Art you can stomach

A critique of the region's art-museum cuisine.

Art makes me hungry. There's just something about the delicate lines of a 17th-century Dutch portrait that makes my tummy rumble. A couple of Rothkos and I need a candy bar. And just the anticipation of seeing a De Kooning makes me want a glass of wine and a five-course meal. It's a terrible condition to have one's aesthetics bound and linked to one's appetite. Fortunately, Seattle's finer museums also house some of this area's more unique cafe experiences: The Kado Tea Garden in the Seattle Asian Art Museum; the Cafe at the Seattle Art Museum; the Gallery Cafe at the Frye Art Museum; and La Batelle in the Bellevue Square food court—the closest thing to a museum cafe at the Bellevue Art Museum. Join me on a tour. . . . Kado Tea Garden

1400 E Prospect St

Volunteer Park, Seattle

Thu-Sun 11-4:30 The Cafe at the Seattle Art Museum

100 University St

Downtown, Seattle

Tue-Sun 10-5, Thu 10-9 The Gallery Cafe at the Frye Art Museum

704 Terry Ave

First Hill, Seattle

Tue-Sat 11-4, Thu 11-7:30 (tea time, 2-5), Sun noon-4 La Batelle at Bellevue Square

126 Bellevue Wy

Bellevue Square

Mon-Sat 8-9:30, Sun 9-7 Kado Tea Garden After taking in Eugene Sung's collection of Chinese snuff bottles, a cup of Wu Wei really hits the spot. The Kado Tea Garden is a small room that's a short flight of stairs from SAAM's main entrance. For me, "Tea Garden" conjures up an image of pseudo-Asian decor—paper lanterns, ceramic Buddhas, painted silk screens. The Kado avoids this clich鬠albeit at the expense of any decoration at all. The windowless, linoleum-tiled room feels like an institution. A couple of paper butterflies hangs from the ceiling and a series of 5-inch-by-5-inch collages are exhibited on the wall, but the fake plants and cheap track lighting take away from any ambiance the room might have. That said, I urge you to go. Whether you are a tea-drinking diehard or an occasional sipper, Kado offers one of the largest tea selections in all of Seattle. The menu is loaded, with more than 70 varieties. A pot of tea costs around $3, and other yummies—the lavender shortbread, for example, or the humbow with dipping sauce—are equally well priced. The menu is small and not very accommodating if you're looking for lunch, but it's great for a light afternoon nosh. The staff is knowledgeable and prepared to make recommendations. The Cafe at SAM The architects of the Seattle Art Museum should receive a prize for their design of SAM's cafe. Halfway up the grand staircase between the main entrance and the exhibition floors, the cafe sits on a mezzanine among Ming dynasty statues of camels and warriors. The museum's south wall is glass, affording the cafe plenty of light. The cafe offers a seasonal menu of hot and cold entr饳, sandwiches, and various desserts, cookies, and biscotti. My partner Chris and I went for a quick weekday lunch and were surprised at the cafe's speedy turnaround. Even at the busy lunch hour, not more than 10 minutes passed from the time we ordered and the time our meals arrived. I ordered the alder-smoked salmon chowder and the turkey on nine-grain with fresh mango and cilantro mayonnaise. Chris ordered the link sausage sandwich with peperonata on sun-dried-tomato bread. Our sandwiches were presented neatly on a plate garnished with a wild rice and barley salad. My chowder was thick and creamy, full of flavor, and filled with chunks of salmon and potato. The turkey sandwich was a little intimidating at first. The SAM slices its bread thick and stacks meats and other assorted goodies high. Of all the museum cafes we visited, the Cafe at SAM feels the least connected to its museum. Yet the disconnect is welcome, with the cafe's energy being a nice contrast to the calm of the galleries. Because of where it is on the staircase—the main route to and from the exhibits—it is a great spot for people watching. (This can be a mixed blessing, though; on the day of our visit, a few hundred high school students were making their way up and down and sometimes back up the stairs.) Lunch for two came to around $20, and members receive a 10 percent discount. The weekend is busy—expect to work your way through a healthy line. The Gallery Cafe at the Frye The Frye Art Museum is located on First Hill between Swedish Hospital and Harborview Medical Center. At lunchtime on