Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dish on Dining: Café Asia

This is the third in a series of special posts all this week looking at the cafes at some of San Francisco's major museums.
Ambitious menu in a serene setting
200 Larkin St., San Francisco
Ground floor of the Asian Art Museum, Civic Center neighborhood
Café hours: 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Tue.–Sun.; 10 a.m.–8:30 p.m., Thu.
Access: Enter through museum main entrance where you’ll receive a special café sticker that allows you to dine without paying admission.
Major credit cards accepted

Housed in the former public library building, the Asian Art Museum is huge. In 2001, it opened its doors at the current Civic Center location after years at Golden Gate Park. The collection of ancient and contemporary art is showcased in an open-air design by Italian architect Gae Aulenti—known for repurposing old buildings into art spaces, such as my favorite Paris museum, the Musée d’Orsay (a former train station).

In almost an attempt to live up to the grand scale of the new Asian, the museum’s Café Asia seems to try really hard to offer a diverse and just as huge menu for visitors.

Under Executive Chef Melinda Quirino, who has worked in the kitchen of the Hotel Nikko, the café menu is one of the more creative and heavy menus I’ve seen among museum cafés in town. During my recent visit, the menu listed offerings such as Japanese pork, Chinese Chicken barbeque sandwich, Vietnamese Pho Bo, Chicken Tikka Masala Curry, Prawns Stir-Fry and a Thai Coconut Chicken soup.

It was a bit overwhelming for lunch.

The café is a beautifully decorated space with about 60 seats. It has additional seating outside, which is especially nice when the weather is beautiful in the city. As you line up at the counter, there are several prepackaged salads, sushi and dessert. When you order at the counter, the line cooks start working on your meal so it’s made fresh.
At Café Asia, you don’t get a number. So you wait at the counter until your meal is prepared—cafeteria style. This was fine on my day when there were fairly few people dining for lunch, but I wonder what this means for the line on days when there are a few more people waiting to order.

Not wanting to eat dinner for lunch, I bypassed the heavy entrees and ordered the Miso Crushed Salmon Sandwich. And I know this may sound like an odd pairing, but I also ordered the Chicago-style hot dog. (That’s because a co-worker always raves about the hot dog at the Asian Art Museum so I thought I’d give it a try.)

Because I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t realize that the Miso Salmon Sandwich came with a big side of garlic fries. (Dang those deep-frying gods!) In the photo, you can barely make out the sandwich, which seems dwarfed by the huge pile of fries. Luckily, it also came with a nicely pickled Asian-style cole slaw.

The salmon was underwhelming, and it was placed in a bun that was a bit tough to eat. The salmon was basically shredded, like it came from a can, and I barely tasted any trace of miso. It came with watercress and Roma tomatoes, and I was so disappointed that I resorted to just eating the fries.

The hot dog was nice, but it wasn’t as amazing as my co-worker built it up to be. I wouldn’t travel all the way to the museum just to get this hot dog, although it was smoky and full-flavored. The bun, again, was a bit stale and tough to eat.

The only really memorable part of the dishes I ordered was the pickled cole slaw, and only because I really like pickled vegetables. I could eat a whole plate of the slaw, but then I’d probably get a tummy ache.

Café Asia has a tempting menu, which is probably more appropriate if you’re really hungry or eating an early dinner. The execution is inconsistent, and with so many great Vietnamese food nearby in the Tenderloin, it might be smarter to eat in the neighborhood.

Single Guy’s Museum Food Rating: 2.5 stars
(note this rating system different than my regular Dish on Dining reviews)

Explanation of this special museum rating:
1 star: Exhibition should be closed
2 star: Stuck in the permanent collection
3 star: Satisfying like Monet
4 star: Fresh like a special exhibit
5 star: Unique like the Mona Lisa

Cafe Asia in San Francisco

Special tips when visiting:

The museum is open late on Thursday nights, and admission is half-off when you enter after 5 p.m. (Just $5 for adults.) On the first Thursday night of the month, the museum’s young and hip MATCHA group puts on an evening of live music and demonstrations. Check the calendar for upcoming MATCHA events.

Now on view:
Among the various special exhibitions this summer at the Asian Art Museum is this collection of Japanese woodblock prints. I love Japanese woodblock prints for its bold graphic design. Many of the prints often relate to Japanese folklore or ghost stories. For example, the current exhibition entitled “Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales: Woodblock Prints from Edo to Meiji” deals with the subject of the supernatural during the westernization of Japan during the Edo and Meiji eras. If you love block prints as much as I, you have to hurry and go this weekend because this special exhibit ends on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007.

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