The edible canvas

The DMA's Seventeen-Seventeen is an artistic masterpiece

In the '80s, after decades of dinners prepared by anonymous cooks, chefs came out of their kitchens and became stars. Now some even have agents, like rock stars, to manage their personal appearances.

In the '90s, restaurant designers are also becoming known by name. More and more people recognize the names of designers like Adam Tihany, who redid Le Cirque, among other things, and David Rockwell, who designed all the Planet Hollywoods--people whose job used to be strictly behind the scenes. Draper is the star of Dallas restaurant design. His past credits include Anzu, the Crescent Club, Beau Nash, Sfuzzi, The Riviera, and he was the logical choice to do something with the museum space, a challenge even for the most experienced designer.

"For years, cafes in museums have been treated as necessary evils, like rest rooms," Draper explains. You had to have them if you wanted people to spend any time in the place, but they were given less design consideration than water fountains. That's how the Metropolitan Museum in New York ended up with a school-style cafeteria next to ancient Grecian art.

Seventeen-Seventeen was conceived of as destination dining, though, the opposite end of the restaurant spectrum. Museums across the country are catching on to the financial sense of leasing out their restaurant concessions: The Whitney's lunchroom is operated by Sarabeth's Kitchen, and MOMA's is run by Mezzogiorno, but neither of these are as ambitious as DMA's Seventeen-Seventeen. And neither of them are as well-designed.

However, "This was a project that included an unusual number of restrictions," Draper says--like no artwork, for instance. There were too many security concerns about using anything from the DMA collection, and, of course, it didn't seem right to use art that wasn't from the museum, either. The solution was to use none, which necessarily means this is a spare, simple dining room.

Out of respect for Barnes' architecture, doing anything structurally was out of the question as well. "So my intention was to take the architecture and reinforce it--give greater clarity to what it was saying," Draper says. "Barnes is very controlled and very symmetrical, and we tried to use that philosophy."

Draper did this largely with measurements--reiterating the 7-foot height of the windows in the mirrors, wine storage, and the pierced cypress-wood screens around serving and kitchen areas. To add needed energy, he laid a bold mohair-textured checkerboard carpet and designed a network of cable-hung lights, which also balance the occasionally overwhelming light from the wall of windows. Every chair is a big, rich mahogany armchair with a comfortable curved back. Draper's restrained and functional design forms a bridge between the Frank Lloyd Wright windows and Barnes' architecture.

The menu, though, breaks all restraints. It is a collection of baroquely complicated fantasies from the worldwide imaginations of dan’ executive chef Kent Rathbun and DMA chef George W. Brown Jr. Each dish is a grocery list of ingredients, a dizzying balancing act, a Tower of Babel with references pulled from many cuisines. It makes you a little seasick just reading the descriptions; it's hard to tell what the hyphens and commas actually mean.

Is that a lime, raspberry, and chocolate creme brulee or mango-lime? We had to read the menu aloud to make sense of some dishes. Some of them never did sound sensible: lemon-ginger sorbet bombe with kumquat-tangelo soup? What's that? And where are the tangelos coming from this time of year?

It's a mystery on the page, but not in the mouth. It may be ridiculous to describe a hamburger as "Texas fire-charred." (What else would have charred it? Lightning?) But this is nevertheless a good burger--rare, thick, steaklike, oozing juice. The chef cooks with his mouth in mind, never mind how outlandish the food sounds. Or looks.

A special appetizer balanced a round of buttery foie on top of a Dairy Queen swirl of fuchsia-tinted mashed potatoes. They were colored with beet, I suppose, and referenced the raspberry vinaigrette that sauced the liver, but the visual effect was just short of psychedelic. A salad of grilled wild sausage on "lollo rosso" (a red-tinged leaf) was sprinkled with Amish blue cheese and barbecued pecans and a tangelo-basil vinaigrette. Somehow, it worked: The heft and chew of the boar sausage was lightened by the crunch of the sturdy lettuce, the smooth, rank tang of the cheese sweetened by the fruit and sparked by the minty basil. All the main dishes we tried, with the exception of a perfectly straightforward though unfortunately tepid black-bean soup, were like this. You have to suspend your disbelief, shut your eyes, trust your mouth, and eat.

At the close of the extravaganzas, you might wish for something simple--just a cuppa joe, maybe, for dessert, but pastry chef Katie Brown is from the same school as the chef. That bombe I mentioned turned out to be a ball of hard and sour sorbet, wrapped in a fork-striped, torched meringue that rested, yes, in a sort of fruit soup. The trio of creme brulees included a chocolate-orange, raspberry, and mango-lime in vanilla sauce. A layering of white cake with pink-chocolate mousse was wrapped in chocolate, garnished with fresh fruit, including an impossibly sweet blackberry the size of a cherry tomato. The whole thing was sauced with a coffee mixture so strong you could drink it for breakfast.

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