The Art of the Meal
After a hard morning of relishing Rothkos and viewing Van Goghs, take time out to appreciate a culinary masterpiece or two. Five of the state’s best museums have cafes worthy of their collections, with menus ranging from the classic to the postmodern.
Back in the olden days, art museums did not have restaurants. Why would anyone eat at a museum? That made about as much sense as taking a picture with a telephone. But modern life is all about changing paradigms, and museums now give as much thought to designing their dining rooms as to planning their galleries. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2004 after an extensive makeover, its dining options got almost more press than its redo.
In Texas, the unwritten rule that forbade eating in the vicinity of great art was breached by the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, in 1981. Soon, tourists and townies alike were crowding into its popular buffet. The tide had turned, and when it came time to add a new wing or building, museums began to allot serious space to feeding the hordes. “Refreshments will be served” became the mantra of any museum worth its Alexander Calder mobile.
What awaits the famished Texas art lover today? Happily, you can dine without leaving the air-conditioned comfort of the building at five art institutions in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Three other cities—Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio—lag behind, although the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, plans to catch up next spring. To size up the offerings, I traveled the state, eating Moroccan chicken salad in Fort Worth, veggie burgers in Houston, and tempura shrimp in Dallas. For those museums without cafes, I did a little off-site foraging, picking a favorite restaurant that was within walking distance or a short drive. Here’s what’s on the menu for your next cultural and gastronomical tour of Texas.
Seventeen Seventeen and Atrium Cafe Dallas Museum of Art
If you have the money, honey, not to mention the time, the place to eat at the Dallas Museum of Art is Seventeen Seventeen. You might even need reservations, because it’s popular with downtown power brokers in suits and ties and curator types in black clothes and arty eyewear. While a friend and I waited for our food, we conversed over blessedly subdued music and enjoyed the setting, a minimalist white room looking out onto a terrace and the city beyond. Chef Mike Dimas’s daily specials run to the likes of mahimahi with red pepper—dill butter sauce, while his regular menu (which changes about four times a year) lists main courses such as a pecan-crusted chicken breast with a maple glaze and a pan-roasted tenderloin in a shallot demi-glace.
Our entrée salads were the perfect antidote to a blistering hot day. Mine was a mound of varied fresh lettuces served in a rice-paper basket, like an Asian tortilla bowl; the greens were adorned with four hefty, crisp-fried tempura shrimp in a sweetish Thai chile vinaigrette. I loved it. My friend ordered the monster Upside Down Cobb Salad. While the mixed greens were a little wet, that deficiency was balanced by a bounty of blue cheese, cooked egg, and mashed avocado, plus applewood-smoked bacon and cured salmon (alternative protein choices being ribeye or smoked chicken).
For dessert, we followed our unwavering rule: When panna cotta is offered, you must accept. Chef Dimas’s light, silky custard was infused with a shot of fresh lemon juice and surrounded by a heap of blueberries. Not a bad reward for a pathetic lack of willpower.
As for the museum’s other venue, the Atrium Café, let me be candid: This is where you eat if you’re either in a hurry or have done your parental duty by force-feeding culture to a bunch of kids. It’s inexpensive and fast, and it occupies a wonderful, soaring space decked out with fantastic glass vessels by artist Dale Chihuly. But as for the food— sandwiches, soups, salads, tacos, desserts—the words “supermarket cafe” spring to mind. Enough said. 1717 N. Harwood. Seventeen Seventeen, 214-515-5179. Lunch Tue–Fri 11–2. Closed Sun, Mon, & Sat. Atrium Café, 214-922-1835. Open Tue & Wed 11–2, Thur 11–8, Fri 11–2, Sat & Sun 11–3. Closed Mon.
Nasher Cafe by Wolfgang Puck Nasher Sculpture Center
I dearly wanted Nasher Cafe’s food to be great, because the little dining room is so sleek and stylish. One entire wall is glass, giving you a view of the garden and its amazing statuary, including Jonathan Borofsky’s vision of fiberglass people walking up a pole and into the sky. The dining room is open and airy, with white freesias on the tables. Even the Scandinavian-designed flatware is slick. So imagine how disappointed my friend and I were when the interesting menu turned out to be decidedly flawed.
