Museum café food has developed a reputation over the years for being more convenient than inspired, more soup-and-salad than substance.
But recently some museums across the U.S. have turned that thinking around. Either literally taking inspiration from their exhibits — where the art becomes the chef’s menu muse — or just by offering something beyond the traditional cafeteria fare, these museums are giving their patrons even more to savor beyond the galleries.
Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art recently unveiled its new restaurant, Schokko Art Café, which overlooks a sculpture garden. The restaurant takes its name from Alexej von Jawlensky’s “Schokko with Red Hat,” a painting in the museum’s permanent collection, said Nancy Colvin, marketing and communications manager for the museum.
“Schokko was the nickname of a young model who sat for a number of costumed portraits by Jawlensky during the winter of 1909 to 1910,” she said. “The nickname derived from the model’s eager acceptance of a cup of chocolate (‘schokolade’) when she sat for her portrait in Jawlensky’s studio.” If you’re a chocoholic like Schokko, rest assured that there are a number of sinful desserts available in her honor.
Palettes serves new American cuisine in a sleek, modern space and offers rotating menus inspired by what’s going on over in the museum.
The museum currently has an exhibition devoted to Samurai armor, so the complementary prix-fixe menu ($34) includes togarashi-seared ahi tuna with mango salad, lotus root and wasabi-avocado mousse; soy-lacquered salmon with black truffle rice, Japanese mushrooms and bok choy; hanger steak yakiniku with soba noodles, spring peas and a lobster-peanut coulis; a yuzu orange genoise sponge with matcha ice cream, macadamias, and white chocolate lemongrass bavarian; and a sake-poached Asian pear with plum coulis and black sesame ice cream.
Previous special menus were inspired by exhibits on artists Andrew and Jamie Wyeth and jeweler Cartier.
Executive Chef Bill Lyle of Crystal Bridges’ Eleven restaurant, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, creates a tasting menu integrating the culinary arts with the museum’s exhibits.
A current exhibition, “The Open Road: Photography and the Great American Road Trip,” includes a three-course menu that pays homage to roadside mom-and-pop diners across the U.S.
To wit: wild boar sausage and jalapeño cornbread baked in a fresh, herb-infused custard, tarragon and white wine-mustard-sauce, served with an arugula salad, inspired by the Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield, Illinois, and a bacon-wrapped black angus filet stuffed with gorgonzola, fire-roasted Hatch-chile compound butter, and duck-fat roasted potatoes, inspired by the Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Purloo, which takes its name from the lowcountry dish that includes rice plus any meat a Southern cook might have on hand, is responsible for creating the dishes that bring life to the exhibits at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.
Like the museum itself, Purloo explores the food from all the southern states — sweet potato pie, she-crab soup, Kentucky Burgoo, boiled peanuts, smothered oxtails and succotash take their place on the menu, just to mention a few. And the “beverage” part of SOFAB represents, as well, with a variety of delicious southern cocktails (The Big Payback — spotlighting a house-infused roasted peanut bourbon, is a hit).
The open kitchen fosters lively conversation between guests seated at the bar and the cooks — patrons are encouraged to ask questions.
Café Allegro’s commitment to using locally sourced and organic ingredients transcends the typical museum cafeteria options. Using the freshest seasonal meat and produce means some of the menu items change on a near-daily basis, said Executive Chef Chris Lenza.
“For example, we often will buy an entire goat that was raised by a local rancher,” he said. “Different cuts of it are then used in a wide range of ways — the bones are used to help make stock which in turn creates more flavorful soups and sauces. It’s not only a more nutritious way of creating food for museumgoers, but the dishes taste better, it’s less wasteful and it supports the local economy.”
Visitors consider the Mitsitam Cafe an extension of their cultural experience at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Indigenous foods as well as modern renditions using traditional ingredients, including turtle soup, Indian tacos, fry bread and buffalo grace the seasonal menus.
“Our cafe is more like a work-in-motion that talks about the culture. We tell that story through food,” said Executive Chef Jerome Grant, who meets regularly with members of indigenous tribes to replicate traditional recipes from various regions.
Ingredients are also sourced as much as possible from tribes, including wild rice, free-roaming heritage buffalo from native lands and even chocolate from indigenous tribes in Bolivia.
Main photos by Cameron Mitchell Premier Events and Ilya Katsnelson CC BY
Cynthia J. Drake is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer and author of Budget Travel for the Genius. Follow her on Instagram.