Restaurants have always been self-conscious, if erratic, showplaces for art and design, but every few years, it seems, someone has the bright idea to take this equation and stand it on its head. There’s the Modern, Danny Meyer’s upscale operation at MoMA, of course, and many primly respectable cafés have sprung up in similarly artsy venues (Sotheby’s, the Neue Gallerie, the Met) over the last decade. Now, with big donors becoming more and more scarce, and arts budgets tightening, a new wave of museums have taken the plunge into the murky world of food and entertainment. Two months ago, the Guggenheim opened a fancy little canteen called the Wright (after Frank Lloyd), which serves lunch five days a week and an elaborate dinner menu on three nights. And if you take the elevator to the top floor of the monolithic new Museum of Arts and Design, on Columbus Circle, you will find Robert, a restaurant that has a piano bar, a lavish cocktail list, and a glittering, million-dollar view of the sort you’d find at the top of a hotel in Vegas.
In the humble opinion of this bilious, gout-ridden food critic, the Wright (which has only 58 seats and occupies a space just slightly larger than the back of a good-size freight truck) is by far the more aesthetically pleasing place to eat. The bright white room, which sits discreetly on the south end of the great spiraling structure, is home to an installation made with strips of aluminum colored in shades of orange and yellow, entitled The Horizon Produced by a Factory Once It Had Stopped Producing Views, by the artist Liam Gillick. The windows are round, like the portholes of a ship, and to create a sense of movement, the dining counter in the center is matched by a swoop of shiny white plastic affixed to the ceiling.
The chef at the Wright is Rodolfo Contreras, a veteran restaurant hand whose flowery, gourmet style of cooking is more in tune with the museum’s stodgy, Fifth Avenue neighborhood than is the spare, contemporary space. But you won’t find wheels of smooth, plum-colored beef tartare like this among the salads and bowls of lukewarm soup being served down the street at the Met’s café. Nor will you see fresh, thinly sliced layers of yellowtail hamachi, which the kitchen decorates with bits of shaved apple, sweet onion, and cucumber. Something in the baroque scallop-and-shrimp appetizer I tasted was weirdly funky (probably the sea-urchin sauce), but no one complained about the Wright salad (beautifully cooked farm vegetables, plus a lightly truffled poached egg, in a green watercress purée), or the beet salad (tossed with citrus and pistachios), or the beautifully textured parsnip soup, which Contreras crowns with bits of chopped Romanesco.
Some of the larger compositions tended to be a little more uneven. I liked the striped bass (nicely crisped on top and served in a delicate paprika sauce), but the suckling pig (with “quince, violet mustard, shimenji mushrooms, and bacon au jus,” as the menu put it) was as hard as rubber, and my $33 serving of Bouley-style poached lobster was dunked in a fruity clementine sauce and undercooked. If you don’t feel like gorging on this kind of pricey, ornate grub after a contemplative stroll through the museum, proceed directly to the desserts, which include a small, pleasingly dense dark-chocolate soufflé and squares of chocolate layer cake made with a delicate chocolate mousse infused with oranges and tea. Or, if you’re in an experimental mood, try the mango mousse, which is round like a snowball and decorated with spirals of meringue, which manage to echo, if you stare at them long enough, the Guggenheim itself.
I didn’t detect any artsy references in the generic, generally uninspired food at Robert, or even in the room, which someone at my table equated to “a first-class dining lounge at the airport in Macau.” The restaurant’s great attraction is its dazzling floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park and Columbus Circle. But if you’re stuck in the back (as I was, twice), the L-shaped space (designed as an homage to the party planner Robert Isabell, who died unexpectedly last year) has a dreary, even institutional look. The waiters’ uniforms (like the tablecloths) are gray, the lighting is gloomy nightclub, and the antic design touches (squat, Jetsons-style lounge furniture, translucent Lucite panels affixed to the ceiling, a bizarrely pointy communal dining counter where no one seems to eat) have a thin, haphazard feel.
Similar problems pervade the erratically executed menu. After my print review went to press, Robert's chef Brady Duhame left the restaurant. The best of the generally bad appetizers (a dank $16 shrimp cocktail, vulcanized bits of charred octopus, a dreary salt-blasted Tuscan bean soup) was the foie gras torchon, which, with its spoon of quince jam and stack of scraggly (already cold) toast rounds, appeared to have been lifted from an antique fine-dining menu circa 1992. