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The Art of Dining

At the little eateries we find nestled in museum courtyards and lobbies — be they bistros, cafés or cafeterias — we embrace the small culinary and personal pleasures that typically fall by the wayside at other restaurants. Perhaps it’s being enveloped by such an abundance of great art — and sometimes not-so-great art — that triggers the “quality-of-life button” in us, prompting us to linger longer, to breathe deeper and appreciate the little things: a sweeping view or the subtle trace of an unusual blend of spices. Or maybe it’s the breezy, open public spaces — sunlit courtyards and twisting gardens — that pay special, in some cases almost oppressive, attention to architectural and aesthetic detail; and that carries over to the food presentation as well. At museums, our attention is directed outward; we’ve come to explore, to take in someone else’s vision. We’re hungry to be fed.

And so we request more from the eating experience: Make it last longer, engage all our senses, steal us away from the routines. It’s these otherwise discarded pleasures taken together that, in the end, can elevate a quick snack or midday lunch to art itself. Plus, at some of these museum kitchens, the food’s not half bad, either.

Barbara’s at the Brewery Arts Complex

My mother taught me few practical things, but she did hammer home the value of one-stop shopping. So I can’t help appreciating the Brewery, quite possibly the quickest and most comprehensive initiation into the emerging L.A. art scene, housing, as it does, 300-some commercial, industrial and residential artists’ studios, and the office of Coagula Art Journal (a gritty local rag offering “The Lowdown on High Art”). Situated east of downtown, flush up against the 5 freeway, this complex of renovated warehouses was once the site of the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery (and may still smell like one on certain weekend evenings). Visitors can wander into either of the two main galleries in the central courtyard, or simply meander, as I did, along the outdoor walkways or cavernous indoor hallways, where, more often than not, residents will invite you in to tour their studios.

This day, my husband and I met three recent Art Center grads who created SuperHappyBunny Co., a cheeky alternative to IKEA. All three live and work in their communal rectangular space, where they manufacture self-assemblable kits for neo-Amish furniture and fuzzy vibrator cozies that resemble proud sock puppets. Shortly after, we bumped into Coagula publisher Mat Gleason, who opened up his gallery for us, which was showing the textured paintings of Michael Salerno. Two hours and several architects, graphic designers, painters, sculptors and designers of props, sets and costumes later, we were hungry. And we were directed to Barbara’s.

“Barbara’s is the social hub of the Brewery,” Gleason explained (which isn’t surprising, since it’s the only restaurant on the premises; many residents eat all three meals here). All elements of the community come together at Barbara’s: Young residents mix with established artists, striking up mentoring relationships; a cross section of residents’ work is displayed on the walls. And while you’re here, it’s the only place certain Brewery denizens intersect with the rest of L.A. (the bartender, an amiable fellow with lime-green hair and nails to match, confessed he goes for up to a month without leaving the compound).

The colorful clientele may be a draw, but Barbara’s is worth a trip to the Brewery on its own merits — if only because it boasts one of the largest wine lists in L.A., with more than 3,000 offerings. The atmosphere is modern-industrial, with much stainless steel and concrete, and tall stretches of glass that look out onto patios. As we settled in, nodding to familiar faces around the room, we perused the menu, which appeared a tad unadventurous considering it is located at the epicenter of a community that calls itself “the world’s largest art colony” (standard caesar, cobb and Chinese chicken salads, along with publike apps such as onion rings and nachos). But everything we ordered, if a bit ordinary, was very good.

We began with an especially fresh baby-spinach salad, souped up with slices of sour green apples, glossy caramelized walnuts and bits of rich crumbled blue cheese ($7.95). Famished from our earlier walk, we ordered BIG; I opted for the barbecue pork sandwich, smothered in a sticky mango BBQ sauce and served on a toasted French roll ($7.95). The thin strips of meat were lean and flavorful, accompanied by a side of housemade â coleslaw. My husband went a more basic, though no less heavy, route with a classic cheeseburger oozing blue cheese all the way around ($7). While “It wasn’t Fatburger,” he remarked, it was tasty, served on a simple sesame-seed bun. A single glass each of the Monterra Merlot ($6), full-bodied and smoky, was the perfect complement to our sandwiches.

I ended with a strong shot of espresso before heading out. The SuperHappyBunny people (now superhappy themselves after a few drinks) were rearranging the umbrellas on the patio, which was getting increasingly rowdy, and a new friend at the bar rushed over, urging us to swing by his studio for a look. 620 Moulton Ave., Suite 110, downtown; (323) 221-9204. (DP)

The Golden Spur Café at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage

We set out, three friends and I, to the Autry Museum for breakfast. With eight separate galleries in the building, the Autry is dedicated to presenting both real and reel versions of the American West through paintings and sculpture, films and artifacts such as authentic Western tools and saddles. Predictably, The Golden Spur Café looks as if Disney’s Wild West division made over your high school cafeteria. By the time we reached the register with our trays, having ordered off a menu sporting categories like “In the Saddlebag” for side dishes and “High Noon” for lunch, we were struck by an adolescent urge to stand on the table and yell “food fight!”

