I recently went to the MoMA with a friend of mine, to scope out the Olafur Eliasson exhibit and have lunch. We had previously eaten together at Bar Modern, which I enjoyed (beer-braised pork belly, that’s all I have to say), but we wanted something more casual this time around. Plus, after taking in all that art (some brilliant, some questionable, some I am not qualified to comment on), I was in a bit of a time-crunch.
We originally planned to eat in the courtyard and take advantage of the beautiful day, but the offerings were fairly disappointing: turkey sandwiches on rosemary bread, gazpacho, cookies, etc. Nothing wrong with that in general, but we were in the mood for something a little more enticing. We went inside and took the escalator to the second floor, to check out the appropriately-named Cafe 2.
Although the outside is very unassuming, on the right wall of the entrance hangs a giant chalkboard listing all of the menu items. And what a menu it is. The concept is rustic Italian, and they serve a wonderful, inventive selection of seasonal foods including artisinal cheeses, panini, pasta dishes, various cured meats, and some very interesting small-plates. You could make a meal simply combining a few appetizers, which is what I chose to do.
We place our orders at the counter, received a number on a stand, and made our way to the communal tables. We spotted a few empty chairs but the ladies sitting next to them didn’t look like they were in the mood for company, so we made a beeline for the far end of the restaurant, where a bar and stools stretched in front of the windows overlooking 52nd street. Perfect.
Deciding what to order is quite difficult here, as everything sounds good. We didn't know if we should go the cheese/meat plate route, do salads and pasta, trythe various kinds of bruschetta...The possibilities seemed endless. Feeling overwhelmed, we went for two appetizers and a pasta dish.
All three items arrived fairly quickly, but not so quickly that it felt like the items were just sitting around already-made. Rather, the green puck of sweet pea flan that sat on display in rows by the cashier (as many of the items are) was now topped with a generous mound of pea tendrills and accented by a creamy sauce in swirly designs around the plate. It was charming and beautiful in color.
The sweet pea flan was just delightful, and although I have been wanting to go back and try it, I see it’s no longer featured on the online menu, so perhaps it has come and gone. Either way, it was a nice way to be introduced to executive chef Lynn Bound.
I also ordered the roasted beets with fresh ricotta, which was excellent, of very high quality, and made for a nice pairing with the flan. I still have no idea why I went with two small vegetarian dishes, but sometimes you gotta go against your own grain.
Friend ordered creamy polenta with arugula walnut pesto and fontina. It was hands-down the creamiest, most well-executed polenta I believe I have ever had. The walnut pesto actually had chunks of toasted walnuts, which added a nice earthy crunch, and the pesto gave it just the right touch of flavor. The fontina was melted like a blanket over the whole thing. The dish was incredibly rich, dense, and my friend could only finish half of it. Needless to say, I finished the rest.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my own food, in fact, I loved it. After both dishes (and a plate of warm, complimentary focaccia) I was perfectly full. However, as I was born without that gene that tells you when to stop eating and drinking, I couldn’t help myself. The cheesey polenta deliciousness was too overwhelming.
I’d love to come back and order more of the small plates, get an assortment of cheese, try the spinach and artichoke tramezzini with lemon mayo, and eat the polenta again. Not to mention, we didn’t have time to indulge in any of the desserts, which include seasonal tarts and ricotta cheesecake.
You have to be in the MoMA to eat here, but between (most) of the art and the surprisingly good food, it's worth a trip.
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