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Get a Taste of Spain at the National Gallery of Art's Garden Cafe

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

At a glance: With its simple fountain and quiet setting, the National Gallery of Art's Garden Cafe has long been a pleasant place for a midday or afternoon meal, particularly after a morning of museum-walking. This spring and summer, the eatery is taking on a Spanish accent, thanks in large part to local chef José Andrés, the talent behind Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico, Minibar, Oyamel and Zaytinya and the host of PBS's "Made in Spain."

Since 2006, the museum has solicited chefs to coordinate the cafe's cuisine with exhibitions. French chefs brought salade Nicoise and creme brulee to the table for the "Cézanne in Provence" show. Dishes from nations along the Silk Road complemented the recent "Afghanistan" exhibition.

And for a pair of Spanish exhibitions this season, the gallery approached Andrés's company, ThinkFoodGroup, for assistance.

"We never expected the time that they've put into this," said gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska. Andrés designed the entire menu, Ziska said, and worked with the museum's food contractor to pull it together. For the first exhibition, "Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life," which opened Sunday, Andrés's contemporary Spanish menu reflects ingredients that are prominent in the painter's work. For the second show, "The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits From Imperial Spain," which opens June 28, Andrés will refresh the menu with dishes the aristocrats of imperial Spain may have enjoyed. The chef said that he visits the gallery often with his family and that it was a "no brainer" to get involved and bring, "through food, a little bit of Spain to the museum."

On the menu: The cafe's main offering is a buffet arranged as artfully as the Luis Meléndez still lifes that inspired it. Sheep- and goat-milk cheeses and several varieties of cured pork spill out across wooden boards. Roasted vegetables line one platter, while a salad of artichoke, tomato, grapefruit and orange graces another. A tray of meatballs and a pot of chicken-lentil soup warm on carefully hidden flames toward the other end of the table. Children help themselves to seconds from the heaping bowl of boquerones (Spanish white anchovies). Tumblers filled with gazpacho are another hit.

The a la carte menu is smaller but shouldn't be overlooked. It is less expensive than the buffet and home to such gems as a salad of watermelon, goat cheese, pine nuts and microgreens and a bowl of marinated olives that could serve as an appetizer for two. Perhaps the best dish is a cold almond and garlic soup punctuated with grapes and shrimp.

Textures mingle in a dessert of orange marmalade, frozen orange and yogurt mousse, with slivers of mint adding freshness to the fruit's sweetness. Another treat is the creamy flan, which is available at the buffet and a la carte.

At your service: The servers are helpful, offering suggestions and filling water glasses regularly. And, yes, even though it is a museum cafe, you are expected to tip.

What to avoid: The hot buffet entrees were sometimes only warm. So it might be better to go for a meatball once a fresh tray has been set out.

Wet your whistle: Spanish wines are available, along with the typical selection of soft drinks, coffees and juices. Order fruit-studded sangria by the glass or the pitcher.

Bottom line: "Through this exhibition, you can learn about a great painter at this moment of Spain, but also you can learn so much about the culture of a nation," Andrés said. The chef's menu only enhances that experience.

Garden Cafe Espana
Ground floor of the West Building at the National Gallery of Art, Across from the entrance at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue (Metro: Archives). Through Sept. 17.
Contact: 202-712-7458. http://www.nga.gov/dining
Hours: Monday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
Prices: A la carte $4.25-$16.95, buffet $19.25.
Wheelchair access: Great
Kid-friendly: There is no children's menu, but the buffet is $8.95 for children younger than 12. The cafe has highchairs.

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