Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Garden Café Français Buffet Review

Bœuf Bourguignon with Tomato Quiche

There's no better art gallery in all of North America than DC's National Gallery of Art. The fact that it's free, is nothing short of amazing. All it needed was (not one, but) two amazing eateries to cement its status as DC's "ultimate destination." Its Cascade Café caters to a wide assortment of tastes, inside a spacious dining hall with a dazzling view of the gallery's cascade waterfall. Chicken tenders & pizza are fine and dandy, but fine art benefits from equally fine food (and wine.) Enter Garden Café Français, an upscale option with a dynamite deal of a buffet ($20.75) for those with more discerning palates.

The Garden Café Français is located on the ground floor of the West Building, and is billed as a "serene spot for lunch." That's true in terms of appearance; but the space is smack-dab in the middle of the gallery (right by the gift shop entrance) and gets noisy (sometimes very noisy) very easily.

That said, I felt instantly at peace once escorted to my table by the Café's hostess. I arrived just before noon on an August weekday, and the Café hadn't filled up as yet. Take away the groups of school children wandering by, and I'd be tempted to use the term oasis: It's quite comfortable, and the notion that you're surrounded by Monets, van Goghs and the continent's only da Vinci is quite appealing.

Ditto for the buffet table, which boasts a nice variety of foods (beef, pasta, two salads, a quiche, bread, dessert and even two kinds of cheese plus grapes.) Literally something for everyone (save for the aforementioned fans of chicken tenders and pizza.) Some dishes are quite appetizing (the Beef Bourguignon, Tomato Quiche and the Chocolate Mousse) while others (namely the cheese ravioli) leave much to be desired.

Carrot Ribbon Salad

Portion control is entirely up to you, including the salads (finally, more than one tomato on my salad!) and nothing was even close to empty during my visit. I spotted a few, less-than-perfectly-clean plates next to a tall basket of cold, soft bread (cut pieces of French baguette.) I realize it can't be easy to toast all that bread; but a soft baguette is one step short of sacrilegious in my book.

Lunch started to look a whole lot brighter with Executive Chef Pierre Cummings' tomato quiches and two pots of Bœuf Bourguignon. The quiche was warm, rich and tender (but not too delicate) while the beef stew reminded me of a well-prepared meal from home. I went back for seconds on the stew, but barely managed to swallow two bite-sized pieces of cheese ravioli. First off, who knew you could make ravioli this small? Tortellini perhaps, but not ravioli. It was cold, had zero flavor (bland basil sauce?) and looked greasy in spots.

Frisee Salad

Having two salads was a pleasant surprise, especially given the choice of what items to add to each. That meant plenty of cherry tomatoes on my Frisee Salad, along with a nice wedge of Gruyère cheese and a slice of hard-boiled egg. Even better, the brightly colored Carrot Ribbon Salad, bathed in orange vinaigrette with a hint of mint, and soft, thin strips of carrots. Absolutely terrific.

Assuming you still have room (make some, if you don't) be sure to indulge in dessert, a sinfully good Chocolate Mousse that packs quite a wallop of sweetness... so good, I had to go back for another ramekin-full.

Ravioles de Fromage au Basilic

Beer and wine are available (and enthusiastically pitched) but I went for a Diet Coke (8 oz. bottle, $2.50.) $20.75 is a tad pricey for a buffet with less than a dozen options; but a downright steal when you consider it's offered in a museum. Service was solid (although no good-bye from the hostess) and dirty plates were removed relatively quickly. My server (Hirut T) was very nice, and checked in on me several times.

The Garden Café Français is inspired by masterpieces from the Degas/Cassatt exhibition, which runs through October 5th (at which time, the Garden Café may make wholesale changes to the menu.) I love the idea of building an entire menu around one of the Gallery's many collections, and can't wait to see what they come up with next (Spanish? Italian?)

Chocolate Mousse

Garden Café Français is open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4:00 p.m. A pre-concert menu of light fare, desserts, and beverages is offered from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Sundays to accommodate visitors who attend the free evening concerts in the West Garden Court. Click here to see the full menu (including a la carte items) as well as select recipes.