The Artful Nosher

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Museum-going is an exhausting business. Looking at art has the same effect on me as the character in James Salters' collection "Dusk and Other Stories" who announces she's very hungry: "She had been at the museum, the paintings made her ravenous." The story takes place somewhere in Germany, where I gather, unlike Los Angeles, museums don't necessarily have anywhere decent to eat. Fortunately, here museum restaurants and cafes offer a place to rest weary feet, get a jolt of caffeine, a little something to tide you over till dinner, or an entire meal. The choices are as varied as the city's museums. Here's my pick of the most appealing.

Newest in the local galaxy of museum restaurants is Pentimento Cafe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened in January in the former museum bookstore space. Created by Patina's Joachim Splichal, the cafe has a clean, contemporary look with pale, polished cherrywood walls, granite tabletops and stylish cafe chairs, a full bar (handy for the Friday afternoon jazz concerts) and an attractive outdoor terrace shaded by umbrellas.

An attentive waiter in a black apron will take your order: to start, a bowl of olives and pine nuts is a nice snack, with a glass of wine from the well-chosen list. There's also a potent garlicky hummus with caramelized, whole garlic cloves that leave an indelible tracer on the breath, and a lovely, tomatoey gazpacho laced with finely diced vegetables and homemade croutons.

Nicoise salad, made with fresh tuna, looks photo-ready, but only the greens are dressed, and just barely. Cobb salad with bacon, cheese and chicken striped across the top is tastier, though the dressing is watery.

Desserts include a trio of cremes bru^lees, the best of which is the classic vanilla bean; pistachio is excruciatingly sweet. A plate of Patina cookies hits the spot with an espresso. Lunch or no, you can stop in for a snack or dessert and coffee all through the afternoon. And how sophisticated it feels sitting here with all the talk of art swirling around you.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pentimento Cafe, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard at South Ogden Drive, Los Angeles, (323) 857-4761. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12-8 p.m.; Friday, 12-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Parking in museum lot or on street.

The Restaurant at the Getty Center, one floor up from the casual no-reservation cafe, has a setting that most restaurateurs would kill for: a drop-dead view of the hills and, on a clear day, the sea beyond. The light-drenched space, decorated with an Alexis Smith mural on the theme of taste, is especially pleasant at lunch. I like to sit outside on the breezy terrace at a table set with a vase of gerbera daisies and Riedel stemware. Every wine on the list is also available by the glass.

A mild-mannered seafood soup with salmon, shrimp and scallops isn't particularly compelling, though. A summer Greek salad is nice, except for the tasteless tomatoes. But baby spinach salad is overburdened with smoky bacon and fried leeks, and sodden with dressing. Our waiter swears the pumpkin gnocchi, which are the menu's tie-in to the current Dosso Dossi show, are fabulous. We end up eating all the delicious chunks of shiitake mushroom and leaving the leaden gnocchi behind. Crispy whitefish is nicely crisped, but not enhanced by gluey mashed potatoes.

What's best? The extravagantly tall Getty Club sandwich, served with a crock of green mayonnaise on the side (so California). Vanilla bean ice cream is terrific, too. My advice? Stick with the simple and classic. Judging by two recent meals there, the kitchen isn't always up to executing some of the overambitious ideas.

* The Getty Center, the Restaurant at the Getty Center, 1300 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood. (310) 440-6810, restaurant; (310)440-7300, visitor services. Open Thursday and Friday for dinner, 5-8:30 p.m. Open for lunch Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Parking by reservation only.

Adjacent to Santa Ana's Bowers Museum is Topaz Cafe, which functions as a free-standing restaurant, also open when the museum is closed on Mondays and at night Thursday to Saturday. Vaguely Southwestern in feeling, it features terra cotta-colored walls, huge vases of flowers and a long bar with a glimpse of the cooks at the back. A handsome outdoor terrace doubles the cafe's space.

Billed as a "creative world cuisine," the cafe's menu suits the museum's eclectic collection. Big, juicy salads are appealing, especially the vibrant Singapore salad with ripe mango, pineapple, papaya, tofu and greens in a sweet-tart peanut dressing that packs some heat. Tunisian salad strewn with artichokes, grilled peppers and garbanzo beans can be embellished with excellent grilled lamb chops for a few dollars more. The Santa Fe Caesar's dressing, though, tastes more like ranch than a true Caesar.

For appetizers, try the crispy potstickers with hot mustard or the grilled chile relleno filled with a molten river of cheese. Several times a summer, John Sharpe, who owns Topaz Cafe along with several Orange County restaurants, hosts Native American Feasts at the cafe; the next one is "Buffalo Days and the Wild Plum Moon Feast" on July 30 ($45 per person, including wine, tax and tip).

* Bowers Museum, Topaz Cafe, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 835-2002; http://www.topazcafe.com. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; high tea daily, 2-4 p.m.; dinner Thursday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Live music Friday nights.

Tea in the rose garden at the Huntington Library is just the place to take your mother or your great-aunt. I love the walk through the vast lawns, past the library and the French statuary toward the glorious rose garden in full bloom. Amble down the rose bowers, reveling in the heady fragrance of the climbers until you reach the simple tea room with tables draped in brocade and, in the middle of the room, a buffet topped with silk roses.

Just two teas are served, a rose-scented orange pekoe (which you can buy in the gift shop) and a keemun; both come in metal pots, already brewed. Summers, though, most everyone chooses iced tea, and the little girls in summer frocks sip pink lemonade. First come warm miniature scones scented with orange peel or dotted with raisins, along with a very little butter, whipped cream and two kinds of jam.

