Review: Museum Café

Sampling the artistic institution's take on food
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 5, 2011

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BUILD YOUR OWN SCULPTURE Start with these materials from the Museum Café.

In the long transition by which medieval mysticism gave way to modern rationality and bureaucratic efficiency, the placement of clocks on church steeples was a profound milestone. The existential essence of the new order staked its territory in the bastion of the old. In our own retreat from the ambitions of modernity toward an infantile and narcissistic culture of consumption, the practice of placing serious restaurants in museums might be an analogous moment. In one case inscrutable rhythms of god and nature gave way to the calculations of man. Now the exquisite complexities of art step aside for stuff we chew up and swallow.

Last week the Portland Museum of Art invited patrons to consider the relationship between food and art by using a screening of the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress to promote the museum's recently revamped café. The café is now run by Aurora Provisions. The basement space has been spiffed up and the new menu is more ambitious. But is it art? The film invites us to consider the idea.

The film follows a year at Spain's El Bulli, widely considered the globe's most interesting restaurant before it recently closed. There Chef Ferran Adrià served a tasting menu of over 30 courses of unusual dishes. Six months a year he shuttered El Bulli for a "sabbatical," experimenting with new techniques and ingredients. During the period covered by the film, this involved putting lots of mushrooms in a vacuum cooker, and pouring different oils over a martini glass filled with water.

The PMA Café is not so experimental. They do specialize in dishes that allow patrons to get a little sculptural — charcuterie and pâtés, for example, that you can assemble on toasted bread with various accoutrements. One version featured salmon two ways — smoked and as a pâté (served in a little goblet) that mixed the smoked and the poached. It was a handsome plate, and pleasant to eat. In the pâté the sweet flavor of poached fish was mellowed and deepened by the smokier notes. Bitter little sunflower sprouts were an interesting touch.

A cup of a very nice goulash was dominated by a big ball of rich and tender stewed beef. They did not overwhelm the dish with paprika, which allowed a bit of sour-celery and musty-mushroom flavor to emerge in the broth. A tart of pancetta and parmesan, topped with sage, looked better than it ate. The pastry was not light and flakey, but rather heavy and dense (more Malevich than Matisse, in art terms). A sandwich with roast pork and ham was served on a terrific crusty baguette with good sharp mustard.

The café serves only white wines — for fear (it seems) that patrons might toss a glass of red at the art. If only we cared so much! Desserts are very sweet, including a brownie featuring coconut, chocolate chips, raspberry swirl, and powdered sugar — the sort of "throw it all in" approach that might appeal to kids.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Portland Museum of Art, Portland Museum of Art, cafe
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