SAM's TASTE Restaurant Is a Most Excellent Acquisition

Museum restaurant multitasks as a spot for takeout, multicourse dinners, and downtown's new favorite lunch spot.

Great art is no longer the only thing required of a first-tier museum. A first-tier restaurant is de rigueur, too. New York's MOMA upped the ante after its 2004 renovation, when the museum unveiled three food stations, including the Modern, a three-star restaurant overseen by A-list restaurateur Danny Meyer. Our SAM, which is angling to join the A list without looking like a desperate social climber, has installed only one—TASTE Restaurant—and made it do the work of three. Daytime TASTE serves as a full-service cafe with a takeout section for nosh-and-browse art appreciators. Nighttime TASTE becomes a multiple-course restaurant with a real chef and a full bar. And it's almost a complete success. At lunch, the restaurant is in its glory: The sunlight that floods in through its western wall of tall windows loves TASTE's white-on-gray interior. So, apparently, does the downtown business crowd. Tables of women in tailored business suits mix with everyone else you'd expect to see in a museum cafe—the aging hipsters, the retired couples, the child-wrangling parents on a day trip from Spokane. Set against the backdrop of the cityscape outside, the diverse crowd enhances the naked urbanity of the room, with its cool terrazzo floors, slim brown tables on chrome bases, and chairs seemingly formed out of sheets of plywood or chain-mail fencing. There's a bit of a bustle-y cafeteria feeling to the layout, with cooks mixing salads at their exposed cooking stations, a long counter seemingly for drawing your tray along, and a to-go bank of packaged sandwiches and drinks near the museum door. Counteracting that impression are the black-shirted waiters and bussers who zoom from table to table, trying to keep up with lunch's compressed time demands. The food matches the urbanity of the decor: Fat asparagus stalks and puffs of melted goat cheese marble the surface of a frittata, whose texture resembles soft scrambled eggs. A bowl of spring pea soup, its vegetal sweetness followed by the lemony tang of pureed sorrel leaves, is topped with swirls of crème fraîche and herb oil. Chef Christopher Conville may have dreamt up his menus wandering around SAM's minimalism collection, because he has a marked love for stripping things down to their elements: All the components of his salmon salad niçoise are lined up on a long, narrow plate like a taxonomy of niçoiseness—the green and yellow beans, the tiny olives, the grilled salmon fillet, the dressed greens. He does the same to a chèvre tartlet, covering a sweet biscuit with whipped goat cheese, then separating out its topping into a dollop of sweet-tart ginger-rhubarb compote and a thin sheet of pecan praline. Given the lunch rush, the cooks didn't follow through on all of the details—they should have passed the soup through a tamis (screen) to transform it from a thick puree into a velvety one, and the salmon could have come off the grill a minute before—but since their flavors all came through beautifully, the flubs barely detracted from the overall success of the meal. Lunch at TASTE costs about $25 a person if you go for dessert and a glass of wine, and half that if you're sticking to sandwiches and iced tea. That's extremely reasonable for (a) all-organic, mostly local ingredients and (b) museum food. SAM had the good sense to farm out responsibility for TASTE to what may be the nation's best corporate catering company—Bon Appétit (which also manages the cafes at the Asian Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park). Based in Palo Alto, Calif., Bon Appétit runs 400 food-service operations in 28 states—everything from the student cafeteria at Whitman College in Walla Walla to Nordstrom's corporate headquarters in Seattle, as well as a number of other museum cafes on the West Coast. The company works with sustainable-seafood groups and anti-factory-farming activists to select good meat and eggs and promotes sourcing of local, seasonal ingredients—all good in the eyes of at least some clients. The bottles on its wine list come exclusively from Washington and Oregon. Though TASTE's chef, Conville, has made his career in corporate catering, the fare he puts out at dinner rivals most of the restaurants in town for creativity, relevance, and looks. It also tastes fantastic. SAM being a modern museum, everything on the dinner menu can be ordered as a small plate or an entrée. My friends and I, being modern eaters, made a meal of small plates, which the waiter divided into courses. First, he brought our disassembled salad (tiny greens in one pile, skinny haricots verts in another, a nubbin of blue cheese in front of both) as well as a cake of barley risotto, held together with montesano cheese and a little truffle oil and capped in a sweet tangle of sauteed spring onions. A scallop "strudel," served in the second set of plates, was the kitchen's only misstep: They'd wrapped each fat mollusk in a single layer of phyllo and baked the little packets. The scallops may have been perfectly cooked, but there wasn't enough of that crackly, feathery wrapping to call it a real strudel, and the seafood needed something bright or acidic to set it off. But the rest? Some of the most polished food I've eaten in months. A dense, well-roasted guinea fowl breast, its skin crackly brown, came with braised baby greens, a meaty reduction sauce, and a pool of creamy, Parmesan-spiked turnip puree that knocked our socks off. A slab of pork belly, its fat and lean layers braised into a succulent mass of meat, was smothered in caramelized onions and stewed rhubarb. Seared St. John's albacore, set atop a fat cake of bread-crumb-dusted cauliflower gratin, was well matched by a gumdrop-shaped mound of chimichurri sauce, a sharp parsley-shallot pesto. And for dessert, a little more deconstruction: This time, Conville dissolved a blueberry buckle into its constituent parts—a triangle of cake, a pot of tart lemon custard, a spoonful of stewed blueberries, and a tiny rod of baked meringue. Savored both separately and together, we deconstructed the buckle even further, leaving only a few molecules of sugar on the plate. And yet, with the museum closed and night falling, all this accomplished food was failed by its surroundings. Everything that made the room so great in the sunlight hours—the slick surfaces, quasi-monochromatic palette, Design Within Reach chairs—turned cold, and the votives on the tables didn't have enough magic in them to soften the room's austerity. The cooks who'd bustled away out front during the lunch hour retreated into the enclosed kitchen, and their display stations looked more and more like a deserted cafeteria line. It's a shame. Nighttime TASTE feels so institutional that I worry customers won't want to return, leaving the kitchen without the regular clientele it deserves. Allied Works Architecture has designed SAM to beautifully frame its art collection; too bad they couldn't do the same for its first-tier food.

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