One of the best things about the Patio, one of two dining experiences in the new Glenstone, is exactly what it’s named for. The museum’s outdoor space welcomes you with tables and lounge chairs the color of spearmint gum, and views of the grounds and woods that contain the museum’s outdoor sculpture path. The coffee shop turns out a nice, foamy latte and a lemon scone with just the right daub of buttery cream. It’s such a soothing environment, perfect for a pause to contemplate the art you’ve just seen, that you’ll almost start to feel like you’re on vacation.
Until: Aieeeeee! Your tranquility might be abruptly broken by the sound of a shrill scream, or heavy artillery fire, or a stampede of horses — all part of “Forest (for a thousand years),” a sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, positioned just over a nearby hill, off the museum’s Woodland Trail.
This is not a complaint. What makes Glenstone so great are the moments throughout each visit where art catches you by surprise.
You are a captive audience once you’re on the modern and contemporary art museum’s expansive, newly renovated campus in Potomac, Md. — no outside food and drink are permitted — and given that it takes several hours to see the pavilions, gallery and grounds, you are probably going to get hungry. When you do, you can head to the Patio, or to the Cafe, a full-service restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like you’re in a treehouse and a pared-down menu that matches the minimalist aesthetic — and minimalist art — of its environs.
There are only a handful of choices at the Cafe, presented on butcher paper. On a recent visit, it was a velvety smooth pureed squash soup garnished with fresh thyme and corn; a Cobb salad with crispy bacon and buttermilk dressing; and a simple roast beef sandwich served on Lyon Bakery bread with housemade potato chips. All of the ingredients are locally sourced, says the chef, Brian Patterson, who had previously been director of the culinary arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.
“There’s a strong sensibility of sustainability here at Glenstone, and we wanted to extend that to the sources of the food that we used, and also the level of quality in the ingredients,” he said.
That means instead of fussy pastries, one of the standout snacks on the menu at both the Patio and the Cafe is a housemade granola bar with poached cranberries and almonds — chewy and crunchy and just enough to fuel you up for a walk through the Woodland Trail. Patterson says he’ll be changing the menu frequently according to the seasons and what his farmers give him.
Splashy museum openings tend to bring in high-profile dining attractions. The MoMA has the Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant that earned two Michelin stars. He followed it up with Untitled, the cafe at the new Whitney Museum. In the District, the Sweet Home Cafe in the National Museum of African American History and Culture was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award. Each of those museum dining experiences has grand ambitions — either as a stand-alone restaurant in the case of the first two, or as part of the curatorial experience for the latter.
But Glenstone eschews all of that. Patterson’s directive, he says, was to create a cafe that was an amenity. The museum is the destination, not its restaurant.
“We really didn’t want to razzle dazzle, we didn’t want to get too sophisticated or complicated on the plate, we didn’t want food that would distract from the contemplation of apprehending the art here,” Patterson said. It’s more about “eating something nourishing, delicious, interesting, [to] get you back in the game of touring the galleries.”
It achieves that goal, but it leaves you wanting more: a bit more choice, perhaps (there are plans to expand the menu), or, especially, a glass of wine. After a crisp, sunny autumn day exploring the pavilions and walking the trails, what I’d have given for the opportunity to sit at the Patio with a glass of red and talk about the art I’d seen. But that’s not in the cards, Patterson says: Founders Emily and Mitchell Rales don’t want alcohol to distract from the art, “and also not have visitors that might be tipsy” around fragile pieces.
There are still a few kinks to work out: The cafe is loud at peak hours, which can be jarring considering how quiet the rest of the Glenstone experience is. And that may have contributed to a server messing up my order — which seems hard to do when there are only a handful of things on the menu.
So, if Patterson were a visual artist, he would be more of a Donald Judd: The materials are what’s important, and simplicity is the goal.
It’s about “free rein to work with materials and help those materials find their true potential on a plate,” Patterson says, “through minimal interpretation by me.”
Glenstone, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac, Md. Open Thursday though Sunday, museum reservation required. 301-983-5001. glenstone.org. Entrees, $8 to $12. Tom Sietsema will return next week.