The American Indian Museum's Cafeteria: Tray Chic

Great Plains: Fry bread with cinnamon and honey.
Great Plains: Fry bread with cinnamon and honey. (Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Although it's never been clinically proved, any tourist can identify the Four Stages of a Museum Visit:

Stage 1: Feeling Worthy. Aren't you fabulous spending your valuable free time soaking up great culture! Duration: One to two hours.

Stage 2: Fatigue Denial. Your back hurts a bit. And your head aches. It's not as if you've never been on your feet for a few hours. So why does standing in front of a painting make everything hurt? Duration: 30 minutes.

Stage 3: Full-Fledged Crankiness. No! No matter how famous it is, you just don't want to see another bloody Hopper picture of some woman looking depressed in a cafe. Duration: 20 minutes.

Stage 4: Epiphany and Action: Oh, that's it! You're hungry! Proceed directly to museum restaurant.

The fourth stage is where everything is resolved. A good meal at that crucial moment ensures you'll actually go to a museum again. A great one might even buy you a few more hours that day.

That's why in recent years, great museums have spent almost as much time designing fabulous restaurants as they do designing fabulous exhibits. New York's Museum of Modern Art has the Modern, a sleek space with food that has garnered a Michelin star. Paris's new Mus┬┐e du Quai Branley snagged a long-time protege of Joel Robuchon's to turn out plates as spectacular as the restaurant's view of the Eiffel Tower. And although the Tate Modern's restaurant in London still serves up fish, chips and mushy peas, it also offers haute plates including roasted beets with pea shoots and goat curd.

And Washington? It hasn't quite caught the wave. The new cafe at the Phillips Collection is a glorified Starbucks, with cakes and sandwiches from Firehook Bakery. Air and Space? There's no anti-gravity bar with chic Tang cocktails here. Instead, there's a McDonald's. With the exception of the Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, your best option anywhere is probably a soggy mozzarella and tomato sandwich.

But what an exception! Yes, Mitsitam is still a cafeteria, where you have to grab a tray and line up at different stations, but the food, which reflects the culinary traditions of American Indians, is as enlightening as any of the exhibitions and the perfect antidote for Stage 3 museum-goers.

Open for three years, Mitsitam serves a diverse menu that changes with the seasons. On a recent visit, the South America station offered a lovely sweet potato and banana soup, garnished with caramelized bananas (cup $3.75, bowl $5.25) that added just the right touch of sweetness and a hearts of palm and jicama salad that, had it been placed a little more neatly on the plate, could have commanded far more than the $2.95 they were charging.

Over at the Northwest Coast station, there was a long line for the always-on-the-menu juniper salmon ($10.75) that is tied to a cedar board, then fire-roasted in a giant drum behind the counter. But the dish that best put my museum-ache behind me was the Great Plains fry bread ($3), a pizza-crust meets doughnut, drizzled with honey and cinnamon. It goes down perfectly with the strawberry-mint-honey agua fresca ($2.95).

For out-of-towners with just one chance to visit, the best way to experience Mitsitam is to treat it like a tapas restaurant, sharing an assortment of appetizers and side dishes. Try the pumpkin soup with a very un-Native American lavender-acorn foam (cup $4.25), grilled razor clam salad with fennel, tomato and red onion ($3.25) or a hunk of blue cornbread ($2.10). For the adventurous, there are cornmeal-crusted fried frog legs with tomato and wild onion relish, and a curiously unfishy smoked eel and hominy salad in a walnut vinaigrette. If you don't like them, you're only out $2.95.

If you're still craving a more civilized experience, you may be in luck. This week, the Source by Wolfgang Puck debuts next to the Newseum (which will open next year). Like the Modern in New York, it's in the same building but has a separate identity and entrance. The space sports floor-to-ceiling windows, elegant suede banquettes and a two-story glass wine wall (capacity: 2,200 bottles) that links the upstairs dining room to the ground-floor bar and lounge.

Upstairs is the showcase for Puck's "Asian-inspired modern American" fare. On the menu: Hong Kong-style black bass with baby bok choy, lacquered Chinese duckling with wild huckleberries and roasted suckling pig with plum-fig chutney, pickled onions and sweet beans.

Downstairs, the feel will be more casual and food will be served all day, although not for the first few weeks. You can grab a full meal or several plates to share, including prime beef sliders with cheddar and smoked onion marmalade and Puck's signature wood-fired pizzas.

Or you could grab a stool at the sleek bar. Just as regular museum-goers know the four stages, they also know that the best cure of all is a strong cocktail.

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