Meyer’s MoMA Ventures Debut: Busier Than a Bosch Painting

In the past few months, Manhattan has been the giddy beneficiary of two major spectacles in the world of art: first, the recondite Gates installation in Central Park, and second, the unveiling of the Museum of Modern Art after a long renovation. While the former held my interest for as long as it took to slurp a small latte, the museum could take weeks to get through, and I was pleased to learn that along with its spiffed-up new galleries would come a number of quality restaurants and a bar. I spent last weekend exploring them, from the Modern, the signature French-style restaurant, to a cozy chocolate and Champagne bar.

From 53rd Street, you approach the Modern via a funhouse-like curving-glass passageway that is backlit by bright white bulbs-it could really give you the creeps if it weren’t so short. The passageway deposits you into a large, loud bar area, made even louder by the plangent bass-driven jazz emanating from all corners. At the front of the room is a massive white marble bar, all 46 feet of it illuminated from below. At 7 p.m., the room was busier than a Bosch triptych, crowded with a farrago of post-museum-goers, happy-hour devotees and curiosity seekers like me.

The only objet d’art in sight was-now take a deep breath-a bowling-alley-size photograph of a paper sculpture of a forest. You’ll have to see it for yourself. Called Clearing, it’s by a German artist named Thomas Demand. At first I thought it strange that the bar and restaurant were not festooned with de Koonings, Dalís and Man Rays, but it became clear that the owners wanted to create a dining experience that was harmonious with the museum without being overwhelmed by it. Or, as executive chef Gabriel Kreuther recently remarked of the restaurant, “It’s in a museum and not in a museum.”

As for the “bar” food, don’t expect chicken wings and fried mozzarella sticks. Along with your chardonnay, you can have anything from specialties like smoked eel rillettes (it’s similar to a pâté-$11) to foie gras with toasted country bread ($17) to lamb loin with fennel confit ($14) and potato-and-marrow cassolette with smoked beef tongue ($11).

From my standing-room-only perch at the noisy bar, it was a little difficult to ask patrons what they thought of the place, but I did my best.

“What do you think of the place?” I inquired of two middle-aged ladies from Murray Hill who were sitting at the bar, one wearing a thick cable-knit sweater, the other in a red turtleneck. They were splitting a crab salad.

“Lovely place, a little dark-very nice people,” said the first. “Do you think it will always be this busy?”

“Gee, I don’t know-of course, this is a holiday weekend,” I said.

“We’re not really bar-goers. We’re not really big museum-goers either,” chimed in her companion. “But we had to see this. I think we’ll come back for dinner.”

“How about the museum?”

“Maybe when it gets warmer,” she replied.

Behind a large glass partition in the back of the room is the much-anticipated restaurant, the Modern, which opened to the public on Feb. 7. In keeping with the Bauhaus tradition, the room is open, airy and cool: form following function at the highest level. I had invited a friend and frequent cohort on dining expeditions, Dominique Simon, who is a wine importer. We were seated in a deep horseshoe banquette that faced the cynosure of the complex, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. “Great seats,” I said. “If your date is less than titillating, you can always commune with Henry Moore.”

While it appears that there are as many staff members as there are customers at the Modern, it is a notably unfussy place. The service is exacting, but amiable and self-assured-I even had a brief conversation about zydeco music with one of the sommeliers.

Danny Meyer, president of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which runs all of the museum’s restaurants, has spared no expense with the Modern’s dining room: Egyptian cotton napery, elegant German-designed flatware and Spiegelau stemware. Mr. Meyer’s trademark, which he pioneered with his enduringly successful Union Square Café, is to create first-rate, fancy restaurants with superb food and service-and then subtract the fancy.

“My hardest job right now is to get everybody to loosen up,” he said as he stopped by our table, wearing a plaid suit, blue shirt and an expression of edgy vigilance. “Sometimes I just want to say to them, ‘Chill out!’” His credo, he has said many times, is to create a beautiful space, serve excellent food and offer warm hospitality-then let it fly.

