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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.
Things took an incredibly delicious turn when José Andrés assumed control of the entire operation a few years later.
“He didn’t want to do just two or three dishes. He wanted to do the whole menu and a buffet,” Ziska said of the gustatory full monty the frenetic Spanish chef proposed. “That kind of blew it out of the park. We can’t go back now,” she said of the comprehensive dining plan they’ve attempted to adhere to ever since.
Chef and restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi, who returned to D.C. after several years in New York City, signed on to coordinate the latest iteration of the cafe even as he was still putting the finishing touches on his nationally recognized new restaurant, Fiola.
“It’s a great experience,” Trabocchi said of translating the comfort food of his countrymen — “things that people can recognize” was how he described a rotating carte sprinkled with the likes of antipasti, baked eggplant parmesan and tiramisu — for art lovers.
Trabocchi said he delivered four seasonal menus to National Gallery executive chef David Rogers and has been very pleased by the execution of it all.
“He has absorbed the menu and the recipes very well,” Trabocchi gushed, adding that he’s even received compliments about the museum menu from the pleasure seekers who frequent his tony Penn Quarter spot.
Ziska conceded that their attempt at a Danish menu was perhaps the most trying experiment (no guest chef participated that time). But she painted the rest of the concepts as glowing successes. “It’s a fun, multisensory experience,” she said.
Next up: Café Cataluña, a nod to the forthcoming Joan Miró exhibit (opening April 2012).
Carl Schuster, CEO of Wolfgang Puck Catering, said bringing his very famous boss to D.C. was no small feat.
The company began talking with then-Rosslyn-based Freedom Forum about incorporating a marquee restaurant into their future downtown location as far back as 2003. According to Schuster, the powers-that-be behind the prospective Newseum were very interested in aligning themselves with Puck because they wanted someone who could provide commercial catering as well as a “special” and “different” dining experience.
Early talks, as per usual, gravitated toward a frou-frou steakhouse, a proposition Puck flatly refused. The West Coast chef had high-end Asian on the brain, so he did some lobbying of his own.
“They wanted a top-five restaurant ... [but] we had to get them comfortable with the whole modern Asian [theme],” Schuster said.
Whatever jitters the Newseum folks might have had were quickly quelled once executive chef Scott Drewno slid behind the burners. In just a few short years, Drewno has garnered national awards, charmed locals with a stupendous dim sum brunch and even has reinterpreted humble banh mi (chili-marinated pork belly, anyone?) for the haute cuisine set.
The boss is so stoked about the Source, Schuster said he recently received very specific marching orders.
“You need to find more of these,” the expansion-minded Puck tasked Schuster after a recent swing through D.C. “He just thinks that it showcases us as a brand really well. So I am on the search for more Newseums.”
Restaurateur Ellen Kassoff Gray and her business partner/spouse, chef Todd Gray, already had plenty on their plate, what with restoring their fire-damaged flagship restaurant, Equinox, and launching their fledgling NoMa hangout, Watershed.
Still the entrepreneurial pair could not stop thinking about the opportunity to share their sustainable dining philosophy via a casual dining concept the Corcoran was contemplating.
Muse debuted in early June 2011.
“We call it the intersection of visual and culinary arts,” Ellen said of the low-key venue, noting “art galleries are definitely where better quality food belongs.”
Ellen emphasized that Muse’s menu is very much informed by what’s available at the neighboring White House farmers market, something she feels sets them apart from other educational eating venues. “Mitsitam is very nice, but it’s still institutional food,” she said.
Though the cafe counter is small, the Corcoran kitchen is evidently ample enough to allow the Muse crew to cook and bake almost everything on site. (Ellen did admit to bringing in fresh bread from Lyon Bakery, and the cafe hawks Vaccaro’s cannolis.)
The menu, like the market spoils, changes weekly, but certain items appear destined to remain, including steamy samosas (“People love those,” Ellen said.), the vegetable-laden “wildcard” panini (“The market panini will never go away,” Ellen assured us.) and newish flank-steak sandwich. (The bed of roasted red peppers is crucial.)
“This is the best $12 lunch in the area,” Ellen asserted. “[And] a lot of people in the neighborhood are starting to figure it out.”
Never one to rest on her laurels, Ellen mapped out big plans for Muse in 2012. Her top priorities include recruiting a rotating slate of guest chefs/artisan food purveyors to take center stage on Thursday nights for lectures, cooking demos and sporadic tastings — there was discussion of chocolate and pinot pairings, as well as exotic coffees — plus the resurrection of Sunday brunch.
Meanwhile, Ellen stressed that Muse is not to be confused with the pop-up dining trend.
“We’re sort of a partner-tenant,” she said, noting “nobody’s put a time limit on anything.”
To wit, Ellen hinted that two other local museums have already approached them about developing alterna-dining options of their own — open-ended offers she seems to be seriously considering.
“It’s just spreading more good food across the city,” she said.
Back to the Future
Anyone struggling to imagine how to seamlessly integrate learning, philanthropy, history and fine dining under one roof need look no further than America Eats Tavern.
The placeholder project — AET swooped into the old Cafe Atlantico space July 4 for what was supposed to be a six-month stint but will now, thanks to popular demand, hang around for a full year — is the product of a collaboration between Andrés and the National Archives, which opened its meticulously preserved culinary resources to the ThinkFoodGroup team so they could recreate and occasionally re-engineer, a bite-by-bite account of our historical bread breaking.
“My team and I pored over cookbooks, researched all the writings of the Works Progress Administration’s America Eats series. We were tracking down rare books, talking to experts and libraries, calling upon our friends at the National Archives,” Andrés said of the due diligence required to piece together the exhaustively footnoted carte presented to AET patrons.
Though the restaurant came into being only a short time ago, Andrés insists the inspiration for it has eaten away at him for years.
“This idea of celebrating American food ... has been with me for a long time. Ever since I first found an early edition, a family-published version of the ‘Joy of Cooking’ many years ago. That was such an amazing connection for me. And then finding an early copy of the ‘Virginia Housewife,’ and many other books,” he shared. “I have had these ideas in my head, and finally with America Eats Tavern, we were able to pull it all together. Only we are still searching, still researching, still looking at every dish. Even though this restaurant is temporary, we are still learning, still experimenting and seeing what more we can do.”
Each dish, naturally, tells a story. Some just happen to be more fantastic — particularly after they’ve received signature Andrés flourishes (deconstructions, unorthodox fusions) — than others.
What remains paramount, at least in Andrés’ eyes, is not just honoring the spirit of all the painstakingly reclaimed dishes but carrying that undying respect forward with every lift of our collective fork.
“My goal is to have every member of Congress, of the administration, coming to dine with us. To put the history of our food on the plate in front of them. To have them consider the current food issues of our nation. And to think about solutions for the future,” Andrés said.