Garden Cafe -- National Gallery of Art

American, Fast Food, French
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

An artist’s design, but interpretation disappoints
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Joan Miro exhibit is gone from the National Gallery of Art, and with it, the Spanish spread staged by Jose Andres in the building’s 90-seat Garden Cafe. In honor of “Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830,” the gallery restaurant invited Irish native Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria to create a buffet to complement the handsome new permanent installation.

The participation of Andres was a no-brainer. He’s from Spain. Armstrong was tapped because “we’re always looking for chefs of note” who already “have their own following,” says Deborah Ziska, gallery spokeswoman. Brand names, she says, “make it a destination” for visitors.

“How can you say no to the National Gallery of Art?” says Armstrong, whose interest in the collection goes beyond creating recipes for it: His first “real summer job” was in London, he says, where he worked for his uncle, a master cabinetmaker whose credits included designing a doll house for Laura Ashley’s daughter. “So I know what it takes to make that kind of furniture.”

The buffet, prepared by New York-based Restaurant Associates, is priced at $20.75 a person. Several a la carte dishes are offered for patrons who might not want the full deal.

Armstrong is a terrific chef. Yet his characteristic attention to detail is missing in a salad of thick, hard-to-cut sliced beets with arugula and goat cheese, in a platter of refrigerator-cold roasted squash with pumpkin seeds, and in the stewlike entrees. Turkey potpie, served crustless but with a tender biscuit, smacks more of a food-court cafeteria than a world-class museum. Marginally better is pot roast sweetened with carrots.

As with past themed menus, the food is executed by the catering company in a banquet kitchen two floors removed from the cafe. Not ideal. Armstrong plans to make regular inspections and corrections to the buffet as he sees necessary.

Recipe cards are thoughtfully offered with the bill, just as with earlier chef-designed buffets, but there’s only one taste from the current lot I’d want to repeat at home: the single-serving pecan pies. Framed in delicate pastry shells, the near-liquid fillings are rich with blackstrap molasses and bourbon in the nutty mix.

The “Americana” food theme runs through mid-February, after which the restaurant becomes Garden Cafe Britannia to coincide with “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900,” on view Feb. 17 through May 19.

Wisely, the gallery has asked Armstrong to come up with British food for the exhibition. Hopefully, Restaurant Associates will do a better job with bubble and squeak.