I didn’t expect much. After all, this was just a café, but when my friend Barbara said she needed something to eat, I agreed to try the Studio Cafe at the new Whitney Museum. The line of peo-ple waiting to buy tickets to the museum that Friday of Memorial Day weekend extended to the end of the block and the line of people waiting for a table was no better in the café.
We had taken the first off-peak Metro North into New York City from Greenwich, Connecticut. Our Whitney tickets, purchased online the night before, indicated we were admissible at 11 a.m. but no later than 11:30 a.m. We barely made it. Seventh Avenue was a jumble of taxis, buses, pedestrians, construction sites, and delivery trucks. Our frustrated taxi driver pulled curbside and said, “There’s the subway. Take it to the museum. I’m losing money.” Barbara shot back with a quick repartee: “And it’s costing us money. Get over to Ninth and drive us there.”
While I’m not so sure about Renzo Piano’s gray structure that jutted jaggedly out of the meat-packing streetscape into the Manhattan skyline, what was inside the building were American treasures, many familiar and just as many new to me.
For two hours Barbara and I perambulated through the seventh and eighth floor light-filled galleries and now paused in the corridor connecting the kitchen to the Studio Cafe dining room on the eighth floor. We watched as bowls of aromatic soups, colorful salads, and plates of artistically constructed open-face sandwiches were hustled to tables. There was an air of conviviality and palpable excitement in the café as if everyone couldn’t wait to compare notes on what thrilled them the most in the galleries.
All we really needed, we kept saying to one another, was a bite, but when the very efficient young maître d’s station announced, “Table for two outside ready for you,” we were suddenly very hungry.
The outdoor decor is finely tuned to Piano’s gray palette with undertones of white and black accents. Our gray metal table, with its black woven place mats and white napkins — cloth, I must point out — was under a gray umbrella near the fire escape of a stairway to the upper viewing terrace. At every table there was animated conversation but the sky and the harbor swallowed the sounds so that Barbara and I felt comfortable during our own chitchat. An occasional breeze brought a welcome respite from the hot white sun and muggy heat of that afternoon.
Barbara ordered a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich from a menu favoring the vegetarians among the museum-goers. A plethora of farmers market-sourced produce hogged the menu. I am not a vegetarian but I was intrigued. In the suburbs, we had not encountered so many vegetarian choices on menus in the local restaurants and it’s always a struggle for my vegan daughter to find a dish she will “tolerate.” She will love Studio Cafe. Out of eight toasts listed, five were vegetarian; of three soups, two were vegetarian; and among the three salad selections, only one had meat. There were sugar snap peas, asparagus, avocado, carrots, broccoli rabe, pickled cucumbers and peppers, radishes, mushrooms, and kale, but of course. Desserts featured strawberries, pecans, oranges, passion fruit, and coconut.
To give you an idea of the sophistication of this farm-focused menu, let me tell you about the crostini (labeled “sandwich” on the menu) I ordered. First, the platform for all open-face sandwiches ($12) is a toasted, thick slice of earthy sour dough bread with a dark crust. You can taste the tang of the dough but only slightly so. It’s the topping communion of unexpected ingredients that exhilarate the palate. My toast had a layer of mashed yellow-eye beans, a lace of brilliant green broccoli rabe, and a crown of cubed, honey roasted carrots. A confetti of grated provolone and a shower of tiny yellow flowers from the broccoli rabe completed the composition. It was simplicity itself and packed with assertive character; I had to duplicate it at home.
I guess we were asking too many questions of the waitress, who went back and forth between us and the kitchen during our Q and A, so the chef came out from the kitchen to talk to us. Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, the chef, the sculptor of the bean-carrot medley, patiently listened to Barbara who said that something more was needed on her plate to add dimension to the grilled cheese sandwich and make it more visually appealing. We talked for twenty minutes about the yellow-eye beans that he buys from a farmer in the Finger Lakes area, how he uses the herbs from his mother’s garden in his cooking, and the fact that he was writing a cookbook about the local farmers market. We even swapped kitchen stories and then he said he had to get back to work. We asked him his name. He said it was Michael Anthony.