Oh, it wasn’t all terrible. But it wasn’t what it should have been for a cafe operated by Wolfgang Puck Catering, a company that runs museum restaurants around the country. And, actually, the first dish we tried was excellent, a tangy, slightly chunky tomato soup that tasted of bountiful summer gardens. It was lovely, but after that, things went downhill.
At the clerk’s suggestion—you order at a small, well-designed counter—I got a ham-and-cheese panini. The alleged Spanish serrano ham turned out to be the pinkest, most ordinary version of that mahogany-hued meat I’ve ever seen, and the sandwich’s touted mustard aioli was undetectable to the eye or palate. As for my friend’s entrée, the crisp, golden-brown chicken breast looked pretty and smelled divine, but the meat was tragically overcooked. We had hopes for the side dish of mashed potatoes, but while they tasted great, they were nearly as liquid as cream gravy. The last item on the plate was a precise arrangement of grilled asparagus spears, and I’m happy to report that they were delightful—all three of them.
By this time, we were fairly demoralized, so we decided to restore our good cheer by splitting a tarte Tatin. Being a foe of overly sweet desserts, I hate to say this, but it needed more sugar. On the plus side, though, we could really taste the apples, and the puff pastry was properly buttery and flaky. I’m not sure Wolfie would be proud, but at least he wouldn’t be totally embarrassed to be associated with it. 2001 Flora at Harwood, 214-242-5110. Open Tue & Wed 11–4, Thur 11–8, Fri–Sun 11–4. Closed Mon.
Buffet at the Kimbell Kimbell Art Museum
Locals call it the lunch line, but that hardly does justice to the Kimbell’s small but soul-satisfying array of soups, salads, and desserts. Yes, you do walk through the Buffet at the Kimbell’s short cafeteria line. But you forget that mundane detail once you’re seated in the long room with its high ceilings and creamy Italian marble walls. In a central atrium a few feet away, flower beds of pink caladiums surround sculptor Aristide Maillol’s semi-reclining bronze nude (it always bothers me that the poor thing is teetering on one hip and looks as if she might fall off her pedestal at any minute).
The chef and manager of the dining room is 25-year veteran Shelby Schafer, and of all the dishes she does, soups are my favorite. If the chilled guacamole soup is offered the day you visit, get a mugful; it’s as tart and pungent as gazpacho. In fact, if the hearty chicken, sausage, and mushroom combo is also on the menu, have two soups. I could eat that one winter or summer, rain or shine.
Proceeding on down the line, you should definitely help yourself to the old-fashioned curried chicken salad. Another quaint option is the quiche, though this one is actually modern, with basil pesto stirred into a feta- and cheddar-enriched custard. By comparison, the smoked-turkey sandwich seems perfunctory, even with multigrain bread.
By this time, you’ve come to the dessert lineup, which when we visited consisted of two cakes and a cherry-pecan brownie. The one we liked best was the plain, granny-worthy yellow cake, oddly called an Italian cream cake. If you typically skip dessert at noon and you happen to be in town on a Friday evening, come back for coffee and a sweet (or for dinner, offered once a week). A jazzy guitar-and-bass duo played when I was there, making a nice conclusion to a busy week. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., 817-332-8451. Lunch Tue–Thur 11:30–2, Fri noon–2, Sat 11:30–2, Sun noon–2. Dinner Fri 5:30–7:30. Beverages and desserts Tue–Thur 2–4, Fri 2–5:30, Sat & Sun 2–4. Closed Mon.
Cafe Modern Modern Art Museum
I always have great conversations at Café Modern, and I’m convinced it has something to do with the setting: glass walls wrapping around a smart but comfy dining room; a shallow, Zenish lake outside; and the monumental museum building itself reflected in the shimmering water. Makes the mind relax, or expand, or something. Whatever the secret, the cafe is popular, bringing in residents and museumgoers alike. Chef Dena Peterson’s food always sounds interesting and is often made with locally grown ingredients. On top of that, the prices are manageable; it’s hard to pay more than $15 for an entrée and sides at lunch.
