The edible canvas

I was in New York two weeks ago, and I saw an extraordinary work of art, of fanaticism--and, the artist claimed, of love.

Liza Lou, a young artist from the West Coast had entirely covered a life-size kitchen in tiny, brilliantly colored beads. Not one inch was left bare. Picture it carefully: floor tiles covered in patterns of beads, wood grain on the cabinets covered with beads, table and chair covered with little shiny bugle beads. The toaster and its cord were beaded; the newspaper on the table was beaded; the oven rack, the pie in the oven, the mixer and the cookbook, the suds in the sink, the Comet can, the broom, the boxes of cereal, everything was beaded.

It was an outrageous, almost frightening sight, because besides being beautiful, it perfectly captured the numbing tedium of the repetitive jobs that are done in every kitchen, and the cumulation of thousands of tiny menial tasks that add up to culinary accomplishment.

Those tasks in cooking are called la technique. But cooking is not about producing a single masterpiece by whatever laborious means.

Jacques Pepin was in Dallas recently to promote his new cookbook, and in his class at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, where a hundred people paid plenty to drink wine and watch Jacques chop vegetables and bone out chickens, he held forth on la technique, his area of particular brilliance. The art of cooking defined by Jacques Pepin: It is about producing a masterpiece over and over and over again, the same dish plate after plate, night after night. You must be able to produce consistent results but with inconsistent ingredients, by using the same process, the correct techniques. The real art is in the process of creation.

Cooking is an art, one of those peculiarly human things, like dance and theater and painting, that we need for nourishment as much as we need protein and vitamins. So it seems appropriate that the new restaurant in the Dallas Museum of Art, called Seventeen-Seventeen after the building's address, should serve forth the highest culinary art. In fact, to me, it makes aesthetic sense for every museum--since they must serve food of some kind, art appreciation being hungry work--to serve food as fine as the art.

The new restaurant is the creation of dan’, DMA's in-house catering company. It's right where the old restaurant used to be (can't let a good grease-trap go to waste) but a long way from the soup buffet to Seventeen-Seventeen. The original buffet, just inexpensive soup and sandwiches served up by volunteers, was a holdover from Fair Park. Then the museum hired its own chef and waiters, went into the restaurant business, and, as Ginger Reeder, director of marketing and visitor services, tells it, "We lost our shirt."

When Clay Johnson came in (from Horchow) as deputy director of the museum, he had fled the food business, and dan’ won the museum's new catering contract. Now dan’ handles both restaurants and the liquor license, paying the museum a fee plus a percentage over a base amount of catering and restaurant sales. (That's right, the arrangement is just like a mall has with its tenants.)

Then Coca-Coca Bottling Co., in the person of Robert Hoffman (the man behind the Dallas Plan and the Arboretum), bought dan’ and Hoffman had a bigger idea: Why not have a fabulous restaurant in the museum? It just took cash to cook it up. A big-name chef was needed, so Kent Rathbun, a Mansion alumnus, was hired away from the Omni Melrose. When Hoffman and the museum split the cost of renovating the kitchen and restaurant, they were in business.

"Get a bunch of retail-marketing people in the museum business, and that's what happens," Reeder says. She is counting on the restaurant to attract new and regular visitors to the museum:If the art doesn't bring 'em, the margaritas will. It seems like original thinking, but in a way, it's the same idea Ray Nasher had for NorthPark all those years ago. Make it more than a shopping center; make it a "town center." If they come to have their blood pressure checked at the Health Fair in the mall, they'll probably end up buying some khaki pants.

And it's so very Dallas. Show us chic dining or new shopping, and we'll follow you anywhere. Well, don't look for a Neiman's boutique next to the museum's Gateway Gallery, but there will be cooking classes in the sculpture garden, high-dollar wine dinners in the restaurant, and picnics at special events. Seventeen-Seventeen will be open during outdoor jazz concerts (patio seating for those who like it live and corner-room seating for those who prefer piped in music and cool air). And eventually Seventeen-Seventeen will be open for dinner as well as lunch and brunch. You could be a regular patron of Seventeen-Seventeen and never see any art at all.

I previewed Seventeen-Seventeen's new menu in this column several months ago; it was in place before the space was closed to be redone by Paul Draper and Associates. Now the redesigned room has re-opened.

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.

Draper's idea was that Seventeen-Seventeen would provide diners with a "distinctive aesthetic environment, allowing them to experience the museum as more than a vicarious experience." But there's no point in cooking if no one's going to eat it. As much as theater, cooking is a communicative art. To be meaningful, it requires an audience, you and me. In that sense, Seventeen-Seventeen is an ongoing work of art we can all be proud of.

Seventeen-Seventeen, Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood, 922-1260. Open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

House-Smoked Salmon-Chive Pancake Sandwich with Watercress Creme Fraiche and Crisp Capers $7.25

Grilled Wild-Boar Sausage, Lollo Rosso Salad with Amish Blue Cheese, and Tangelo-Basil Vinaigrette $7.50

House-Smoked Turkey-and-Bacon Club on Raisin-Pecan Bread with Horseradish Mayonnaise $



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