The new wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened to the public on January 19th, and along with this stunning 114 million dollar expansion designed by famed architect Renzo Piano comes Cafe G, a contemporary restaurant offering museum goers a unique dining experience. I was invited to the new cafe for a tasting of the Nasturtium Connection Menu, inspired by the 20-foot long edible hanging plants that have been exhibited in the courtyard every spring since Isabella first draped them in 1903. Prior to this complementary lunch, I was whisked along on a quick tour and even allowed to take some photographs of the Nasturtiums. (Taking photos in the original museum is not allowed, which I remembered from a past visit, so for this I felt incredibly lucky!) The flower is defined by gorgeous orange blossoms which grow from lush green vines. They cascade over the coutryard walls in an elegant fashion, drawing crowds of visitors specifically to marvel in their beauty. Once we sat down to lunch, Chef Peter Crowley, who cooked at the former museum cafe nearly a decade using only a few small electric burners and a confection oven, greets us warmly. A quiet enthusiasm about him, you can tell he's thrilled to be cooking in a glamorous new kitchen and he's serious about getting creative with the food. I'm dining with the media relations manager and a journalist who is working on an overarching piece for a garden focused magazine. The conversation flows from the flowers, to the food, to the vivid and eclectic Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. Sleek glass walls surround the restaurant on three sides, looking into the new wing and out to the garden patio. Hanging wooden shelves tastefully display a small collection of books and bar ware on the opposite wall. Tall potted orchids bloom on the tabletops, modern crimson light fixtures hang uniformly overhead and native american rugs underfoot add a touch of cozy to the otherwise sleek ambiance.
In the first course of Nasturtuim Summer Rolls, the flower petals lend their dramatic beauty but it is actually the leaves which exhibit a pronounced peppery taste. The crisp rolls bathe in a fantastic jicama, avocado and yellow pepper broth. Already the connection is clear, it is as much about the food as it is about the art, this dish is gorgeous. Next we are treated to Local Scallops which have been caramelized and paired with spring dug parsnips two ways. The first, a creamy puree laced with nasturtium oil, and the second, a chip.The chip is what really impressed me, it was impossibly thin and captured the natural essence of the vegetable, embodying their sweet springy flavor. And once again, the nasturtium leaves add that delectable peppery punch. Dessert presents a Frozen Greek Yogurt (that looks more like a panna cotta - initially I'm expecting something light and gelatinous) over a pool of strawberry rhubarb consommé topped with more rhubarb and candied nasturtiums. As I'm enjoying this imaginative finale, where the candied flowers are playful and fun but the rhubarb consommé steals the show, I'm pondering, who would have thought a museum cafe would be serving such excellent food? The entire tasting menu is well thought out and succeeds in paying a touching homage to the Nasturtuim as it was traditionally used in cooking and garnishing, as well as with some new twists. I like to think all this would make the unconventional yet refined Isabella proud. As much as she was focused on keeping her museum intact, every piece of furniture and painting just as she left it, she was extremely avante-garde, always looking to push boundaries.
Menu inspiration at Cafe G will continue to fostered by the exhibits, which, when your museum is largely based around horticulture, and the highly skilled chef is willing to embrace all that comes with the territory, is a very, very cool thing.