Pushing a tray through a museum cafeteria line is as passé as a petticoat.
Years ago, Manhattan's Neue Galerie (with Café Sabarsky) and MoMA (with the Modern) set the stage for fine dining during art-gazing breaks. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright's spiralled icon, managed to catch up by its 50th birthday late last year. Its snazzy new restaurant, The Wright opened to controversial reviews (much like the museum itself in 1959), but as of a recent visit the kitchen has found its footing.
The plates ferried through the curvy, white dining room are architectural palettes of colour and abstract brushstrokes. The restaurant was designed by Andre Kikoski and features a wraparound striped horizon installation by English artist Liam Gillick. There's even visual drama to pale parsnip soup ($9 U.S.) A bowl arrives with an exquisite mould of parsnip chips and Romanesca florets, which is then deluged with steaming, fragrant, velvety soup poured from a teapot.
The juicy, smoked-chicken sandwich spread with avocado and piquant Espelette pepper dressing is fetching too, flanked by a mesclun salad with mustardy vinaigrette and a bowl of golden-brown, house-made potato chips. That sandwich is on the bar menu, which is reserved for the six stools at the bar or, after 3 p.m., served throughout the restaurant. I sat for an earlyish lunch at the wavy communal table in the middle of the room but managed to sweet-talk my server into giving me the bar-menu sandwich anyway. At $12, it's $6 less than the museum's admission price.
Prices are higher at dinner, which is offered Thursday through Saturday nights. There's crisp-skinned striped bass with fennel, potatoes, baby calamari and sweet paprika sauce ($29) and 28-day dry-aged beef sirloin with bone marrow port marmalade ($34). The executive chef is Rodolfo Contreras, who has worked under exalted gurus, including David Bouley, Christian Delouvrier and Rick Moonen. Seasonal, local and sustainable are his bywords.
The people who are attracted to this food and rarefied setting are what you'd expect for the Upper East Side - cosmopolitan women with scarves knotted at the throat, men with shaggy hair and European eyewear, making intellectual, artsy conversation that Woody Allen could use in his next movie.
Still, it's not necessary to drop a fortune here. Yes, The Wright is a revenue source for the hard economic times the museum is experiencing, but that's not our concern, at least not when we're hungry and thirsty and our feet hurt. Just know that it's possible to stop in for a classic cocktail ($12) or a dessert ($8 at lunch) of mango mousse swirled with meringue that looks like a mini Guggenheim itself.
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Special to The Globe and Mail