Field Notes: Two Museum Restaurants
In looking at the connection between art and food and examining how fine dining functions in museum restaurants for this week's review of Saul (200 Eastern Parkway, 718-638-5000), I had one thought that was particularly badgering: Despite whatever visual constructs a museum restaurant's food might share with its works, the end goal of food is, ultimately, to taste good. To that effect, Saul is a great fit for the Brooklyn Museum. Bolton's plating is playful and occasionally wild -- entree sauces pool amorphously on the plate, with ingredients positioned into naturalistic abstraction. Moreover, his rustic flavors work well with the interpretation of that visual style. Without drawing too many conceptual parallels, I visited two other museum restaurants for a double entendre-filled taste of culture.
Five-year-old Robert (2 Columbus Circle, 212-299-7730) glows like a radioactive time capsule from its ninth floor perch atop the Museum of Arts and Design, with food that feels dated even if the Columbus Circle views keep drawing a crowd. The majority of the dining room is pushed up against the windows, making space for a Jetsons-esque lounge of curved banquettes and silver mesh-topped tables paired with translucent plastic chairs. Stepping off the elevator teleports you into a baby boomer version of "the future," but, unfortunately, the retro food doesn't exactly gel with the colorful surroundings. Slipshod tuna carpaccio "pizza" was DOA, with decent-if-nondescript fish sliced thin over criminally brittle triangles of puff pastry served next to a plop of spicy aioli. Under the weight of hefty rounds of cucumber, the pastry fell apart and left us pawing at tuna slices like an emotionally damaged house cat. Basics, like roast chicken with black garlic or salmon are a safer bet. There's also a savory fowl-filled pie served with stewed mushrooms that makes Robert worth a detour if you're patronizing the museum.
Still, though Saul is doing great things at the Brooklyn Museum, it's hard not to make a comparison to Danny Meyer's MoMA triumph. After almost a decade in business, The Modern (9 West 53rd Street, 212-333-1220) is in a league of its own, and my feelings for it are much the same as my pre-teen feelings towards A League of Their Own's Geena Davis. These are the final days of chef Gabriel Kreuther's reign in the kitchen before Abram Bissell takes over in March, and both bar and dining rooms continue to perform at top level. Whereas Bolton's plating can be freeform, the Alsatian-born Kreuther's food evokes beauty through restraint. Shapes are definitive even if ingredients and flavors often veer into tangential conjugation. Puffed barley adds welcome crunch to a puck of salmon tartare brightened with citrus segments and cilantro geleé. Warm shredded veal and goat cheese studded with toasted pistachios came shaped as a terrine with verdant watercress sauce. The kitchen saves most of the theatrics for the dining room (which has since eclipsed the bar room as the better of the two spaces), but dishes like Kreuther's beloved tarte flambée -- available with creme fraiche, onion, and bacon or chives, Comté cheese, and hen of the woods mushrooms -- make it hard to venture past the opaque partition. Kreuther will soon run his own French-American restaurant, and The Modern will no doubt get a revamp under Bissell, who started his career in Kreuther's kitchen.