénue in metallic sneakers; a squadron of sleek young men with great haircuts, all in black from head to toe. The dress code seems to be extremely refined and simple clothes accompanied by statement accessories – scarves, boots, and/or earrings – I think we can consider that the official uniform of the urban aesthete.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant is also the house cafeteria for the museum’s leadership. I spotted the Director and a few of the senior staff. I wonder if they ever get tired of eating there? That would be a truly high-class problem to have.
On to the food! The only bread offered was a cheddar cheese and chive biscuit with red pepper jam. I think it was tasty, but I ate it so quickly that I’m really not sure. My sunchoke appetizer was relatively new, so the waiter was quite interested in what I thought of it. Thumbs up. It was a lovely mix of textures and flavors — crispy, creamy, rough and smooth. And I’m sure it was low-calorie. It was all vegetables, right?
But the main event was my entrée, which is the most popular item on the menu. It’s billed as roasted and fried chicken, but I now know that this is just an elaborate cover story: the roasted chicken is just there as a foil, so that the constantly-dieting urbanites can eat fried chicken guilt-free, under the guise of ordering both. As the granddaughter of a Southern black woman who cooked brilliantly, I know from fried chicken – and readers, this is good fried chicken. The delicata squash lights up the entire dish – it tastes like candy. Further proof point: the woman next to me, also dining alone, also ordered the chicken. She ate all of the fried and none of the roasted. Case closed.
Room for dessert? But of course. The restaurant offers a cheese plate and 5 dessert options, as well as an extensive list of after-dinner drinks. I ordered the triple-chocolate cookie with milk (the apple pie was tempting but the waiter warned me “it’s really big.”) Next time! Fried chicken and apple pie? You don’t need to say that twice. I’m in.
But I must say, this cookie was delicious – warm from the oven, sprinkled with salt, with a darling little glass of milk on the side. Three kinds of chocolate, sugar, salt and butter? Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. BTW, the coffee is good, too.
As a solo diner, you can eat at the bar, or do as I did and grab a table. Either way, it’ll be a fine way to reflect on the thought-provoking art you’ve just seen, and to plot your next move.
Last but not least, we love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’ve spent many happy times with family and friends in the Members’ Dining Room with its pretty view overlooking Central Park. It’s particularly good at Sunday brunch, and we’ve found that the staff is highly accommodating if you want something that’s not on the menu (especially if you’re with kids). But we have to say, it doesn’t compare to any of these in terms of décor or food quality. So perhaps we’ll have something to look forward to at some point: new day, new restaurant at the Met? Watch this space for updates.
In the meantime, just remember this simple equation: art + food = truly luxurious experience.