Dustin Van Orne

Curating Culinary Excellence

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In museum restaurants, food mirrors art.
By Judith A. Stock November 2013 Restaurant Design

Museum restaurants provide an optimum venue for displaying the artistic attributes of cuisine. From Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum to Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a number have struck the perfect blend of food and design.

Getting it Wright

The Wright opened in 2009 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on a mission to provide premier cuisine and service in an upscale environment within a world-famous museum.

Since then, The Wright received the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design, and in 2011, received a 20+ rating in the Zagat Survey for its new American cuisine. Opened to the public for lunch and Sunday brunch only, the dinner hours are reserved exclusively for private parties.

Executive chef Rodolfo Contreras, raised in Mexico City, stepped into the restaurant business at the age of 9, working for his mother’s catering service. As a graduate of New York City’s French Culinary Institute, Contreras’ modern and light dishes establish a menu that reflects culinary vision.

“We always look to tie in one or two menu items that resemble our current exhibit,” says Contreras. “I use fresh ingredients to create beautiful food that’s intriguing to guests, much like art. For instance, my Yellow and Red Tomato Gazpacho reminds me of the spiraling ramps of the museum.”

Testament to the synergy of design and food coming together, Contreras says, “The presentation of the food is one of the most important things to me as a chef, and one of the most enjoyable.”

Multi-Sensory Menus

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), in Richmond, reopened its doors on May 1, 2010, following a five-year renovation period and the biggest expansion in the museum’s 76-year history. The renovation included a new gallery and special event space with a full-service dining facility, the Amuse Restaurant.

Designed by Rick Mather, a London-based architect, the post-modern addition is constructed of steel, concrete, and glass. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls create a dramatic first impression showcasing the Sculpture Garden to the west and providing the best view of Richmond’s historic Museum District neighborhood, along with a panoramic view of the entire city.

Restaurant guests have the option to dine outside on the third-floor, cantilevered balcony that overlooks the reflecting pool and gardens, including the Dale Chihuly “Red Reeds” installation, or inside gazing out the windowed walls.

Like Contreras, VMFA’s chef de cuisine Greg Haley began working at his family’s restaurant at the age of 12, and was promoted to the sauté line at 14. “At Amuse, we like to keep our menu flexible to reflect the special exhibitions that are on view in the museum,” says Haley. “We want each menu item to be artfully presented, multi-sensory, and satisfying.”

The first themed menu occurred in 2011 when VMFA hosted “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris.” To leverage the opportunity, Haley says, “We incorporated Mediterranean ingredients into our menu since Picasso spent most of his life in Spain and France.”

Two examples were the Pan Roasted Escolar, with roasted fennel Provencal, olive tapenade, and couscous, and the Grilled Salmon atop a Spanish-style cocido, with lamb sausage, chickpeas, spinach, and mint crème fraiche.

“We also purchased an old-fashioned Absinthe ice-drip and began serving the Bohemian high-alcohol digestif in the proper tradition,” says Michael Smith, restaurant manager. “The theme was subtle and understated, but guests were tickled by the menu’s nod toward European food and drink.”

Global Influences

The Lone Star State boasts Café Modern, which is tucked inside the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth inside the city’s cultural district. Nestled next to a reflecting pool, the restaurant has a magnificent view of “Conjoined” by Roxy Paine—a massive 40-ft. by 45-ft. sculpture of two trees whose branches cantilever in space to connect in mid-air.

Executive chef Dena Peterson, who trained at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, takes the cuisine to new heights as well. “I consider our menu to be global, since I incorporate flavors from around the world,” explains Peterson. “But as a Fort Worth native, my dishes often have a hint of Southern fusion.”

When The Modern opened the exhibit “México Inside Out: Themes in Art Since 1990” in September, Café Modern used the exhibit as inspiration to feature authentic Mexican cuisine that would extend the guest experience.

“Every dish on our menu is a collaboration of our incredible staff,” explains Peterson. “Like a studio full of artists, our kitchen is similar as we bounce ideas off each other, offer opinions, and constantly come up with adjustments and new flavor combinations.”

Favorite dishes include fried soft-shell crab with creamy edamame succotash and Tabasco gastrique, and ancho-coffee rubbed steak with chilled avocado purée and peach pico de gallo.

The saying that everything is bigger in Texas isn’t lost on this restaurant with its big taste, stunning design, and outsized creativity. However, the ambiance in Café Modern is calm, with cool tones of blues and grays, and the adjacent reflecting pool creates a serene atmosphere that allows Peterson the opportunity to create contrast on the plate with bright colors and textures.

More than Meets the Eye

Overlooking California’s Monterey Bay, every table at Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a dramatic ocean view. In fact, visitors to the aquarium see the breathtaking vistas before they even set foot into Cindy’s Waterfront. Stepping up to the plate with equally stunning cuisine is a large order, but one that was effectively executed by the aquarium’s partnership with the restaurant’s namesake and culinary icon, Cindy Pawlcyn.

Although Cindy’s Waterfront just opened in April, Pawlcyn has been the aquarium’s culinary partner since 2010 and has built a 30-year reputation as one of California’s leading chefs. She was the creator of the James Beard Award-winning Mustards Grill in Napa Valley, as well as a number of other acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants, and alongside Jeff Rogers, executive chef at Cindy’s Waterfront, created a menu focused on seasonal comfort foods for the upscale restaurant at the Aquarium.

Rogers, also a former guest chef at the James Beard Foundation in New York, says Cindy’s Waterfront offers dishes that play to the restaurant’s unique waterfront location—like a lemon tart designed to resemble an octopus and a meringue-topped campfire pie that evokes images of ocean waves—and that are equally respective of the environment. In a nod to sustainable practices, the restaurant follows the standards set by the aquarium’s Seafood Watch guideline that tells what seafood to eat and buy.

“Our desserts are very expressive,” he acknowledges, “but in many dishes it’s the quality and freshness of the ingredients that make the dish beautiful.”

Taking advantage of the huge windows with expansive views was clearly an objective for the restaurant that opened in April, but the aquarium also wanted to leverage that opportunity of diners looking out over the water and watching harbor seals, sea otters, dolphin pods, and passing whales to reinforce the connection between the seafood on their plates and sustainability issues.

Whether surrounded by nature, bigger-than-life installations, or art from the masters, museum restaurants have a special calling to present exquisitely plated cuisine that reinforces whatever cultural experience has brought guests to the venue.