That urge passed, however, once we sat down. Though the museum’s brochure boasts it’s the single most popular field-trip destination among teachers at L.A. Unified, it was exceptionally quiet this morning. But for a colorful mural of children on the back wall painted by a third-grade class, the place was devoid of little ones. So we set about fixing our coffees from the “Watering Hole” ($1 each) and, as it was still early, gathered quietly at the table.

About 98 percent of the food at the Golden Spur is made in-house, we were told, and it’s surprisingly inexpensive. Twenty dollars fed four people, and this included a hefty slice of creamy apple pie to split ($2.75). The oatmeal with raisins, honey and brown sugar ($2) and “The Cowboy” meal ($3.50), which included two eggs, bacon, toast and potatoes, were just a step above what you’d get at, say, House of Pies at 2 in the morning. But the generous portion of flap jacks ($3) was light and chewy, and I enjoyed the single best breakfast burrito I’ve yet to taste ($3.25). It was filled with loosely scrambled eggs, crispy strips of bacon, garlic-and-rosemary-roasted potatoes, and a mess of all the regular ingredients: Cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole and freshly made pico de gallo, laced with bits of fresh cilantro.

After, we walked off our meal outdoors on the Autry’s mini “Western trail,” which, save for the shiny pay phones and neatly paved walkways (and the fact that it leads you around and around in the same circle), replicates the natural landscape of the Wild West, stagecoach and all. It was pleasant. But next time I come back — and I will — it will be for that burrito. 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.; (323) 667-2000. (DP)

Patinette at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Gabriel Orozco, the Mexican artist whose work is on exhibit at MOCA, likes to invent variations on games. One of his works on display is a kind of two-way Ping-Pong table, in a cross-shape, with a small lily pond at its center, rather than a net. There are no fish in the pond, which is disappointing, as the ball ends up in the drink with annoying frequency. (It takes a while to get the hang of playing the game over a pond instead of a net, particularly when two other people are playing at the same time.) I meant to look at various exhibitions at MOCA, but when someone sticks a Ping-Pong table in a museum, my instinct is to play Ping-Pong, even on a table that is not quite satisfactory as a work of art, and not quite satisfactory as a Ping-Pong table either. And so that’s what my wife and I did: We played for about half an hour, after which, suddenly exhausted, we went and had a late lunch in the sunken courtyard immediately outside the front entrance. “Grub first, then ethics,” Brecht said, but in this case it was sports first, grub second, and art . . . maybe later. As for ethics, I’m sorry, Bertolt, but that category appears to have been dropped altogether.

Situated below street level in the Arco Courtyard (you can eat indoors or out), Patinette, the museum’s restaurant, has an elegant corporate ambiance, if that’s not an oxymoron, that makes it work both as a restaurant and as a café. You don’t have to eat a proper meal here, but you can. I began with the gazpacho ($4.25), which came with a small island of bay shrimp and avocado at its center. It was thick, and a little too heavy on the tomato as well: The other flavors didn’t come through. Still, I’d order it again. My wife had a rotisserie-chicken-salad sandwich ($8.25), which turned out to be disappointingly bland (she’d wanted the salmon burger, but they were fresh out of that, along with several other things, including, it seemed, teaspoons), but my meatloaf sandwich ($8.25) was juicy and tasty without being too massive. For dessert, we shared a fresh-fruit tart with berries ($4.50) that was light and not too sweet, and I finished off with a cappuccino that was good but heavily speckled with coffee grains, perhaps because the espresso machine needed cleaning. 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 626-1178. (BB)

Pentimento at Los Angeles County Museum of Art

There are a lot of things I like about LACMA: I live near it, it’s not on a hill, and there’s a slight chance, as lovers of the contemporary disaster movie will know, that it’s sitting smack on top of a live volcano. That last detail adds a touch of drama to even the most casual visit, I find. And of course, you can see movies there, too, though not, alas, of the caliber of Volcano.

But most of all there’s the art, of which there’s quite a bit. Furthermore, you can experience it in relative tranquility: On certain days you can wander through the rooms almost entirely on your own. That, in my opinion, is half the fun. The whole point of museums is not only to get closer to art but also to get further away from life — particularly if we define life as crowds, which is the form life seems increasingly to take. So, in the middle of a summer day, LACMA is one of the more peaceful places in the city to go. Then, after a while, all the paintings start to go blurry on you and the peace becomes monotonous and your stomach starts to growl and you realize that you’re hungry and tired and all you really want to do is sit down and have someone serve you food and drink.

