Restaurant Reviews

Dishes at an Exhibition

What to make of Museum? There's that portentous name, its rarefied airs upping the ante: after all, a place invoking the sanctified aura of Dominique de Menil's nearby art collection had better deliver. There's the unpredictable (but not untalented) kitchen, whose goat-cheese-and-pesto sensibility springs less from deeply held passions than from a crush on trendy, upmarket ingredients. There are the vaguely schizoid surroundings -- serene little dining rooms undercut by price-tagged art that would give Saint Dominique the heebie-jeebies and an upstairs piano bar that is meant to be smart but fairly shrieks of the 1970s.

Then there are Museum's quintessential Montrose demographics. They veer from a nighttime crowd heavy on the gay gentry who are a major part of the target audience, to a noontime set rife with tweedy museum types and cellular-phone-wielding bidnesswomen -- the new breed of ladies who lunch. Somehow, this rich urban stew befits a vintage, two-story structure that has lived through incarnations as a Christian coffeehouse, a lesbian bar and a health-food restaurant.

But if it's hard to get a fix on Museum, it's easy to eat well enough here -- or better than that at lunch, when the prices are gentle and the menu stocked with unusually appealing sandwiches. A thin, grilled tuna fillet finds a happy home on herbed focaccia shrewdly imported from the bakers at Cafe Toque; tart sun-dried tomato pesto and bitter arugula make everything click. Grilled prosciutto layered with a satisfying ooze of melted fontina and a verdant basil pesto seem made for that same excellent bread. Even the house burger sounds fresh, with its blue-veined Stilton, yellow beefsteak tomatoes and caramelized onion; and the grilled cheese sandwich, freighted with fontina, mozzarella and Stilton, flies right into some rococo stratosphere.

What makes the sandwiches taste even better is the enveloping midday calm of Museum's cool, gray rooms. A lush screen of date palms, hibiscus and ginger shades the windows. The music is muted. Voices murmur rather than bray. It is actually possible to have a conversation -- no small attraction in this high-decibel age. And there are other pluses as well: a soothing, savory, tomato-basil soup; a Southwestern Caesar salad with a subtle, hot tang that pleases despite marginally weary romaine. A sprightly grilled-vegetable garnish bodes well for the restaurant's vegetable plates.

So does the presence of roasted garlic. Museum does not suffer from the fear of garlic that inhibits many fancy-pants kitchens, to which I say bravo. Grilled filet mignon sounds boring, but marinate the beef in olive oil and lots of garlic, the way Museum does for its dinner menu, and suddenly I'm interested. This may not be the best-trimmed cut in the world, but the flavor is there, the garlic magnifies it and the grilling job is precise. The roasted potatoes alongside are swell; the so-called "compote" of calamata olives and tomatoes is not. Indeed, it reads as a slightly doctored heap of whole olives so pungent as to constitute nutty overkill.

That olive mountain is symptomatic of Museum's occasional oddness attacks. Item: a fat, pink veal chop amid a dramatic sprawl of roasted potatoes, woodland mushrooms and artichoke hearts -- a curiously bland profusion that depends solely on briny capers for life. Item: delicious grilled garlic toast escorting a pan-roasted shrimp appetizer that is violent with garlic and red pepper, but badly in need of lemon or salt to brighten its strange flatness. Good ideas; peculiar execution.

Fortunately, the dinner menu offers a stuffed grilled chicken breast that -- far from being odd -- neatly transcends its overworked genre. Plump and exceptionally moist, the chicken conceals the ubiquitous trinity of sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and goat cheese, but (wonder of wonders) the goat cheese knows its place. Carrabba's, are you listening?

Museum's salads profit from those mixed baby lettuces that are the best thing since extra-virgin olive oil. Curly endive. Burgundy-hued radicchio. Tiny, sour leaves of lamb's lettuce. Sure, everybody and his dog now orders these upscale greens by the mega-box from produce suppliers -- you see the same exact greenery on salad plates all over town. That's what's known as progress. Museum anoints these greens with fashionable vinaigrettes, unevenly applied: a red-pepper version that is good, but barely there; a raspberry version that all but overwhelms the poor little leaves. It's as if two different cooks are assembling these salads, both of them missing the middle ground.

First courses run to the perfunctory sort that depend on good suppliers: pate, cheese and fruit plates, smoked salmon, that kind of thing. Anomalous stuff on a menu trying hard to be contemporary -- particularly the baked brie that once seemed so sophisticated, but now is a staple of middle-American party fare. I ordered it for a retro thrill, only to be punished for my perversity by its embellishment of stale, toasted pine nuts.

There's more safety in the silky, duck-liver mousse that suits the accompanying earthy olive bread so well. Or in the soup du jour, which might be a simple puree of carrots so thick it hardly reads as a liquid, very pure and keenly fresh-tasting, swirled with a lovely dill pesto. But why not serve it cold, a modification that would make it more summer-friendly? Same goes for the tomato-basil soup that shows up at lunch or at Sunday brunch (when the menu features -- I swear to you -- Dali's Tomato Sandwich, Quiche Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne's French Toast, not to mention such guy-food as the Lumberjack Breakfast, which for obscure reasons includes shrimp).

They save the single best dish here for last: a heroic bowlful of blueberry-apple crumble, tart and homey and graced with cinnamon gelato from Dolce & Freddo. "Better than my mom's," I had to admit, feeling like a heretic. It was the kind of dessert that made the restaurant's art suddenly seem more tasteful, its flower-painted screen less garish, its killingly expensive, $7.75-a-glass cabernet not so run-of-the-mill. I could almost forget that our waiter had uttered the hideous phrase "Creamy Dreamy Heather" when touting Museum's house dessert drink.

The waitstaff, clad in the khaki shorts and blue shirts so pandemic this summer, is likewise of a sort that smoothes rough edges. "Needs lemon," I observed sotto voce to my dinner companion; to my astonishment, our preternaturally sharp-eared waiter promptly produced a dish of lemon wedges. At noon, a sweet, attentive young woman, overhearing a carelessly uttered joke about birthdays, pressed a free (and undeserved) birthday dessert on us. So what if she replenished our iced tea without replenishing our ice? She could do no wrong.

Even the perky young host effervescing so resolutely at the front door seemed more endearing than annoying. But the 40-minute upstairs wait for a Friday night table ("We don't take reservations, because we're just such a cozy, cute little place," enthused the voice on the phone) annoyed rather than endeared. Our spirits were not improved by truly wretched Pinot Grigio and hopelessly dated sofas of teal-colored leather. We speculated on the likelihood of this cramped, choppy piano bar becoming a '90s answer to Rascals, the late, great gay watering hole and upscale social mecca. Damned slim, we decided, the occasional ministrations of vocalist Cy Brinson notwithstanding.

Time has moved on, and like a lot of us, the Museum principals -- alumni of the Black Labrador and Savage's -- have not hit on the perfect formula for the moment in which we find ourselves. From our second-story perch, we watched diners gathering on the pretty patio in the thickening dusk. The darker it grew, the more brightly the scene was illuminated, until finally the harsh truth dawned: this tropical terrace, which should have been so sybaritic, was lit by that high-security urban talisman known as the sodium vapor lamp.

Museum, 1512 W. Alabama, 524-7676.

tuna steak sandwich, $6.95; Southwestern Caesar salad $4.95; stuffed grilled chicken breast $10.95; blueberry-apple crumble, $6.00.

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Alison Cook