“That’s not always an easy thing,” he said.

Mr. Meyer’s company, which owns, among other ventures, Tabla, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Smoke, runs all of the dining venues in the museum, including a large cafeteria-style facility on the second floor, a dessert parlor on the fifth and an employee cafeteria, also on the second floor.

Manning the stoves at the Modern is the soft-spoken Gabriel Kreuther, the Alsace-born wizard who previously served as chef of Atelier, the formal dining room in the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park. His menu is intellectual and innovative; he has pulled no punches because the restaurant is in a museum. The three-course prix-fixe dinner is $74; with a cheese course, it’s $88. The international wine list has a little for every taste, and you don’t have to be a Matisse collector to find choices in your price range.

On the current menu are dishes like sautéed skate in a pimiento nâge and fricassée of leeks, orange-dusted loin of lamb and a potato cake with escargot, scallions and gingered parsley jus. I started with sweet langoustines wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon along with spicy yogurt and cardamom oil, while Dominique opted for a dish that he liked so much when he was there last that he ordered it again: sweet-pea soup with barley, comté cheese and whipped cream. Two pleasing main courses were buttermilk-poached turbot with clove sauce, cauliflower and sea urchin, and a pair of faintly gamy wild boar chops with sauerkraut and a potato terrine.

When we took our leave at 9:30 p.m., the bar was still fairly lively; it stays open until 11:30 p.m. from Monday through Saturday.

I returned the next day to check out Cafe 2 and the dessert spot, both of which are accessible only to museum patrons who have paid the $20 admission fee.

It was shortly after noon, and the cafeteria was so packed you’d think they were giving away original Warhol soup cans with every bowl of clam chowder. So far, Cafe 2 has been serving more than 1,000 people a day. The large, spare, glassed-in dining hall could well be the cafeteria of an affluent suburban high school. Sparkling clean. Efficient. Cheerful. Rows of long pine tables spilling over with families, artsy types (the ones with berets), T-shirted teens, foreigners and more crumpled ski jackets than the base lodge at Vail.

Technically speaking, this is not a cafeteria. In single file, diners inspect the day’s selections and questions about the food are answered by “menu consultants” (a.k.a. cashiers); servers then deliver the dishes to the table. The Italian-style menu revolves around pastas, panini, pizza, cheeses, salads and soups in the $5-to-$12 range.

My final stop was the Terrace 5, a smaller (60 seats) full-service café that offers, in addition to sandwiches and salads, 15 types of homemade and imported chocolates, as well as desserts like pistachio cake with hazelnut praline and cream ($7). Small savory plates, like Mediterranean chicken salad and seared yellow fin tuna, are in the $10-to-$16 range. This is one of the few such cafés I have seen that recommends wines with your desserts. A perfect match to the pistachio cake, the menu suggests, is a Ramos Pinto 20-year-old Tawny Port ($17).

It’s a cute space, with a small anodized aluminum bar and a spectacular 40-seat outdoor terrace that floats over the sculpture garden. I could just imagine a June afternoon on the terrace, sipping Champagne and popping chocolate truffles.

On my way out, I checked in one last time at the Pamplona scene in Cafe 2.

“How long you been waiting?” I asked a fellow in the middle of the line.

“Actually, it’s moving pretty fast-not as bad as it looks,” he said, rocking his dozing toddler.

I haven’t been to the restaurants in the Louvre in Paris, the Tate in London or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but I’m certain that MoMA more than holds its own. Already, Mr. Meyer’s ambitious projects have sparked some discussion about the synergies between art and food, and how the connection between the visual and the gustatory has taken on new meaning.

I was going to pose this question to Mr. Meyer, but then I changed my mind; he would have laughed at me. Instead I asked, “When the smoke clears, who do you think will come to this restaurant? Art types? Foodies? Tourists?”

“You know,” he replied, rubbing his weary eyes, “so far we’ve had punk rockers, we’ve had people in suits, we’ve had Howard Stern-you name it. And that’s the way it should be.”