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Van Gogh Torte
The Van Gogh Torte (rhubarb mousse, elderflower Bavarian cream) is a popular dessert at Cafe Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in NYC. (Photo by Wendy Maeda / Globe Staff)
See a sampling of the museum menus

Hungry for more than just art

From cafes to fine restaurants, museum goers now savor creative cuisine

Email|Print| Text size + By Nina Roberts
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2007

After hours of Manhattan museum - going, spotting a gallery's empty bench might inspire a higher state of exaltation than any piece of art on the walls. When fatigued visitors start to wonder if they are looking at a stuffed rabbit tethered to long rods or a hanging snow shovel, it's time to refuel. Fortunately, most museums in the city have radically revamped their dining. From fresh food in their cafeterias to exquisite restaurants run by some of the city's finest restaurateurs, dining options abound.

THE BEST

When the Museum of Modern Art moved back into its space on 53d Street in 2004, the renovated building included three new dining spaces. Restaurateur Danny Meyer , most notably of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern , was chosen to create and run MoMA's Cafe 2 , Terrace 5 , and The Modern . The restaurants have contributed to changing attitudes toward museum dining.

"Most people come in, look around, and they're kind of in shock -- pleasantly surprised," says Anton Nocito, executive sous chef at Cafe 2, the Italian eatery that functions as the museum's cafeteria. Cafe 2 is a sleek, modern room of stainless steel, glass, matte black, and wood. Behind the lengthy glass case of offerings such as artisanal cheeses, stuffed artichokes, panini , salads, tiramisu, and ricotta cheesecake , the staff quickly prepares orders, which are brought to customers seated at long, narrow communal tables. The popular salumi board , a choice of three, six, or nine kinds of locally cured meats -- from wild boar cacciatorini to hot sopressata -- is served with olives, parmigiano, and olive oil drizzled flatbread and runs $15-$26.

The delightful Terrace 5 is an airy, open space, part of which is a dining balcony. It overlooks MoMA's courtyard from five flights up, dwarfing the usually imposing sculptures of Richard Serra and pleasantly reducing the city's noise to a distant hum. Terrace 5 is a full-service restaurant, offering salads and light fare such as house-marinated tuna, mixed radish salad, and soy-marinated duck breast served over soba noodle salad and pickled lotus root. The rather innocuous sounding MoMA sundae is a decadent yet refreshing mix of raspberry and sorbets fromage blanc , pieces of cheese cake, crumble, and fresh berries. Artisanal chocolates made in house range from coffee to jasmine. Desserts are $6 to $12, wines $7 to $13 by the glass, and are also served by the half bottle, bottle, and a trio of three-ounce tastes.

The Modern is the most extravagant and independent of MoMA's eateries. The minimalist street entrance tube doesn't prepare first-time visitors for the dazzling Bar Room, the intimate and lively area crowded with diners in leather chairs, unruly flower constructions, and reflective surfaces of chrome, glass, and enamel. The hints of jungle in the giant photo by German artist Thomas Demand that spans the back wall are the perfect backdrop for what unfolds in the Bar Room, which has become a popular "power lunch" spot. Plates range from $10 to $28. Beyond a frosted glass wall is the bright, white, formal Dining Room , reservations required. Dinner is a three-course prix fixe for $85, as well as tasting menus, with or without wine pairings, from $125 to $243.

Executive chef Gabriel Kreuther, a native of the Alsace region of France, has created a wildly innovative, yet earthy menu for the Bar and Dining rooms: succulent Alsatian country sausage served with whole grain mustard and turnip choucroute , liverwurst with pickled vegetables, 28-day dry-aged ribeye, roasted duck breast, and Arctic char tartare with basil and trout caviar.

For diners who are left cold by state-of-the-art, 21st-century eateries, a visit to the Neue Galerie 's phenomenal Café Sabarsky is a must. The gallery specializing in German and Austrian art opened in 2001, and is housed in a renovated mansion on the corner of 86th Street and 5th Avenue.

Walking into Café Sabarsky is a disorienting delight. A piano player discreetly plays Strauss among other composers, and German and Austrian dailies hang on a wooden rack. The walls are rich, dark, carved wood, with old mirrors and a row of windows looking out onto Central Park. The Adolf Loos -designed chairs and tables are always full, and waiters in white shirts, black vests, and ties gallantly carry trays of Viennese coffees and ornate chocolate cakes, strudels, and fruit tarts.

