Granted, one doesn't visit an art museum for the food. But for the longest time, what passed as dining in the Cleveland Museum of Art could have wiped the smirk clear off Mona Lisa's mug.
What a difference eight years and $260 million can make on an appetite.
This fall, Provenance and Provenance Café opened, providing the 350 staffers and 500,000 or so annual visitors with a reason to leave the lunchbox at home. Provenance is a 75-seat fine-dining restaurant, while Provenance Café is a sporty quick-service option. Located shoulder-by-shoulder at the far end of the cavernous atrium, the twin eateries are pretty as a painting, bringing both form and function to museum dining.
The eateries – along with banquet facilities robust enough to feed a dynasty – are run mutually by Doug Katz and Bon Appétit Management. Katz, owner of Fire Food & Drink, is the creative force behind the operation, concocting the dishes, menus and long-term vision. Bon Appétit is the operational muscle, applying its years of sustainability-minded institutional service to the day-to-day management.
Arriving on the first Friday of the month, we stumbled into a raging after-work party for a couple hundred young professionals. MIX at CMA was in full swing, meaning the sedate-by-day atrium was pulsing with energy. A deejay spun tunes while a looping game of Pong played on a huge projection screen.
The tone was quite the opposite in the tranquil dining room of Provenance, where both the atmosphere and the clientele were decidedly more mature. Crisp white linens, fine-crystal glassware, artful tableware and hushed conversation alert diners to the fact that is no dine-and-dash operation. Despite all outward appearances, though, the evening was not all smooth sailing.
When asked to distinguish between two similar varietals of wine, our server offered to seek guidance from another staffer. Instead, we simply picked. Our reward for waiting nearly 15 minutes for the bottle was a room temperature Viognier. Our neighbors to the left, I happened to notice, were resigned to refilling their own glasses.
It was a rocky start but far from ruinous. A fresh bottle righted the ship, as did a menu loaded with thoughtful, compelling choices. Seasonal and globally inspired, the dinner options glide from region to region like a guided gallery tour. A special prix fixe menu takes inspiration from the museum's main exhibition.
We started with a Thai-inspired chicken satay ($8), sided by a fragrant and crispy Jasmine rice cake. A bountiful and beautiful kale salad ($8) featured shaved mushrooms, toasted pine nuts, and manchego cheese. Unfortunately, the warm bacon-rosemary dressing wasn't hot enough (or at all) to soften the greens as intended.
Little could be done to improve upon a French-themed sole meunière ($25). Sweet as crab, the delicate whitefish was awash in a brown butter and paired with perfect Brussels sprouts, a fistful of fingerlings, and fried capers. Katz's pork belly posole ($24) – an intensely flavored stew with luscious meat, firm hominy and sweet tomato – could brighten an entire week. Garnishes of crème fraiche, ripe avocado and fresh lime, boosted the entire dish.
The dessert course brought another hiccup, with a dry chocolate cake replaced by a far more enjoyable one.
"Every opening has its share of growing pains," Katz told me after hearing the details. "It's a huge operation with many moving parts, but I never want anybody to experience that."
Since opening day, chef Ian Thompson has been replaced by Paul Taylor.
Institutional food service might not sound appetizing, but Bon Appétit does things right. For proof, visit Provenance Café. Bright, attractive, and easy to navigate, the café shuns cafeteria lines in favor of cook-to-order stations. Salad greens and toppings don't die a slow death in a watery ice bath. They sit high and proud in special chilled containers. Soups are ladled not from a dreary steam table, but rather crimson Le Creuset pots
Wax-wrapped sandwiches, built atop Stone Oven bread, are heated to order in a panini press till golden brown. Ingredients range from house-roasted turkey with local Swiss ($7) to roasted veggies with goat cheese on focaccia ($6.75). Ohio beef burgers ($9.75) are finished to order and tucked into buttery brioche buns.
Hit the Tandoor Oven station and you'll walk away with a fresh-baked naan wrapped around your choice of skewered and Robata-grilled lamb, chicken or falafel. The meats are garnished with hummus, cucumber-yogurt slaw, and a kicky harissa spread. Included in the $10.25 price is couscous, cilantro rice or fresh-cut fries.
Pizzas and pastas are heated to order in a gas-powered hearth oven. Drink choices include beer, wine and bubbly by the mini-bottle. And shrewdly located right by the cashier are stacks of tantalizing sweets and pastries.
Given the range and caliber of people who visit our world-class museum, it's nice finally to have dining options that attempt to live up to the art on the walls.