February 25 2010
There is a theory, credited to Victorian Romanticism, that gustatory deprivation heightens the artistic sensibilities. This leads, as inevitably as the Pre-Raphaelites followed Raphael, to Great Art, since the artist in question will paint the contents of his soul, rather than anything that anybody might want to buy, or even look at.
Do the pastel-packing garret-starvers have a point? I am ill-qualified to comment: I will say, however, that the admiration of art on an empty stomach can be thoroughly enervating, as well as distracting: before lunch, I could easily look at Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and miss the telephone altogether.
In the bad old days, art galleries were stark, municipal places, with the whiff of a school canteen and food to match. Years ago, I saw a couple sharing an anaemic plate of chips in the café at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum; the artist’s The Potato Eaters, by contrast, seemed almost Bacchanalian in mood. Just as the art in restaurants is terrible, the food in galleries left much to be desired.
How things change. Art lovers in Paris can enjoy a good lunch at the Restaurant du Musée d’Orsay before feasting their eyes on Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe; visitors to the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery can eat well at restaurants conceived by Oliver Peyton, the architect of public catering’s Age of Enlightenment; and – in my philistine opinion – the excellent restaurant at the Guggenheim in Bilbao (pictured) beats anything inside Frank Gehry’s exterior.
It is run by the people who own the much-praised modern Basque restaurant Mugaritz, and propounds a similar philosophy. Chef Josean Martínez Alija strikes an expert balance between ancient and modern, particularly in his use of local, seasonal, “slow food” ingredients, and dishes are executed with a modernist deftness. Expect to find such Basque specialities as octopus, baby squid, idiazabal (a sheep’s-milk cheese), hazelnuts and sweet, fragrant Anglet peppers; portions can be small, however.
Meanwhile, in New York, the Museum of Modern Art, back in Manhattan after a sojourn in Queens, boasts a splendid restaurant by Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, to name but three. The Modern benefits from the intelligent cooking of chef Gabriel Kreuther and is an attraction in itself – I suspect that many diners have never set foot in the galleries.
Culture vultures, by contrast, descend on MoMA’s Bar Room, where the informal menu features elegant, small-plate versions of such Alsatian classics as beer soup and foie gras au torchon. On Sundays, corkage in the Bar Room is free. To get into the spirit of modern art, perhaps you should bring your own absinthe.