The Art of Dining

At the newly reimagined Seattle Art Museum Cafe.

The Seattle Art Museum Cafe's new menu is designed to celebrate spring. Appropriately, it also celebrates art. Just getting to the cafe is like a short art lesson as one walks past SAM's ground-level exhibits and climbs the massive marble staircase to the second-floor cafe. With its high ceilings and large windows, a flood of natural light shines on diners—a mass of grade-school children, neighborhood business people, and museum staff (identifiable by badges). The atmosphere is fresh and bright in the middle of the day. Even the square, white dishes give the cafe a minimalist, artistic tone. Lunch at SAM is casual yet classy. For a taste of SAM's fresh spring ingredients, we decided to try the smoked Skagit River Ranch chicken tostada ($12) and the chicken-and-pepper half-sandwich and chilled asparagus soup ($8). Clearly, the cafe's focus on aesthetics extends to the food. The tostada was a work of art in itself: The round, crunchy, golden-fried shell was served on a square, white plate over a bed of jalapeno-honey corn salsa. Inside, a layer of shredded chicken, crunchy lettuce, red peppers, and a poblano cream sauce that looked and tasted like fancy guacamole made a colorful spread, garnished with another touch of spring—two baby slices of orange. We felt guilty destroying someone's artful arrangement with our hunger—but not for long. The salsa gave a spicy kick to the sweet and zesty tostada, and though it was difficult to differentiate the many flavors, textures, and spices, it all came together quite well. When the fairly large bowl of vichyssoise (read: cold cream of asparagus soup) arrived, we managed to pull ourselves away from the tostada, and were again taken with the artistic arrangement of the food. The white soup was speckled with spices, pickle slices lazed abstractly around the bowl, and a red pepper glowed against the stark white plate. The soup was delightfully tangy and light. After lingering over it for a minute we looked for the promised chicken-and-pepper half-sandwich. Finally, we spotted it—poached natural chicken, roasted red pepper, spinach, and herbed cream cheese in a baguette. It was so small, it was hidden behind part of the soup bowl. We tried to forget about its miniature appearance and after taking a huge bite, we realized that (a) it was almost gone and (b) it was one of the tastiest sandwiches we'd had in a while. The roasted chicken was moist and flavorful, and the peppers crunchy and fresh. Unfortunately after another couple of bites, we realized that we should have ordered the whole sandwich. We found ourselves coveting a peanut butter sandwich being enjoyed by a little boy on the cafe floor. Dessert was the only way to alleviate the situation, so we decided to share some cheesecake ($5). Not surprisingly, it looked like a piece of art—round and white with randomly placed smudges of chocolate on top. We were slightly disappointed by the lack of both crust (it was small enough to be hidden at the bottom) and firmness (the texture was a bit soggy), but the flavor was delectable. The service at the SAM cafe wasn't exceptional, but the food was brought out promptly and the dining area appeared extremely tidy and clean. Some may find this cafe a little pricey for the portion sizes, but the fresh ingredients seemed worth the extra dollar or two. Museum connoisseurs will definitely appreciate the culinary art. Seattle Art Museum Cafe, 100 University St., 206-654-3245, DOWNTOWN. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Wed., 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Fri.–Sun.

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