"This is a classic Viennese cafe," says Kurt Gutenbrunner, its chef and owner . Sporting a white chef's shirt, he plows through two pieces of Van Gogh Torte (rhubarb mousse, elderflower Bavarian cream) in rapid succession and takes great delight in pointing out that his cafe is full of people casually sipping coffee, eating, talking, and reading. "Nobody is in a rush. Where do you see this in New York? It's very unusual."

Besides afternoon sweets and coffees, Café Sabarsky offers savory Austrian fare for breakfast, lunch, and an occasional dinner such as Hungarian beef goulash with herbed quark spätzle , crepes with smoked trout and horseradish crème fraîche, various sausages, salads, and sandwiches. Entrees run $11 to $27. The menu lists more than 25 wines sold by the glass or half bottle, primarily from Gutenbrunner's homeland, Austria. There is usually a line to get into Café Sabarsky, which does not take reservations, but museum admission is not required for entry.

Food-exhibit integration
Just as Renzo Piano 's gorgeous year-old expansion of The Morgan Library & Musuem seamlessly integrates the antique with the modern, so do the Morgan Dining Room and the Morgan Café . Executive chef Charlene Shade-Walker was given access to Morgan family recipes for inspiration: mutton chops à l'Anglaise , calf's head, crab flakes with cream, Aunt Lucy's pumpkin pie, and the repeatedly listed terrapin. "Oh," Shade-Walker laughs , "the turtle. That was very popular."

"It's creatively challenging," Shade-Walker says, sitting in the tranquil, glassed-in dining room among the ladies who lunch set. "The dishes from the old family menus were heavy, creamy, and that's not what people want to eat today." Skipping turtle and other undesirables, Shade-Walker and her staff have successfully made the two menus a whimsical mix of old and new, such as peekytoe crab salad, fricassee of organic chicken, beef Wellington served with seared foie gras and mushroom duxelles .

One of Shade-Walker's favorite creations is the dainty, scrumptious pineapple upside-down cake with coconut ice cream. The casual cafe is open only to ticketed visitors, while the dining room has its own entrance. The museum is known primarily for its lunches, with entrees running $11 to $24, although brunch and occasionally dinner are also served.

Brunch and afternoon tea
One of the most popular museum brunches is at the Whitney Museum of American Art . The dining area can easily be overlooked, perhaps due to the rather lackluster view of a concrete courtyard with several struggling vines and water stains along the wall. Save for a few jars of jam for sale and logos on the napkins, one might never know the restaurant is the superb Sarabeth's , created by the restaurateur and marmalade diva, Sarabeth Levine . An egg or sweet brunch plate, such as the not-to-be-missed cheese blintzes, range from $8.50 to $14.75. The line can be long, but Sarabeth's will accept reservations for large parties and those who order the prix fixe brunch for $25. Sarabeth's is also open for lunch, serving creations such as poached salmon cobb salad and the "hat" wearing chicken pot pie.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is so colossal that even native New Yorkers who grew up with the Met find new rooms, wings even, with each visit. Hungry visitors make their way to the Petrie Court Café , a full-service restaurant with three rows of 15 tables in the middle of a relaxing, spacious hall. Central Park is visible through the wall of windows. The cafe offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, and a splendid afternoon tea from 2:30-4:30 p.m. for $24 per person.

The Met's newly renovated subterranean cafeteria has grill, pasta, and salad stations, trays, and cashiers. The food is surprisingly high quality and reasonably priced . The many antipasti salads, including cedar-grilled salmon, couscous, and pickled beets, are $.65 an ounce. Hot main courses run from $7.50-$10.50. Entry to the museum is required for all dining, but the Met's suggested fee of $20 is just that. Museumgoers can pay what they like.

Exotic flavors
Although Scandinavia House's AQ Café looks like nothing more than a Scandinavian cafeteria, the food is outstanding. The lunchtime spot at Scandinavia House, The Nordic Center in America, is an offshoot of the highly acclaimed restaurant Aquavit , where the award-winning Marcus Samuelsson is executive chef. Diners should feel no shame in ordering Swedish meatballs as the plate is divine, only $9.95, and served with generous amounts of cream sauce, lingonberries, pickled cucumbers, and rye bread.

Asia Society and the Rubin Museum of Art , dedicated to the art of the Himalayas and the surrounding region, serve Asian fusion cuisine. The Garden Court Café at Asia Society is a full-service restaurant housed in a sunny atrium with weeping podocarpus trees . Chef Nima Khansari changes the menu frequently, and recently added the phenomenal pizzetta appetizer of yellow fin tuna, avocado mousse, sriracha aoli, topped with wasabi tobiko and scallions for $12. The most expensive item for lunch is the bento box for $21, which has a selection of four items, including curry chicken salad and two sauces. The Cafe at RMA has more of a stark cafe feel, but offers dishes such as roasted red chile salmon with soba noodles and miso grilled vegetables on naan , priced around $12.