This, at any rate, is what happened to me recently. So I stopped in at Pentimento, LACMA’s main restaurant (there’s also a cafeteria), where a three-course meal for two (without wine) is likely to set you back about $32. It was 90 degrees outside, and â I was ready for a good gazpacho: blood-red, garlicky and, above all, cold. And that’s exactly how it was. Shimmering with oil, crunchy with crisp, slender croutons, drenched in the taste of tomatoes, it refreshed completely and only cost $4. My wife had the assorted beefsteak-tomato salad ($7), which sounded voluminous, but turned out to consist of a small number of yellow and variegated tomato slices, together with a strictly limited amount of mozzarella in a bath of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and cracked black pepper. Lacking a Little Italy to set the standards, L.A. just isn’t a mozzarella town — most of the stuff served in restaurants tastes like milky cardboard. This was better than that.

It was 2 in the afternoon, and we were sitting on the restaurant’s patio under a large canvas umbrella. Marriages have their talkative days and their less-talkative days, and this one was on the quiet side. So we concentrated on the food. The menu, clearly, was not designed to satisfy a policeman on a cold, rainy day: A lamb sandwich was about as macho as things got. The entrées were, in fact, nearly all salads. I plumped for the duck-confit salad ($13), and my wife ordered the spicy Cajun shrimp salad ($15). Neither, I have to say, was terribly inspired, though both were nicely presented. For the price, one would have been better off eating bread and three servings of soup. But with dessert, things looked up again. For $5, I was offered a beautifully designed mango-pineapple tarte tatin with banana sorbet and “exotic” sauce, while my wife entertained herself with a “trio” of crème brûlées — vanilla, chocolate and pistachio. (There’s so much crème brûlée to be had in L.A. that it should really be named crème cliché, but it was good nonetheless.) Our waiter, a French-Algerian — as was the great Albert Camus, as is the great Zinedine Zidane — was a very friendly and helpful chap, but he never told us his name. Apparently, he’s not an actor. 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; (323) 857-4761. (BB)

The Restaurant at the Getty

I suppose it was fairly obvious, when one stopped to think about it, that the Getty would house an expensive restaurant in at least one of its lablike structures. Like the rest of the riffraff, I had eaten at the Getty’s cafeteria, or at least had a coffee at the cafeteria, and thought no more about it. As it happened, a friend was in from New York and wanted to go to the Getty. Since she’d been responsible for putting on the terrific Hugh Masekela concert downtown the previous night, I thought she deserved to be treated to dinner. Furthermore, I value her opinion, for Leticia’s no stranger to fine restaurants.

Our parking reservation was for 6:30, but the earliest dinner reservation we could secure was for 8:15. So, for an hour and three-quarters, we did what people usually do when visiting the Getty: We studied the architecture; we visited the Central Garden; we gazed at the view; we refreshed ourselves with coffee; and then, finally, we thought we’d better have a look at that stuff inside the museum.

Actually, there was an exhibit of photos by Eugene Atget I was keen to see. Since it was called “The Man in the Street: Eugene Atget in Paris,” I assumed the photographs would be a study of Parisian pedestrians, circa 1920. As it turned out, the sidewalks in Atget’s pictures were as devoid of human presence as any tree-lined boulevard in Bel Air. The “man in the street” turned out to be Atget himself. As an ex–New Yorker hungry for some sidewalk action, I felt bitterly disappointed.

But then, the Getty tends to do that to me. For the 20 minutes you spend on the phone trying to get a reservation, to the annoying way that the paths to and around Robert Irwin’s celebrated Central Garden have been laid out (you have to walk first in zigzags, then in circles, but never in a straight line, which is how most people like to walk), it has always struck me as the most controlling of museums. But I love it after dark, when it no longer looks like a museum at all but rather like an austerely elegant factory designed to produce a more efficient class of human being. And that, in fact, turned out to be one of the most enjoyable moments of the night: taking a cigarette break on the balcony between courses. Only at night does the Getty’s full beauty and megalomania emerge.

Already hungry at 8, we spent 15 minutes before our reservation studying the menu. “Baked Rone de Nice Squash with Maryland Lump Crab and Blood Orange Gastrique” was one of the more fanciful entries, while “Butter-Poached Lobster & Corn & Asparagus Risotto” was one of the more improbable. We all found the menu slightly baffling. Who has ever eaten a “crisp” salmon? Or had a lasagna with curry sauce? Or lamb with an olive tapenade? Still, we were hungry and looked forward to the meal.

