Artful dining: South Florida museums are curating better food options

A pile of 3,000 porcelain crabs on display at the new Perez Art Museum Miami may evoke artist Ai Weiwei’s intended message of harmony — or it may conjure a craving for crustaceans. In the latter case, visitors can stroll over to Verde, the museum’s restaurant, and dig into a warm salad of rock shrimp, mesclun greens and avocado in a truffle buerre blanc dressing.

An Italian ceramic plate in the permanent collection at the Wolfsonian-FIU depicts a woman rolling out dough on a kitchen table. The inscription: Non Sciupate Il Pane (Do Not Waste the Bread). It’s a mantra that Jeremiah Bullfrog is taking seriously at his new Subatomic Sandwiches, located in the museum’s gift shop. The chef is slinging between-bread indulgences like duck-meat Cuban sandwiches with house-pickled cornichons and smoked heritage turkey subs with funky, tangy kimchee.

Verde and Subatomic are two recent examples of a movement toward better food options at South Florida’s cultural institutions.

Last month, chef Loren Pulitzer and art consultant Susan Caraballo received a $40,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to launch FEAST Miami (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics). They plan to cook a series of pop-up dinners at cultural institutions where guests can help fund new art projects.

In Broward County, Books & Books opened an outpost of its cafe in Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale in 2011. The same year, Miami-Dade’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens tapped Miami’s A Joy Wallace Catering to run its renovated cafe.

So long, stale muffins and packaged fruit cups. Hello, heirloom-tomato pizza with squash blossoms and goat cheese.

“We wanted to provide more of a sit-down, relaxing experience for people looking for something a little more substantial than a snack,” said Brooke LeMaire, marketing associate at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

LeMaire was referring to Fairchild’s Glasshouse Cafe, which opened a year ago with the garden’s 25,000-square-foot DiMare Science Village. A sun-hued Dale Chihuly chandelier hangs over the cafe’s 150-seat dining room, where guests look out onto more than 3,000 butterflies fluttering among orchids and plants in a tropical conservatory.

In this setting, a warm quiche paired with the sweet heat of small-batch lime-habanero soda tastes like a treat after a day of traipsing around the garden grounds.

The cafe, LeMaire said, has become a popular venue for weddings and other private events. And the restaurant’s focus on local, organic and house-made items gives it more food cred than the garden’s grab-and-go Lakeside Cafe. Both venues are owned and operated by Creative Tastes, the catering company from husband-wife team Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo.

“People really like our tropical turkey,” LeMaire said of Glasshouse Cafe’s croissant sandwich served with mango chutney and a slice of creamy havarti cheese. “It has those fresh flavors that people associate with South Florida.”

Garden admission is required to access Glasshouse Cafe, but that’s no longer de rigueur at museum restaurants.

One need not even step foot inside PAMM to dine at Verde. That ease of access already has made the restaurant, which opened with the museum last month during Art Basel, an attractive option for downtown power lunchers looking for a strip steak, a full bar and an expansive bay view.

Verde is the latest South Florida venture for Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr (Makoto, Steak 954), who also oversees food at the New York Botanical Gardens, Philadelphia Museum of Art and a handful of other cultural institutions.

“It’s always exciting to be a part of a museum because they bring the local community and tourists together in the same place,” Starr said. “As an art lover, I find it exciting to be able to align myself with cultural institutions while being able to bring an elevated dining experience.”

Verde offers lunch on the days the museum is open and has extended dinner hours on Thursdays. Its menu mixes highlights of other Starr restaurants — a raw hamachi dish is from Makoto, a calamarata pasta with chiles and guanciale (cured hog jowl) is from Pizzeria Stella in Philly — with new items like a Perez chopped salad (manchego, garbanzos, cucumber, romaine and smoked-tomato vinaigrette).

Like Verde, Subatomic Sandwiches opened during Art Basel and does not require museum admission. Located in the Wolfsonian’s gift shop, it’s open four days a week for lunch, and Bullfrog said he plans to extend the hours in the next month.

Bullfrog, who also runs the Miami mobile-food outfit GastroPod, said he had been looking at spaces in Wynwood for Subatomic when he heard the Wolfsonian wanted to fill its long-vacant kitchen.

“The space is perfect for our concept, which is basically making our own lunch meat by brining, curing and smoking different things for our sandwiches,” the chef said.
Salads made of quinoa, kale and local greens round out Subatomic’s everything-under-$10 menu, which includes caffeinated drinks from local roaster Panther Coffee.

Bullfrog said his setup inside the museum benefits Subatomic and the Wolfsonian. The restaurant gets first dibs on catering contracts for private museum events, and Bullfrog’s food gives people another reason to check out the Wolfsonian.

Weekend brunches and nighttime tasting-menu dinners are part of Bullfrog’s vision to bring in guests beyond the Wolfsonian’s weekday visitors.

“We’re trying to inject a new life into what people consider a museum restaurant,” he said. “We want to bring in a younger crowd that may not otherwise come to the museum.”