The Washington Post

Catalonian buffet in a lovely setting

Margaret Gabriel inspects the cheese board on the buffet at the National Gallery of Art’s Garden Cafe. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Never have I wanted to take a nap in the place I was eating as much as this.”

The friend sitting across from me at the Garden Cafe is reading my mind. There are few more lulling spots to graze in than this airy dining area in the belly of the National Gallery of Art, where a gentle fountain provides the sole background music and trellised walls offer the illusion of dining alfresco.

The marble table tops are cool to the touch; a statue of Bacchus toasts us from an alcove perch. As busy as the venue is on a recent midday, the liveliness never devolves into discord.

Now is a superb time to visit. Through Aug. 12, the gallery is hosting an exhibit of the work of the celebrated Catalan modern artist Joan Miro. To complement the show, “Ladder of Escape,” the cafe is serving food designed by chef Jose Andres of ThinkFoodGroup, the restaurant collection that includes Jaleo, the popular Spanish tapas destination. While the cafe offers a handful of entrees on its menu, the Catalan-inspired buffet, displayed on a center table, is where you want to focus.

The spread looks like a picnic sans grass. White bean salad, roasted vegetables, a couple of homey meat stews in red Dutch ovens and a finale of cheeses and Marcona almonds taste true to their source. My lone quibble is the dribble of albarino in my $9 glass of wine.

The cold cherry and tomato soup from chef Jose Andres, who designed the menu. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Be sure to try the soup,” says a woman behind me in the buffet line. She’s back for seconds of the pale orange puree of tomato and cherries, garnished with a skewer of tiny tomatoes and a sail of crostini. Back at my table, I spoon into the recommendation and swoon. Garlic, vinegar and emulsified fruit wash over my tongue. A cinnamon-rich crema Catalana has a similar effect on me. The combination of the crackling caramelized sugar top and the near-liquid custard is soothing.

With the bill come recipe cards, one for that cold fruit soup. Even after Miro makes his exit, I’ll be keeping Catalonia in my thoughts.

Sixth and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-712-7454. Entrees, $12 to $14.50. Running through mid-September, the themed lunch buffet is served daily and costs $20.25 per person.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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