Visitors to the National Museum of the American Indians Mitsitam Cafe can enjoy the cedar-planked salmon platter.
So long, freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream bar.
The Nixon-era treat was for decades the most curious comestible available to the tourists and locals who routinely swarm the educational institutions that line the National Mall.
A handful of epicurean aesthetes have taken a shine to museum dining. And these revolutionary toques relish the opportunity to broaden diners’ palates and minds with forward-thinking feasts that heap history, and perhaps a dash of mystery, on every plate.
If, in fact, there were annals chronicling museum eats across the District, we’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that everything could be categorized as P.M./A.M.: pre-Mitsitam and after Mitsitam.
The arrival of the unprecedented Mitsitam Cafe in 2004 introduced those who’d come to admire the National Museum of the American Indian to a wondrous new world of informational eating. The concept was stunningly simple but also utterly genius: extrapolate on the cultural lessons embodied within the featured exhibits by encouraging guests to adhere to a diet reflective of the same.
Restaurant Associates, the food service conglomerate that handles catering at a slew of institutional learning facilities nationwide as well as oversees Congressional dining operations, tasked seasoned chef Richard Hetzler with helping it bring indigenous American cooking back to life.
His solution: splitting the Mitsitam cafeteria into a regionally focused food court showcasing meals that would theoretically be recognizable to those who first roamed across South America, the Northern Woodlands, the Great Plains, Mesoamerica and the Northwest Coast.
Does the staff embellish a few meals here and there? Certainly. (How many Pacific Coast Indians could possibly have sat down to a meal of buttery, pan-seared skate wing draped across wispy pureed rutabagas sweetened by a syrupy red beets reduction?) Still, Hetzler’s visionary efforts appear to be paying off in spades.
He’s published a critically acclaimed cookbook based on Mitsitam’s throwback (WAY back) recipes. He’s leading the only Zagat-rated museum kitchen in D.C. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s captured the imagination of curious tourists and casual passers-by who would likely have previously beelined for the ubiquitous dirty water dog carts and rickety ice cream trucks that circle the area searching for famished, and therefore exceptionally easy, marks.
National Gallery of Art spokeswoman Deborah Ziska says the museum began partnering with culinary superstars in early 2006 at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille, which offered to ship over a pair of chefs from Provence to commemorate a new Cézanne exhibit. The gallery was only too happy to oblige and shortly thereafter become hooked on the conceit of having worldly cuisine complement their globe-spanning installations.