As a physical space in which to eat, the Getty’s restaurant is comfortable but can’t quite escape the more clinical side of Richard Meier’s vision. As for service, it can’t decide whether to opt for French hauteur or California friendliness. The result is wait staff who act like snobs but can’t stop smiling. â

Dinner began very nicely, with a good wine and a complimentary salmon mousse, enlivened by ginger and cracked peppercorns, that was absolutely delicious. In fact, it was one of the few dishes that could be called completely successful. Another was seared sea scallops and shrimp ravioli with chevril butter, a $14 appetizer that my wife enjoyed thoroughly. A tart of fig and goat cheese was exquisite, but too sweet to be an appetizer. The entrées were disappointing. My bouillabaisse ($28) came with a fabulous pepper crostini, but that was the only really good thing about it. My wife’s lamb loin with baby eggplant and an olive tapenade was served rare rather than medium, as she’d asked for, and the tapenade was overpowering. As for our friend’s salmon with asparagus and garlic sauce, she found it rather uninspiring. Maybe that’s why she decided against ordering dessert. A pity, perhaps.

And, after a round of cappuccinos, that was it. We’d taken a friend to dinner, and our friend had been disappointed. Given that the bill came to $210, this was not very pleasing. As it turned out, our initial reaction to the menu had been correct: The chef was overreaching. The following night we took our friend to Ara’s, an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant on Melrose Avenue, which is like an object lesson in cooking simply, and well. Good vegetables, good meat, good rice, good wine, good dessert, good coffee, all for a reasonable price, with wonderful service. Our friend was happy. “Someone,” she said, “should build a museum next to this place.” 1200 Getty Center Drive; (310) 440-7300. (BB)

Viva at the Museum of Latin American Art

MoLAA is one of those small, intimate museums that can make bigger and better-known institutions feel pompous and sterile by comparison. And because it is located in Long Beach, the staff are out to please: They know a lot of people have had to drive a long way to visit them. Founded in 1996, it is (according to the brochure) the only museum in the western U.S. “which exclusively features contemporary Latin American fine art.” On exhibit until September 10 is a show of contemporary Cuban art, all of it the work of artists in their 20s and 30s, that is worth a look. Not all of it is successful, but there is an emotional and technical richness to the best of it that’s lacking in most contemporary-art shows. At any rate, there are at least two things that differentiate their work from that of their American peers: They live in a poor country, and they know how to draw.

Viva, the museum’s restaurant, is different from most museum eateries in that it’s interesting enough to exist in its own right, while nonetheless managing to feel like an integral part of the whole. It has a lovely outdoor patio that’s roomy enough for the three trees (including a sizable palm) that sprout from its tiled floor. There are dishes from all over Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (Panama, Cuba, Mexico . . .), and on the menu each item is identified not only by nationality but with a picture of the national flag as well. There are also miniature flags kept in a vase on each table. If nothing else, a visit to Viva will teach you a lot about flags. Go, and impress your friends afterward.

I ordered a good glass of white wine, Chilean, one of several offered here from South American wineries, and, as is usual, gazpacho ($5.50). This one, according to the flag printed next to it on the menu, was Mexican in style if not in origin. Unfortunately, it proved a disappointment, being far too acidic for my taste. My wife tried the escabeche ($5.75), which was described as pickled fish with vegetables, but turned out to be a salad with some anonymous strips of fish in it. It was certainly fresh, and beautifully presented, but not what either of us had hoped for.

The platos principales came to the rescue. The torta ($6.95), a Mexican sandwich concocted from spicy marinated beef, served on a roll with lettuce and avocado, along with spinach salad, turned out to be a juicy, pungent, melt-in-your-mouth meal all by itself, while the spinach and garlic enchilada ($6.50) from El Salvador was perhaps even better and came served with some delicious yucca chips. On recommendation of the manager, we also ordered the jicama-and-orange salad ($6), which, as advertised, was both refreshing and delicious, although the oranges were a touch too chilled.

And so, along with a slightly bland cappuccino (I asked for an extra shot of espresso in mine), on to the caloric Cuban extravaganza known as platanos con ron arcaramelado (ripe plantains in a rum-and-caramel sauce over vanilla-bean ice cream). It’s very good, but all I can say is: Go with a friend, and share it. As a grown-up, I felt almost embarrassed to be seen eating it. But then, I could have chosen one of the more mature desserts, like the fresh strawberries with powdered sugar, balsamic vinegar and mint leaves. I did, in fact, also choose a flan, usually a fairly mature concoction, but then I don’t suppose I’ve ever had a Colombian flan before. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll like it. Served on the sun-dappled patio, with maybe a Peruvian beer, the pleasure afforded from a late-afternoon bite here is hard to beat. 644 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; (562) 435-4048. (BB)


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