weekdays, the cafe is packed with nurses, doctors, and other assorted medical staff. Hospital gossip is high. At noon, the line to order is a little long. Diana, a medical secretary and my lunch date, suggested we mull about the museum a little and wait for the line to ease up a bit. One of the perks of the Frye is its free admission. One of the downsides is that the paintings tend to be a little boring. Don't get me wrong—I loved the Steven Assael exhibit, his portraits of New York street life, his bold use of light. But 19th-century landscapes, of which the Frye has an endless supply, are hardly the kind of paintings that stimulate an appetite. By 1pm, the line in the Gallery Cafe had wound down, and Diana and I went in to order. The cafe is an open, airy space with floor-to-ceiling windows sporting views of downtown and the Frye's celebrated standing pools. Outdoor seating is available. The menu consists of a short collection of rather simple food, under thematic headings like "Limited Editions," "Quick Studies," and "Permanent Collection." I ordered the salade ni缯I>oise, a Mediterranean-style tuna and potato salad, and a glass of Pasco Grion. Diana got the roasted chicken with onions over rice, and a beer. We found a table in the southwest corner of the cafe that was so bright we had to wear sunglasses. Diana said her roasted chicken was a little dry, but the onions and rice were particularly savory, with a solid yet subtle flavor that tickled her tongue. My salad was an impressive entr饠in and of itself: a generous serving of tuna, pitted calamata olives, and string beans delicately cooked. It was one of the better salades ni篩se I'd had in a while. The service was good; our food was brought out fairly quickly, and my only complaint was that my wine was served in a water glass. The Gallery Cafe has a full espresso bar and a short dessert menu. Unlike other museum cafes, its short menu has few snack items, so if you go, go for lunch. Expect to spend around $25 for lunch for two. La Batelle On a rainy Saturday, Chris and I headed to Bellevue Square for the ultimate museum-in-a-mall experience. The Bellevue Art Museum doesn't have a cafe, but one of the (sometimes dubious) benefits of the mall venue is its food court. Just off the first floor elevator stop is La Batelle. The menu there is peppered with faux-French snacks like grilled portobello mushroom sandwiches, French onion soup, salade ni篩se. Chris ordered a curry chicken salad sandwich, and I ordered a rustic tarte and a Perrier that came in an oversized, red tumbler—the kind you get at Pizza Hut. The woman at the counter gave us a small plastic table hat with "62" written in bold black numbers. La Batelle aspires to be a French bakery and cafe, but it's not that different from any other food-court institution. To its credit, though, the blue-and-white checkerboard tablecloths are polyester, and the chairs are genuine Paris—too small for my butt and made of a rickety wicker that wobbles when I sit. For added effect, the proprietors have jammed as many tables as possible in the small seating area, giving La Batelle that claustrophobic, Left Bank feel. When the waiter brought my tarte, he seemed to know nothing about the whereabouts of Chris's curry chicken sandwich. We waited a few minutes and reflected on the Attila Richard Lukacs painting, "A Portrait of Lovers." But when the sandwich didn't arrive, we engaged no less than three employees, each of whom knew nothing about chicken curry or sandwiches. Eventually, we were referred to Priscilla, a veteran staff member who found Chris' sandwich and a free lemon pastry for our trouble. My rustic tarte was savory and flavorful, layered with cheese, spinach, and a delicately smoked ham. It was served with a generous salad of greens topped with sliced cucumbers, grated zucchini, and carrots. Chris approved of the troublesome chicken curry sandwich, delighted that the curry was flavorful but not overpowering, and that the tomatoes were fresh. La Batelle has a full espresso bar that is reasonably priced. Lunch for two is approximately $20 and worth the cramped seating and ditzy staff. La Batelle also serves a High Tea between 3 and 5e in the afternoon, which for $11.95, includes crumpets, finger sandwiches, and minipastries—a nice accompaniment to an afternoon at BAM.

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