It's one thing for a restaurant hostess to inquire whether you'd care to check your coat. It's something else entirely when a uniformed guard stationed behind a sign soliciting "suggested donations" comes menacingly close to wresting your backpack away from you in an attempt to keep you from walking off with any of the treasures he's sworn to protect. Still, such encounters are a small price to pay for the unexpected bargains you'll find at the new breed of swanky cafeteria that no cultural institution worth its endowment seems, these days, to be without.
This fall, the much-expanded Asia Society will reopen with a pan-Asian café operated by Mi, a Lower Madison Avenue restaurant known for its compendium of culinary hits from Korea, Thailand, China, and Japan. Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef-owner of Wallsé in the West Village, has been experimenting with Viennese pastries and high-octane kaffeehaus concoctions in anticipation of the November opening of Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie New York, a Museum Mile stockpile of early-twentieth-century German and Austrian art. And next month, when Sotheby's new, not-so-subliminally named restaurant, Bid, opens at the beleaguered auction house, browsers, buyers, and intrepid foodies can partake of bluefin-tuna tartare with sea urchin and horseradish, plus other seasonal Americana masterminded by Tom Colicchio and executed by his Gramercy Tavern sous-chef Matthew Seeber.
We fully expect the Underground Gourmet to be outbid at Bid, but no matter. We've been very happy chowing down at Scandinavia House's AQ Café, the sleek new cafeteria run by Aquavit and its star chef, Marcus Samuelsson. The bright, airy ground-floor café -- with its Arne Jacobsen "Ant" chairs, spruce floors, and Marimekko primary-color scheme -- provides a gastronomic introduction to Nordic culture, beginning with the trip to the counter for a translucent tray bedecked with Swedish china and Finnish silver and glassware (all for sale at the shop next door) and ending with chocolate-sheathed marshmallow "sweedies" for dessert. The water is Ramlösa, the beer is Carlsberg, and flags from all five Nordic countries (can't remember the fifth? It's Iceland) line the wall.
Samuelsson uses traditional Scandinavian ingredients in novel, occasionally zany ways, and this freethinking, multiple-garnish philosophy permeates the menu at AQ, which is open for late breakfast and lunch only. A room-temperature gravlax "pizza" ($6.75) -- silky house-cured salmon, mashed avocado, mustard sauce, pickled fennel, and fresh dill heaped high on a Parmigiano-touched wedge of Eli's focaccia -- may be Samuelsson's brawny answer to Wolfgang Puck's signature smoked-salmon pizza. On an early visit, the too-dense, too-cold bread is as impenetrable as a Viking shield, but on a second try, the flavors mingle perfectly. Much better is a rich slab of salmon lasagna, ringed with a swirl of bright dill pesto, slathered with roasted-garlic-Parmigiano béchamel, and crowned with ascending dollops of zesty tomato-caper salsa and creamy salmon salad ($9). For this contribution to cafeteria culture alone, Samuelsson's mother country should award him a Nobel Prize.
Where better to feast on Swedish meatballs than Scandinavia House? These are loosely packed and undeniably delicious, with smooth mashed potatoes and gravy, lingonberries, and pickled cucumbers -- a deal at $9, considering the café at Aquavit charges $16 for the identical dish. But these same meatballs, so satisfying and savory when hot, lose some of their luster in the meatball sandwich ($6.75), where they're buried between two overly thick slices of chewy five-grain bread. The "spicy chili chicken wrap," while not Nordic-sounding in the least, features roasted chicken breast spiked with mango jam and pickled cabbage rolled up in lefse, an unobtrusive flatbread that lets the flavorful fillings speak for themselves. The Scandinavians have an excellent alternative to filling up on bread, though, and it's called the smorgasbord. AQ's $8 version is an artful arrangement of four irresistibly rich and pungent herrings (pickled, curried, mustard, and tomato), two types of salmon, shrimp salad, and a chunk of tangy Vasterbotten cheese -- all for half the price you'd pay at Aquavit.
As Swedish meatballs are to Scandinavia House, the Israeli salad is to the Center for Jewish History, where those in search of a cheap kosher lunch must first fend off the bag-snatching assault from the front desk before reaching the snug Date Palm Cafe. Last month, the owners of Village Crown restaurant introduced a new Mediterranean menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, and hot entrées, from $4 to $7.95. There's a ritual hand-washing station, kosher wines from Baron Herzog, Israeli fruit nectars, and lots of customers who've worked up an appetite investigating their family tree at the Genealogy Institute.
Since the center's mission statement is "preserving and illuminating the history and culture of the Jewish people," we felt funny ordering something as assimilative as a tuna-salad wrap -- even though, it must be said, our Jewish grandmother made a mean tuna on toast. Instead, we sampled a pair of tasty though slightly soggy salmon croquettes, served with the ubiquitous Israeli salad, a refreshing dice of cucumbers and tomatoes. The potato boreki would have been vastly improved if they were crisper, hotter, and segregated from the Israeli salad's dressing. Grape leaves, though, were served hot, stuffed with deliciously oily yellow rice. Vinegary marinated eggplant was the highlight of the Moroccan salad medley, more intensely flavored than the mildly spicy carrots and the grayish hummus that seemed more tahini than chickpea. The pita, however, was first-rate, fresh and thick -- almost as thick as the doughy, excessively cheesed individual pizza. A potentially decent vegetarian lasagna, too, met a death-by-mozzarella fate. Serves us right. There's an exhibit at the Center called "Ida Kaminska, Grande Dame of the Yiddish Theater," and we have an inkling Ida would have stuck with the croquettes.
AQ Café, 58 Park Avenue, at 38th Street (212-847-9745). Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Date Palm Cafe, 15 West 16th Street (917-606-8210). Open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.