At this dainty all-you-can-eat buffet, the crustless finger sandwiches filled with cucumbers or watercress and cream cheese, tuna or gravlox are fine, the platters refreshed every few minutes. My niece, however, only nibbles, her attention riveted on the array of desserts. Cheese and crackers? Fruit? She remains untempted. But she does enthusiastically approve of the heart-shaped shortbread cookies, and returns to the table with deliciously gooey date bars, minuscule banana cream tartlets and bite-sized chocolate cups filled with lemon curd and cream.

* Huntington Tea Room, the Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (626) 405-2141. Tea is served noon-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on weekends; reservations advised, (626) 683-8131. $ll per person, plus admission fee to Huntington ($8.50 adults; $8 seniors; $6 students; free to children under 12; summer hours 10:30 a.m-4:30 p.m Tuesday-Sunday).

I had never been to the Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar until I went recently for tea. Waiting for my guest to arrive,I wandered through the cacti and succulent garden, and visited the koi in the tropical greenhouse. I found a collection of seashells mounted in the small adobe building where the private museum devoted to the study of the Pacific Southwest began. In the gardens, which take up an entire city block, I listened in as a docent recounted the history of the gnarled old pepper tree to a visitor.

At 2:30 sharp we sat down to tea in a sheltered courtyard cooled by the sound of a fountain. It was an extraordinary repast, three intricate courses, each served with a different tea, prepared by Judy Sagami by reservation only.

Served on a marble slab set on three beach pebbles, first came a collection of stacked bites, to be eaten from left to right, which included a delicious corn and tofubouchee layered with mustard greens and a seafood polenta with white beans. Whole-wheat dried mulberry scones served with Devonshire cream are deliriously rich and crumbly. Last is a collection of elaborate miniature desserts paired with mint almond tea. If my mother had been present, she would have insisted on taking a picture. The wonderful thing is that everything tastes as good as it looks. How often can you say that about any restaurant? Lunch is also offered at adjoining Cafe Jardin run by Pascal Olhats of Pascal in Newport Beach.

* Sherman Library & Gardens, Cafe Jardin, 2647 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, (714) 673-2261. Lunch is Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; tea in the courtyard area at 2:30 p.m. sharp Monday-Friday; $30 per person. Free admission to the gardens if you're having tea; otherwise it's $3; children under 12 free.

A great spot for lunch downtown is Patinette at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is installed in the courtyard just in front of the museum's entrance. There are a few (small) tables inside, but the best seats are outside. The three-salad combination plate is the way to go: green beans with grilled chicken, white mushrooms, tomato and crisped pancetta is one of the best.

Sandwiches are a good bet too, especially the meatloaf on a toasted onion bun with caramelized onions, though the pan bagna (grilled tuna on an olive roll with Nicoise vegetables and red roasted pepper mayonnaise) runs a close second.

The dessert list is very long and very good. Need one to carry? Choose the giant chocolate chip cookie or the dark fudge walnut brownie.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, Patinette at MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave. (between 2nd and 3rd streets), downtown L.A., (213) 626-1178. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m; until 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings, when museum admission is free. Parking in museum lot.

The LACMA cafe's Splichal has also recently taken over direction of the Curator's Cafe in the Natural History Museum in the booming museum area of Exposition Park. It's a fairly simple menu, mostly sandwiches and soups (oh, yes, Splichal's signature "soup of yesterday," which can be anything from cream of mushroom and tomato basil to lamb chowder), plus a few daily specials--satisfying fare if you've worked up an appetite viewing dinosaur bones and fossils.

Kids get a section all their own, which includes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, burger, hot dog or macaroni and cheese. And if you just want to sit down and kick off your shoes over dessert, you can do that here too, with, say, a plate of very rich chocolate chip cookies or a brownie drowned in fudge sauce. Then it's onward and upward to check out the new Pavilion of Wings butterfly exhibit or the Insect Zoo. Maybe the cafe should consider adding fried grasshoppers or chocolate-covered ants to the menu?

* Natural History Museum, Curator's Cafe, Exposition Park, 900 Exposition Blvd. (at Menlo Avenue), Los Angeles, (213) 763-3466. Museum open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday nd Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; http://www.nhm.org. Museum admission: $8 adults; $5.50 seniors over 62, students with I.D. and children ages 13-18; $2 children 5-12. Curator's Cafe open 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, (213) 749-4249.

If you want to catch a show at Skirball Cultural Center, why not go on Sunday and have brunch at Zeidler's Cafe--cheese blintzes, scrambled eggs and potato latkes, and the obligatory lox with toasted bagel and cream cheese. The menu was written by Judy Zeidler, author of a Jewish cookbook and one of the partners in Santa Monica's Broadway Deli. Her lunch ideas include an unconventional chopped salad with avocado and mozzarella, a chilled poached salmon plate with wild rice salad, grilled vegetable frittata and a pepper-cured salmon pastrami club sandwich. Kosher items are marked with an asterisk. And the tiny tots can stave off hunger with peanut butter and jelly or a plain cheese pizza.

* Skirball Cultural Center, Zeidler's Cafe, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 440-4515. Open during museum hours Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; brunch on Sunday until 1:30 p.m. only.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday July 22, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 51 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction Getty Restaurant--The phone number to make reservations at the restaurant at the Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, is (310) 440-7300. An additional phone number that is not for reservations was included in the cover story on museum dining in the July 15 Calendar Weekend.
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