Speaking of conversations, I heard all about a colleague’s French river-barge trip while I devoured a fantastically flavorful curried Moroccan chicken breast crusted in pistachios. It was served chilled on romaine lettuce with feta and a light lemon vinaigrette, and it was so good that I could readily believe that customers won’t let Peterson take it off the menu. But while my entrée was flawless, my friend’s squash blossom quesadilla was not: Barely lukewarm, it was also apparently devoid of squash blossoms (the waiter said there were mounds of the little cuties in the kitchen, but we deconstructed her entrée and could find nary a one).
The next evening (the dining room does dinner one Friday a month) I lucked out again with a perfectly cooked filet mignon in a satiny demi-glace bolstered with—are you ready?—Dr Pepper. Don’t cringe; it’s like adding port to a demi. On this visit, another globe-hopping friend made me green with envy by rattling on about her forthcoming trip to Turkey. (If you must know, I thought it was a little bit tacky that neither one of them wanted to hear about my fabulous trip to West Texas.) That night, she got the only truly disappointing dish we sampled: sadly overcooked braised duck accompanied by cannonball-like cornmeal-bacon dumplings. But we had no problems with our desserts. Her Ultimate Banana Pudding came in a martini glass with buttered rum sauce and toasted pound cake croutons, and I was completely happy with my great, soupy rhubarb-berry crumble under a crisp topping that reminded me of granola. 3200 Darnell, 817-840-2157. Lunch Tue–Fri 11–2:30, Sat 11–3. Dinner first Fri of every month 6:30–8. Sun brunch 11–3. Coffee bar Tue–Sat 10–4:30, Sun 11–4:30. Closed Mon.
Cafe Express Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
What is this, the ticket queue for some Egyptian mummy blockbuster? There are two lines with twenty or more people in each one, and we’re standing here starving. Move it, you all! Cafe Express, which runs the food concession for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is hardly la-di-da, but then, it isn’t trying to be. A Houston-based chain with additional locations in Dallas and Fort Worth, it occupies the middle ground between “fast” and “nice”: You order at a counter and are issued a pager, which has a conniption fit when your food is ready.
The large, casual space on the lower level is functional but well designed, with arty faux palm trees and brightly colored tables. I quite like the menu’s wide range of generous salads, sandwiches, soups, and pastas and its handful of entrées. And I absolutely adore the condiment bar in the middle of the room, where you can load up your lunch with scandalous amounts of imported olives, grated Parmesan, Italian peppers, red-wine vinegar, croutons, capers, jalapeños, pickled sun-dried tomatoes, bread sticks, fresh basil, and more.
Although my friend and I could have ordered a substantial main course, like grilled Mediterranean salmon with roasted artichoke hearts, we decided to go light. The veggie burger proved to be the typical patty on a bun, all right but nothing fabulous, along with varied fresh fruit. The Greek salad was a considerable step up, with romaine and plenty of feta cheese, kalamata olives, red onions, and sliced grilled chicken. From the condiment bar, I poured on about a gallon of lemon-flavored olive oil, no doubt causing a major profit loss for the day.
We considered indulging in bread pudding for dessert but decided instead to split a peanut butter cookie, which was good but not destined for greatness. As we were leaving, I noticed a separate order counter for box lunches. Next time, I’m getting one, and a glass of wine, and heading over to the museum’s sculpture garden for my own personal picnic under a tree. Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main, 713-639-7370. Open Tue & Wed 11–5, Thur 11–9, Fri–Sun 11–7. Closed Mon.
FIVE MINUTES AWAY
Dining has not come to all of the major museums in the state, but good eats are within an easy walk or drive.