Kosher fare
"It's not Jewish food -- knishes , corned beef, gefilte fish ," says Benjamin Lang , the affable manager and mashgiach (kosher supervisor) of The Jewish Museum 's Café Weissman . "It's just good food done kosher. It's not like we serve everything with a pickle."

Some of the glatt kosher offerings are fresh soups, salads, a delicious vegetable/pesto panino , and items never exceed $10.50. Lang has used previous exhibits to complement the menu, "but that doesn't work with Louise Nevelson ," he says about the current exhibit of the sculptor's work. "It would taste like wood." Café Weissman, located in the museum's basement with the feel of a nicely designed submarine, is popular with neighbors seeking kosher food, since no entry fee is required.

Outdoor snacking spots
Snacks -- albeit prewrapped, such as sandwiches, chips, salads, yogurt with fruit, and cookies -- are sold in some of the most peaceful places around, or on top of, the city's museums. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has a secluded lawn with looming trees, gardens, and tables on the periphery for enjoying lunch from the tiny cafe where no sandwich or salad costs more than $10.

The Met 's Roof Garden Café is a delightful refuge with a breathtaking treetop view of Central Park. During extended hours on Friday and Saturday nights, patrons can sip $11 lychee martinis among other cocktails from the martini bar as the sun sets.

If museumgoers find themselves at Fort Tyron Park in upper Manhattan, the Trie Café at The Cloisters offers one of the most serene lunch settings on the island. Gourmet turkey, ham, or portobello mushroom sandwiches are $8 to $9, and diners can eat at one of the many tables surrounding the gurgling fountain, garden, and wildly chirping birds.

Nina Roberts, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at ninaroberts.net.

If You Go

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53d St.

Cafe 2 (Second floor)
themodernnyc.com/c2/c2.html
Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday till 7:30; closed Tuesdays.

Terrace 5
(Fifth floor)
themodernnyc.com/t5/t5.html
Hours same as above.

The Modern
9 West 53d St.
themodernnyc.com
212-333-1220

The Bar Room
Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.- 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11; Sunday till 9:30.

The Modern's Dining Room
Lunch Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m., dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11.

Neue Galerie

Café Sabarsky
5th Avenue at 86th Street
cafesabarsky.com
212-288-0665
Monday and Wednesday 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday 9-9; closed Tuesdays.

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave. at 36th Street
themorgan.org/visit/dining.asp
Reservations 212-683-2130

The Morgan Café
Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 4 p.m., Friday 11-8, Saturday 10-5, Sunday 11-5.

The Morgan Dining Room
Tuesday-Friday noon-2:30 p.m., Friday 5-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

The Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street
Sarabeth's
(Lower level)
www.sarabeths.com
212-570-3670
Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Friday till 3:45, Saturday-Sunday 10-4:30; closed Mondays.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave. at 82d Street
Petrie Court Café
First floor, in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court
metmuseum.org/visitor/dining _petrie.asp
212-570-3964 (reservations recommended for six or more)
Friday and Saturday 9:30 a.m.- 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday till 4:30; closed Mondays.

Roof Garden Café
Fifth floor, entrance by the elevator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
metmuseum.org/visitor/dining_ roof.asp
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.- 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday till 4:30. Closed Mondays. May through late fall, weather permitting.

Scandinavia House
58 Park Ave. between 37th and 38th streets
AQ Café
In lobby
scandinaviahouse.org/cafe.html
212-879-9779 Monday- Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Asia Society
725 Park Ave. at 70th Street
Garden Court Café
(Lobby)
asiasociety.org/visit/cafe.html
212-570-5202 (reservations) Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., last Friday of the month till 8:45.

Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th St.
Cafe at RMA
(Lobby)
rmanyc.org
212-620-5000, Ext. 347
Monday and Thursday 11:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Wednesday till 7, Friday till 11 (closed 4-6), Saturday and Sunday till 6, closed Tuesdays.

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave. at 92d Street
Café Weissman
(Lower level)
thejewishmuseum.org
212-423-3200 (-3307, cafe)
Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., Thursday till 7:45, closed Fridays.

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
91st Street at 5th Avenue
cooperhewitt.org
212-849-8400
Garden
Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday till 9, Saturday till 6, Sunday noon-6, May-September, weather permitting.

The Cloisters
Fort Tryon Park
Trie Café
(Lower level in the Trie Cloister)
metmuseum.org/visitor/dining_trie.asp
212-923-3700
Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4:15 p.m., closed Mondays, May-October.

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