Pity the art museum restaurant. Erudite patrons, already engorged from a visual feast in the galleries, stroll in expecting artistry at table. They all but demand food that looks as vibrant as the blueberries and apples rendered in the swirling oils of Gustave Caillebotte's "Fruit Displayed on a Stand."
It's a tall order that transcends what we expect even from our favorite neighborhood boite. Which is why we had our doubts when the Museum of Fine Arts announced the rebirth of its white tablecloth Fine Arts restaurant as the slightly swankier, au courant Bravo (not to be confused with the increasingly gay cable network of the same name).
Bravo has several factors working against it: A second-floor location past a phalanx of security guards, a mammoth dining room roughly the dimensions of a Chinatown banquet hall, and the MFA's notorious lack of parking - a situation that can bring out the inner Larry David in the most angelic and tranquil patrons.
So color us shocked that we found Bravo not only a superb refueling stop for famished art lovers, but a possible Friday night destination. For those averse to public transportation, parking is free for restaurant patrons after 5:30 p.m.
The room, once a drab beige and brown, has been done over by restaurant-designer-of-the-moment Peter Niemitz. Giant pillars in a bright shade of burnt pumpkin dominate the room. Banquettes upholstered in a Marimekko-esque dot pattern offer casual elegance, and giant architectural lamps make the space far cozier than its size would suggest. There's even a lovely wood bar that should have been clogged with MassArt professors, but was empty the night of our visit.
As we waited for the perennially tardy female side of Sauce, we were free to examine our surroundings and eavesdrop: "So what exactly is creme brulee?" a patron nearby asked her dining companion. At another table, we heard a discussion of bodily functions that nearly vanquished our appetite for the night.
As the first of chef Benjamin Cevelo's appetizers hit the table, our appetites returned. A goat cheese tart came with a small salad of every color tomato imaginable. The tart was more like a rich slice of quiche. "Eva's field greens" arrived in a woven potato basket that was fried to a deep crisp. A recovering waitress who joined us for dinner tried the arugula salad, but found the greens too salty. Come to think of it, she found nearly everything too salty.
Because the restaurant was quiet during our Thursday visit, we were spoiled by our charming North African waiter, Yzziad. He wisely pointed us in the direction of a fruity Chilean merlot and made us feel like the VIPs by indulging our constant questions.
Dinner was where Cevelo demonstrated that he's not afraid to go head-to-head with the art in the galleries. A free-range chicken breast with prosciutto and feta came with a cube of watermelon and cantaloupe chunks arranged in an artsy Mondrian pattern. The sushi platter, artfully arranged, was fine but lacked the punch we're accustomed to at Oiishi. But Cevelo paid enough attention to small details such as the tasty potato-feta cake accompanying fried cod that we were won over in the end.
Pastry chef Kristin Eycleshymer's fanciful deserts, particularly the milk chocolate layer cake with creamsicle ice cream, sealed the deal. Her small, cylindrical cake was enrobed in chocolate. But more important, the ice cream perfectly replicated the flavor of St. Joseph's children's aspirin (a universal favorite). Bravo stands at the nexus of art and taste, exactly what we'd expect from our flagship museum.