Can a museum restaurant ever live up to its surroundings? We decided to find out. In our ongoing series Fine Food, Fine Art, we go in search of the best restaurants in museums in New York City and in other cosmopolitan cities around the world. In this edition, we explore Flora Bar at the Met Breuer in New York City.
fine food and fine art
Are fine art and fine dining the new power couple? Like luxury retailers, the important art museums of Manhattan seem to realize that having an exclusive, buzzed-about restaurant is mission-critical to their success. How else to explain that some of the most exciting restaurants in New York City right now happen to be housed in museums?
Art and food can separately serve as comfort and inspiration. Especially when you’re traveling or on vacation. So we figured that the two together should be a little slice of heaven. A meal at one of these establishments might even the perfect gift for the foodie in your life. Or for you!
Our Asia Bureau Chief joined us for a visit to Flora Bar at the Met Breuer in New York City for lunch, and it turns out that’s true: fine art + fine dining = fine time.
Flora Bar at the Met Breuer
Flora Bar faces a somewhat unique challenge: it must serve as a compelling museum café by day, and a go-to neighborhood restaurant by night. So far, it’s walking that tight rope beautifully. In 2016, Flora Bar was named one of the city’s best new restaurants by the New York Times (which later gave it two stars); and New York Magazine calls it the best restaurant on the Upper East Side.
Flora Bar is nestled inside the Met Breuer in a land-marked building. The subterranean space where the restaurant is located is a mash-up of unfinished grey concrete, white marble, leather seating and soaring windows.
It’s all-of-a-piece with the Brutalist design of the museum – it feels a bit like dining near the mouth of a cave inside a huge mountain.
As a result, it’s fairly noisy when you’re seated indoors – and it was completely full when we were there – so there was quite a cacophony of sound.
In the warmer months, there’s an outdoor patio for dining. It’s a place for lively conversation and people-watching. As long as you’re up for that, you’ll love it.
The table decor
There are no tablecloths on the wooden and marble table-tops, and the cutlery and other tabletop items are minimalist and crisp.
The wait staff takes the restaurant’s cacaphony in stride with good humor. Our waitress kindly explained some of the more mysterious menu items to us (“anchovies and boquerones” turns out to be “salty fish, two ways.”)
Owner and Chef Ignacio Mattos has been at the helm of Flora Bar since it opened almost three years ago. Born in Uruguay, Mattos worked in several well-known kitchens, including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. He opened estela in Manhattan in 203, and the restaurant subsequently earned a place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.
With such at star in the kitchen, the menu options are inventive and wildly varied. When we visited, it included a shrimp sandwich; a maple-bacon-and-egg open-faced sandwich; and steak and potatoes. You’ll definitely find something to suit your fancy.
Only one kind of bread was offered, and it was ambrosial – a variation on sourdough, it disappeared rather quickly.
We decided to share a starter of tuna tartare, potato and truffle (it also had flax seeds and shallots). Like many dishes here, it came shaped in a perfect disk (a signature plating element is that the kitchen is highly enamored of crisp geometric shapes).
The starter was a great choice: fresh, citrusy, and well-composed, with textures and flavors complementing each other perfectly.
For a main, I went with the lamb ribs with yogurt and mojo verde, and the Bureau Chief decided on the halibut with wild mushrooms.
He gave his choice good reviews – the fish is served with a large cabbage leaf and a delicious broth with the distinct flavor of daikon (no circles or squares here). My lamb was probably the best preparation I’ve ever had – the meat is tender and moist, and four pieces per order are served on the bone with a thick charred crust. It’s billed as an appetizer, but it’s so rich I couldn’t finish it as an entrée (so if you get it as a starter, plan to share).
For dessert, we shared a chocolate parfait with Amarena cherries – it was nothing like what you’d expect a parfait to be, but it was pure icy cold chocolate bliss. And yes, it’s shaped like a precisely drawn circle.
Our take? This is an inventive, somewhat challenging menu – it’s nearly as provocative as the art – and well worth a visit. We didn’t delve into the wine and cocktail list, but they’re extensive and other reviews we’ve read say they’re well-chosen.
One other thing to keep in mind is that Flora Bar is a beloved neighborhood joint during the hours that the museum is closed. For example, every Sunday night, Flora Bar serves a family-style roast chicken dinner. The menu consists of a full or half chicken; deviled eggs; roasted squash; chicory salad; potato gratin; and Parker House rolls.
Finally, the Met Breuer itself is in a state of flux. The Metropolitan Museum has announced that it will be transferring the lease for the space to fellow Upper East Side art museum the Frick in late summer 2020. It’s not yet clear whether Flora Bar will stay in the space once the Frick moves in. If you really want to experience it, go now.
We’ll be continuing our series on the best restaurants in museums in New York City and in the world. It’s a tough job, visiting the great museums of the world and sampling their dining options. But someone has to do it, dear reader. We’ll report back. In the meantime, bon appetit!
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