Monday, August 27, 2007

Dish on Dining: de Young Café

This is the first in a series of reviews all this week looking at cafes inside San Francisco’s major museums.

Fresh Ingredients on Display
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
On the grounds of Golden Gate Park
Café hours: Tue.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
Access: Side entrance outside of museum allows for easy entry without admission (be prepared to have your bags checked).
Major credit cards accepted
Web site

I’m a big believer of living in the now, instead of the past. That’s why when I decided to visit the many museums in San Francisco and test out their culinary exhibitions, I decided to start with the youngest museum with the richest history.

The de Young museum was founded in 1895 in Golden Gate Park, but it went through a major rebuilding and renovation and two years ago reopened with a lavish party and a bold new look designed by architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Basel, Switzerland. While the bronze shell reminds me of some rusting ship, the new de Young has firmly retaken its claim as one of the most innovative modern museums in the country, if not the world.

Serving the many visitors is a bright café on the ground floor with enormous outdoor seating. Operated by locally based Bon Appétit Management, the café features a daily menu of salads, sandwiches, soups, entrée dishes and a children’s menu. It also prides itself as being part of a “farm to fork” program where all ingredients served come within 150 miles of San Francisco.

I visited the de Young café on a Sunday morning and was pleased to see the café wasn’t packed with the huge lines that engulfed it when the museum opened back in October 2005. Still, the café layout is ready for large crowds with cashier counters on opposite sides of the room and bottled drinks and refrigerated pre-packaged options readily accessible as you go through the line.
But here’s my best advice for you: Never buy a pre-packaged food item no matter how long the wait may be for a made-to-order dish. The café charges you the same price for the pre-packaged salads and sandwiches as they do for ones you order at the counter. So you basically end up paying the same amount for something that’s been sitting for awhile as opposed to getting something freshly made for you. I learned that lesson once with a wilted pre-packaged Caesar salad that I paid $10 for.

During this visit, I quickly skipped the refrigerated section and went straight to the counter to order my lunch. The menu features a large selection of salads, including a flank steak salad and a roasted shrimp salad with cherry tomatoes and beans. For the entrees they offered a salmon dish and a Roma pasta selection. For the kids, you get your basic peanut butter-jam sandwich, spaghetti, grilled cheese and chicken skewers. I ordered a smoked Diestel turkey sandwich and the soup of the day.
I got my number and found a spot outside. On a sunny day, the outdoor seating is a perfect setting to recall the art you just saw inside the museum and enjoy the natural art outside in the finely manicured garden filled with modern sculptures. (Your lunch, however, will be constantly interrupted by security guards warning kids to get off the sculptures.)

When my food arrived, my soup was in one of those tilted looking bowls that was very artsy in itself but made me nervous about spilling. The soup of the day was a split pea with vegetable. I actually imagined a beautiful green soup puree but I got a hearty clear broth soup that reminded me of lentil soup. Although it wasn’t what I imagined, it was tasty and enjoyable.

My turkey sandwich was made with Muenster cheese, leafy lettuce and a simple Dijon-mayonnaise sauce. I didn’t know what kind of bread it was served on, but it was piled on high with turkey almost like a deli sandwich. (I say almost because a real deli sandwich would be much taller.) I didn’t find the turkey sandwich to be anything remarkable, but I did like the freshness of the meat. The turkey was tender and tasty—a clear sign that the café was serving quality ingredients.

The café prices are similar to what you would find at other museums: salads ($10–$14.50), sandwiches ($9.50–$10), soup ($4), and entrees and burgers ($9.50–$15).

While the menu isn’t innovative like the museum’s cutting-edge design, it offers fresh, quality ingredients in a calming environment that will be a nice cap to any museum visit.

Single Guy’s Museum Food Rating: 3.5 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

Special tips when visiting:
Now until November 23, the de Young is open late on Fridays for special “Friday Nights at the de Young” events featuring live music, poetry, lectures, movies and food. Check the museum’s Web site for schedule of events.

Now on view:
Peter Max and the Summer of Love, Aug. 31–Oct. 28, 2007. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love at Golden Gate Park, the de Young is putting on this special exhibit of the pop poster art of Peter Max. Park festivities commemorating the anniversary are set for Sept. 2.


Anonymous said...

I love your reviews, and am a regular reader of your blog, despite living in NC (I got started when you were recapping Next Food Network Star). Anyway, I was surprised to see your positive comments and relatively high rating for de Young Cafe. The soup looked awful! Who would serve a split pea soup in a brown broth? It truly looked like regurgitated food. I am sure, since you said so, it tasted good, but looks matter and this one missed it!

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Cheri for reading and for your comment. I agree, the soup didn't look that great, but don't you think sometimes lentil soup doesn't look that great but can taste really good. This soup reminded me of lentil soup, very hearty and tasty. But of course the 3.5 stars isn't just for the soup, it was also for the fresh tasting turkey meat and the pleasant environment.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear about waiting in line for the "fresh" food. Both times I've gone to the de Young, the lines have been really long and we've settled for pre-made stuff...which wasn't exactly fresh or tasty.
Totally agree about sitting outside and enjoying the fresh air and ambiance.
Still miss the look of the old de Young though...when I was a kid, it was always like a castle and I wanted to live, not so much.