Review: Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran
June 22, 2011
The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s new cafe opened Saturday, and it’s one of the boldest things to happen to local museum food since the Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe.
Todd Gray’s Muse is partnership with restaurateurs Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray, the couple behind Equinox, the popular 12-year-old restaurant near the White House, and the new, seafood-centric Watershed. But the casual cafe -- nothing is more than $10 -- has all the green hallmarks of the Grays’ other ventures. The silverware and plates are biodegradable. And the simple panini, salads, chowders, deviled eggs and other dishes are made with local produce as often as possible, including zucchini, swiss chard, basil and other veggies procured from farmers markets, including the ones in NoMa and near the White House.
All those vegetables are put to good use: This museum cafe’s big surprise is that it, like Equinox, has a number of vegan and vegetarian offerings.
A summer corn chowder with vegetable broth, local shitake mushrooms and leek is vegetarian for now, but look for it to go vegan in coming weeks. A warm spinach wrap with avocado, eggplant, charred onion and bean sprouts is vegan, as is a cucumber soup and a slaw spiked with coriander seed. Or grab a vegan seitan-based jerky or one of Todd Gray’s housemade, coconut-rich vegan brownies to go. (Vegan cookies are coming soon.) Vegetarian offerings include frisee salad with strawberries and a market panini -- with, as the name suggests, an ever-changing array of goodies from the market. And for omnivores, there’s Amish chicken salad with toasted cashews, cranberries and arugula pesto; a kale-based Caesar salad; and a popular egg-salad sandwich, with South Mountain eggs on local pine nut-flaxseed bread. Panini are made to order. (The menu may change as often as twice a season.)
The food, says Kassoff Gray, “is just done with passion and care.”
Pepping up the fare for hungry museum-goers is a fairly new idea; New York’s renovated MoMa included in its plans a pretty incredible cafe and restaurant helmed by a big-name chef, Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer. And for the past few years, the National Gallery has invited the likes of chefs Jose Andres and Michel Richard to create temporary menus themed to exhibitions.
The inspiration for Muse comes from many sources, including the art on the walls at the Corcoran, the Grays explained recently. But Kassoff Gray, a longtime vegetarian who eats “about 80 percent vegan,” is clearly the muse for all the veggie offerings.
“I’ve been turned onto some amazing vegan cooking through Ellen,” says chef Todd Gray, who adds that while some chefs might blanch at the thought of leaving out the animal products, he and his chefs at Equinox and now Muse have relished the challenge. It’s a chance, he says, “to show off.”
The Corcoran is just close enough to the White House and popular tourist destinations that it’ll be easy for families to pop in for a sandwich or salad or both. Or take out dishes for a picnic. And more big news: The Grays are planning to bring back the Corcoran’s beloved live-music brunches, possibly as soon as September. Kassoff Gray hopes to diversify from the old jazz, to include a bluegrass and perhaps even go-go.