Striving to raise the museum cafe to a fine art
"Expect to be Amazed," trumpets the ad copy for the fabulously redone Seattle Art Museum. Yet what's most amazing about its ambitious new...
Special to The Seattle Times
Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; 206-903-5291
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Tuesdays- Sundays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; happy hour 3-6 p.m. (closed Mondays).
Prices: Lunch $4-$14; dinner small plates $5-$16, large plates $16-$28.
Drinks: Full bar; exclusively Northwest wines offered by the taste, glass, half-bottle or bottle.
Parking: On street or in nearby garages.
Who should go: The downtown lunch bunch; happy-hour deal- seekers; museum members get a 10 percent discount — and it's kid-friendly.
Cards: All major credit cards.
Access: No obstacles.
"Expect to be Amazed," trumpets the ad copy for the fabulously redone Seattle Art Museum. Yet what's most amazing about its ambitious new ground-floor restaurant, Taste, is its lack of visual excitement. The Queen of Narnia might feel at home dining in this chilly, white space. But this daughter of Eve finds it stark.
The fully exposed, stainless-steel kitchen eclipses the dining room's virtues — clean lines, big windows, a sleek bar — and creates the unfortunate effect of making the restaurant seem like the institutional cafeteria it is trying so hard not to be.
Still there are lots of good reasons to have a taste of Taste and just about all of them are on a plate or in a glass. General Manager Danielle Custer, executive chef Christopher Conville and sous chef Craig Hetherington, of the Bon Appetit Management Co., collaborate to produce a contemporary menu that flaunts local and organic ingredients and encourages customers to flout the customs of restaurant ordering.
Consider "A Flight and Bites" ($18), three wine tastes matched to three small portions of food, appetizers distilled to a size slightly larger than an amuse-bouche. Lately the combo pairs a trio of Northwest rosés with three intriguing seafood interpretations: herb-crusted halibut and crumbled chevre on a cushion of soft, buttery leek; brown-sugar-glazed Yukon River salmon draped in cinnamon-spiced cherries; and kasu cod riding a raft of ginger-spiked scallions.
Layna, the bartender, turned us on to this triple play. Her serving savvy matches her cocktail expertise; not every waitperson here knows how to size up customers like she does and nudge them in the right direction.
We had hit the bar at happy hour, bent on exploring the tempting list of "snacks" that are each reduced to $5 (as is the signature Hammering Man cocktail, a sophisticated Slurpy made with gin, tonic and lime juice tinted magenta with bitters).
From 3 to 6 p.m., a fiver buys a short stack of Korean-style kalbi ribs (regularly $9), a bowl of mussels (regularly $12) or a mini burger (regularly $6). The later two both come with a cone of frites, floppy, golden fries speckled with rosemary to match the tangy rosemary rémoulade supplied for dipping.
The skinny, charred ribs in their salty, pungent brown sauce found an equally audacious partner in bold, bracing kimchi. The fat bivalves numbered at least a dozen and glistened in a beer-based broth roiled with fennel and garlic. The adorable burger wore enough bling to make Beyoncé jealous: cumin-spiked Gouda, sweet pickle relish, hot pickled jalapeño and Dijon aioli, all tucked daintily in a brioche bun.
Such a deal, and yet we were alone at the bar, and nearly alone at dinner on another night. After 6 p.m., an attempt is made to mood the room — lights dim and blue glassbaby votives appear on every hard surface — but it doesn't quite work. Maybe replacing those Chilewich place mats with white cloths would help?
At lunch, when Taste swarms with people, the menu keeps to the soup/salad/sandwich pattern once typical of museum cafes, but it does so with contemporary flair. Fresh herbs and goat cheese enliven a delicate frittata served with a bundle of organic greens. Creamy fromage blanc melts across pliant Alsatian-style flatbread scattered with bacon and caramelized onion. Thick slabs of multigrain bread embrace a voluptuous chicken salad chunky with tender meat, whole red grapes and diced celery.
At dinner, the kitchen gets to strut its stuff. Most of the dozen or so items are offered as small or large plates and some, like barley risotto or Dungeness crab salad, are downright dazzling. Served in a deep wide bowl, the dollop of creamy pink-and-white crabmeat bound with mayonnaise sits snug under a pile of parsley leaves and chive stems, looking like a water lily in a green pool of curry and chive essence. The barley combines with rice, sweet onion and bright green peas in a winning risotto cake lightly perfumed with truffle oil and creamy with Montesano cheese.
A bronzed breast of guinea fowl rises above a puddle of savory pan juices on a pedestal of potato gratin with braised radishes and herbs. Lamb loin, split to reveal a vein of cumin-spiked chorizo, comes with a lively tangle of mint and parsley, and warm potato salad that's somewhat stodgy despite the presence of artichoke hearts and green olives.
Not every dish succeeds. An herb-forward beet and pomegranate soup fails to find the right balance of flavors; a precarious tower of ricotta and beet ravioli interspersed with scallions tumbles with the effort of cutting through the rubbery grilled onions.
Pastry chef Elise Fineberg tucks terrific Parmesan wafers into the bread basket, and her lightly herbed crackers are among several lovely accompaniments to a plate of local cheeses.
Her witty dessert landscapes sometimes combine savory with sweet: basil with roasted peaches and rye shortbread, for example. For an ensemble dubbed "Strawberries, Nuts and Cheese," she transforms Beecher's blank slate honey into panna cotta that tastes something like cheesecake only lighter, surrounding it with a hazelnut-brown butter muffin, finely diced strawberries and a scoop of intense strawberry sorbet.
"Chocolate, Popcorn and Peanuts" amounts to a dessert carnival: a pillar of smooth semisweet chocolate terrine rises above a pot of peanut crème brûlée on a plate littered with peppercorn-spiked caramel corn.
It's a work of art, and it's in the right place.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com
Sample dinner menu
Dungeness Crab Salad: $8 small/$16 large
Ricotta & Beet Ravioli: $9/$17
Barley Risotto: $10/$18
Roasted Guinea Fowl: $11/$21
Lamb Loin: $15/$24
Information in this article, originally published September 21, was corrected September 23. Taste Restaurant at Seattle Art Museum is managed by Bon Appetit Management Co. The company's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.