The Art of Eating

A little culture, a little shopping, a little lunch -- grazing San Francisco's museums

In this relentless holiday season — during which Macy's opened its Christmas shop, complete with massive toy soldiers glowering down at Union Square, by the second week of September, and nonstop Christmas music seemed to issue forth from every possible source soon after — we could all use a break in a place of serenity and contemplation. (Mea culpa: I bought Christmas toys at Target two days before Halloween. And I have been well and truly punished for this rash act, having seen one gift marked down from $5 to $4 — don't laugh, that's 20 percent — in a Target circular a couple of weeks later. I came to my senses and am once again in the familiar position of greeting mid-December with most of my shopping looming before me.)

San Francisco's museums are places of serenity and contemplation, with the added attractions of eateries and, hey, rather nice gift shops. (OK, so maybe you can knock a couple of items off your list; there's nothing bad about that. And the background music, based on my recent experience, isn't aggressively holiday-themed, but something pleasant and available from the shops' CD selections.) Spending an hour or more visiting an exhibition can be both aesthetically rewarding and good for the psyche, but if you're not in a meditative mood, or you're just pressed for time, all of these cafes (and shops) are accessible without springing for museum admission.

Caffe Museo, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has its own entrance, and offers, in addition to table service, to pack up any of its offerings to go — to take across the street, perhaps, and enjoy in the gardens of Yerba Buena Center. The cafe is operated by Real Restaurants, whose other eateries (Betelnut on Union, Caffè Verbena in Oakland, Picco and Picco Pizzeria in Larkspur, Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, and more) are represented by business cards ready to be plucked from a nicely designed holder at the checkout stand. The Mediterranean-influenced menu is nicely designed, too; there are panini, salads, and daily-changing soups and hot dishes, as well as an impressive array of pastries (baked on-site) and a full complement of beverages, including wine, Italian sodas, and coffees. You order at the counter and get your drinks and a numbered plaque; pay, choose a table, and your food is brought to you.

Frances is a self-described vegetarian (my favorite kind: one of those who permit fish to swim into their meals), so, in the spirit of sharing, I averted my gaze from the lamb and white bean stew, which seemed a bargain at $6.95, and chose orecchiette in a vegetable broth with cubes of butternut squash, sautéed wild mushrooms, and the witty touch of onions both soft and sweet in the pasta and crisp and frizzled on top of it, only to be told, “I don't really like pasta.” (I tried to contemplate life as a vegetarian without pasta, which I thought would be even more difficult than that of another vegetarian pal who loathes broccoli.) In the end, I enjoyed my choice and Frances also enjoyed her crepes stuffed with lush chunks of salmon and leeks. The brownie we'd chosen was so dense and rich we could each manage only a mouthful.

At the new de Young cafe, Joyce, baby Violet, and I were exceptionally lucky during a recent lunch: The morning's drizzle had scared off the hordes, we found a great parking space, and we waited in line only about 15 minutes before ordering our meal (again, receiving a numbered sign to signal our server). We'd heard that since the museum's recent opening, lines for lunch had been as long as an hour. (“They were waiting 20 minutes just to get to the coffee cart on the patio!” we overheard a chef say.) The stylish cafe is run by Bon Appetit Management, a Palo Alto-based company that operates more than 190 cafes in 26 states. The de Young Cafe's philosophy, which Bon Appetit terms “Farm to Fork,” features dishes made with seasonal ingredients grown or produced within 150 miles of its kitchen. We feasted on a sturdy beef, mushroom, and barley soup, with nice big shreds of meat; a very good torpedo-shaped cheeseburger made with Marin Sun Farms grass-fed organic beef on an Acme Bakery bun; four-cheese macaroni; and two thin, silver dollar-size Dungeness crab cakes, with a dollop of mashed turnips and carrots and an arugula salad with a bright chive dressing. When Joyce realized she was still hungry (“Those crab cakes should have been listed as an appetizer!”), she was happy to try the roasted herbed half chicken with Meyer lemon, more of the carrot and turnip mash, and Brussels sprouts, most of which found its way into a to-go box so we could sample the excellent chocolate tart and the less-inspiring fruit one oddly topped with canned mandarin orange sections.

A couple of days later, in a pelting rain, we drove up to the Legion of Honor and found so few cars in the lot that we thought the place might be closed. But no, the combination of the weather, the exhibition schedule (the “Wearable Art” show was in the process of coming down, and its successor was still in crates), and the allure of the new de Young (“We've been empty since they opened,” one volunteer sighed to us) meant that we had the Legion's cafe nearly all to ourselves. A glance at the familiar menu revealed that it, too, was the product of Bon Appetit Management; it included the grilled three-cheese sandwich on puffy Pullman bread that had tempted me at the de Young, but I got distracted by a platter of tea sandwiches, five each of capered egg salad, cucumber and smoked salmon, and blue cheese with apricot jam, enough for two or three people to share. They went very well with a bowl of creamy wild mushroom soup. Joyce tucked into her pan-seared flank steak, served with a cabernet reduction and buttermilk chive mashed potatoes, with relish. For dessert, we tried a homey chocolate layer cake and, even better, a banana Bundt cake filled with chopped nuts and candied fruits.

The Asian Art Museum's pale wood Cafe Asia has an especially nice terrace and an interesting Pan-Asian menu; my father and I chose Tibetan lamb and lentil stew, nicely served on basmati rice with freshly cooked green beans and a triangle of naan, and salt-and-pepper-fried chicken with egg noodles, baby bok choy, and tempura-fried squash and eggplant. We agreed that our main courses were both timidly spiced, but the stew was satisfying, and all our vegetables were crisp and carefully prepared. Strawberry tapioca and a steamed Japanese cheesecake made charming light desserts. I'd had yet another artful meal in arty surroundings.

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