As any pseudo-intellectual can tell you, some questions are best left to the confines of the dorm room. Questions like: “What is art?” “Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around?” or “Why are these cookies my friend sent me from Denver making me appreciate Rothko more?” To attempt an answer is a fool’s errand. Anything can be viewed through a subjective lens as art.
The trend to deify chefs and food-world personalities has exhumed comparisons of chefs to artists and the sum of their cooking to works of art. There’s no denying food’s intrinsic visual significance, not only in terms of what makes a dish appetizing but also as an expression of a chef’s vision. The expression “we eat with our eyes first” isn’t just something uttered by a terrifying creature in my nightmares.
Still, it seems that museum restaurants and the chefs who cook in them have a particularly difficult task. The food either provides a counterpoint to the surroundings or becomes an exhibit unto itself. Danny Meyer and Gabriel Kreuther led this charge in 2004 with the opening of The Modern at MOMA, and other well-known chefs have followed suit with their own art institution partnerships, including Marcus Samuelsson and his American Table Café and Bar at Alice Tully Hall and Ken Oringer, the Boston chef who opened an outpost of his popular Boston tapas restaurant, Toro, here last September and also operates the New American Café in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Saul Bolton’s relocation of his flagship, Saul — one of the most quintessentially Brooklyn restaurants of the past two decades — to the Brooklyn Museum is a notable move for the borough’s dining scene, which has hosted an influx of creative, trendy venues in the past 10 years thanks largely to Saul’s success. But lest you fear that the neighborhood’s prodigal son has gone corporate, Bolton’s cooking is every bit as honest as it was on Smith Street. And though the brick walls and soft lighting of the original have been replaced by a predominantly monochrome color scheme, the new tone helps draw attention to the room’s more vibrant sights: Abstract Expressionist works from Paul Kelpe, an expanse of gallery visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, and, most importantly, the food.
Tart sorrel leaves cradling kernels of puffed quinoa look like Georgia O’Keeffe flowers or unrolled joints. I can’t tell, but like both of those things, they’re gateways to untold delights. A hit of bracing ginger sauce bolsters the herb’s citrusy sourness, met head on by quinoa’s nuttiness. Parsnip soup, frothed and pale as ocean foam, evokes a nature scene, with pine nuts piled onto craggy parsnip chip islands surrounded by ripples of vanilla oil. Sweet and earthy with equal parts cream and crunch, it’s a thoughtful study of an ingredient. The same can’t be said for a pallid salad of cooked and raw fennel that begs for more aggressive seasoning despite brighter elements on the plate like Castelvetrano olives and citrus supremes. Charred octopus also falters, but only on the merits of its accoutrements (too-thick pads of rendered speck ham, a slightly pasty white bean purée). The cephalopod itself is tamed into tender submission with an exterior char.
Paunchy ribbons of black pepper pappardelle constitute the restaurant’s vegetarian entrée and have as much virtuous imperfection as Chinese hand-torn noodles. The pasta is cooked perfectly, but red wine hardly registers in a sauce that tastes overrun by roasted mushrooms and sunchokes. Visually, it’s as rustic as a forest floor in winter. Carnivores fare much better in the second half of the meal with a painterly canvas-shaped plate of dry-aged squab, breasts facing meat side up to show off perfectly glistening near-rare flesh, the crisp legs occupying opposite corners of the plate, separated by dunes of bulgur wheat salad and carrot purée. Both the squab and a tasting of Vermont pork have a decidedly abstract feel to them, though only the pork feels abstract in flavor. To be sure, this is an expression of porcine divinity, with gently cooked blocks of loin, oblong halves of liver, and a crackled brick of pork belly exhibiting gamy unctuousness. But the sharp sting of booze-infused pears clashes with the pork’s barnyard flavor. More successful are soft cabbage leaves and beet halves, which soak up a rich jus that dominates the plate.
Bolton also handles dessert, and his spiky baked Alaska has thankfully made the trip across town. Its extraordinary meringue peaks curl and contort into something resembling a Chihuly sculpture. Passion fruit ice cream hides beneath the sweetened egg whites, sitting on a bed of tapioca and toasted coconut. If you stare at it long enough, maybe you’ll understand. It’s subjective, after all.