If you manage to brave the crowds to see the Michelangelo masterpieces now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can now end your cultural jaunt with a culinary treat under the same roof.
The Dining Room at the museum recently opened to the public for the first time since it started as a members-only retreat in 1991. It was worth the wait.
The fourth-floor, white-tablecloth room’s air of privileged calm is a welcome respite from the packed gallery floors, with stunning views of Central Park, Cleopatra’s Needle and the city’s skyline.
The Met has cheaper noshing venues including the Petrie Court Cafe, American Wing Cafe and a cafeteria. But their limited hours, hard-edged seating and mostly sandwich-and-snack menus don’t compare with the plush and proper Dining Room.
Having once been there as a member’s guest when it was mostly empty, I was surprised by the newly liberated venue’s younger crowd, buzz and professional service. It’s graciously run by accomplished New York pros, including managers who previously worked at Union Square Cafe and Picholine.
The Dining Room is reached by elevator off the Medieval section, but executive chef Fred Sabo’s menu is contemporary, globally-influenced Manhattan-American. His seafood-strong lineup taps local and seasonal ingredients with just enough originality.
Starters (most $15-24) roam today’s crowd-pleasing playbook: crispy octopus with beluga lentils, soul-satisfying squash soup and lush and peppery steak tartare.
Main dishes (most $26-$38 at lunch, $38-45 at dinner) rival what you’ll find at many contemporary spots. Standouts I tried included perfectly medium-rare Skuka Bay salmon with parsnip-pear puree and butter-poached lobster tweaked with persimmon and spaghetti squash. Lamb two ways delivered a powerful duo of smoked chops and pulled shoulder meat wrapped in a wafer-like Moroccan-style “brick” pastry — a well seasoned, sausage-like affair that was comforting on a bitter night.
Pastry chef Randy Eastman’s desserts keep the streak going with $13 treats such as a rich sticky toffee pudding masquerading as “date cake.”
For all the good news, the house urgently needs spiffing up. Its slightly shabby look might have seduced older museum members who felt it was their clubby, privileged aerie, but it’s a turn-off for the younger art-lovers who now fill tables.
Walls are bare, strangely lacking art. Drab, olive-brown carpeting looks worn. Without the eye-popping, room-length angled window view, you’d take it for an old department store’s basement cafe rather than the crown-jewel eating venue of the world’s greatest art museum.
Although the jewel needs polishing, you’ll wonder why the Met kept it a secret for so long.