Near the Austin Museum of Art
Although Cibo, half a block away, is one of Austin’s better Italian restaurants, for greater variety and good prices, you should walk two and a half blocks to Louie’s 106, a business lunchers’ haven with burnished wood paneling and marble floors. It offers an excellent rotisserie chicken plate with mashed potatoes and garlicky sautéed spinach, and the mussels dijonnaise have few peers. 106 E. Sixth, 512-476-2010. Open Mon—Thur 11:30—10:30, Fri 11:30—11, Sat 6—11, Sun 6—9:30.
Near the Blanton Museum of Art
With its attractive rough-limestone walls, the Clay Pit looks like the old mercantile store it once was. Besides the affordable Indian lunch buffet, there are specialties like khuroos-e-tursh, chicken breast rolled around spinach in a cashew-almond cream sauce. Tip: The restaurant is about half a mile away, and if you walk south along Congress Avenue from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, you can enjoy a view of Texas’s majestic state capitol. 1601 Guadalupe, 512-322-5131. Lunch Mon—Fri 11—2, Sat noon—3. Dinner Sun—Thur 5—10, Fri & Sat 5—11.
Near the El Paso Museum of Art
A block and a half away is Café Central, arguably the city’s most elite dining spot. Here movers, shakers, and social mavens mingle in an elegant cream-and-black room filled with original art. The green-chile cream soup is a classic, and you will need extra sourdough bread to mop up the savory juices of the clams steamed in Dos Equis beer. 109 N. Oregon, 915-545-2233. Lunch Mon—Sat 11—4. Dinner Mon—Thur 5—10:30, Fri & Sat 5—11:30. Closed Sun.
Near the Amon Carter Museum
The Amon Carter is temporarily closed for repairs, but when it reopens around the middle of August, you can take a break from the art by driving to Gloria’s, less than a mile away, for sustenance (and of course, you can always eat at the nearby Modern or Kimbell). Part of a local chain offering Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine, this upscale edition has lipstick-red walls and sidewalk seating. Try the pupusas—chunky, pocketlike tortillas stuffed with pork, cheese, or both. Montgomery Plaza, 2600 W. Seventh, 817-332-8800. Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11.
Near the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
The simplest solution is to eat at the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but it’s an adventure to stroll to the Tart Cafe, located less than half a mile away in a modern building that houses contemporary art galleries. The counter-order menu offers all tarts all the time—plus a few salads and sandwiches—served up in a casual, tall room with nine concrete-topped tables, black banquettes, and zoomy-looking white vinyl chairs. 4411 Montrose Blvd., 713-526-8278. Open Mon—Sat 11—9. Closed Sun.
Near the Menil Collection
Tucked into a convivial if sometimes cacophonous cottage less than half a mile away is Da Marco, the best Italian restaurant in the city. Specialties have included Chianti-braised short ribs and risotto laced with Norcia truffles (the black diamonds of truffledom). 1520 Westheimer Rd., 713-807-8857. Lunch Tue—Fri 11:30—2. Dinner Tue—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11. Closed Sun & Mon.
Near the McNay Art Museum
Drive, we said, four fifths of a mile to Silo Elevated Cuisine, a relaxed but refined cafe in a converted older building (the entrance is at the rear, upstairs). Do not refuse come-ons for the chicken-fried oysters with mustard hollandaise or the seared sea scallops with saffron beurre blanc. Resistance is futile. 1133 Austin Hwy., 210-824-8686. Lunch 7 days 11—2:30. Dinner 7 days 5:30—10. Sun brunch 11—3.
Near the San Antonio Museum of Art
The museum has a snack bar but not a restaurant. Luckily, Liberty Bar is just a mile away, so head for this stupendously quirky hot spot for sophisticated but homey cuisine. The appetizer of goat cheese in a lush sauce of morita chiles and Mexican raw sugar can make grown men weep, and regular customers salute the trinity of God, Mother, and Virginia Green’s Chocolate Cake. 328 E. Josephine, 210-227-1187. Open Mon—Thur 11—10:30, Fri 11—midnight, Sat 10:30—midnight, Sun 10:30—10:30.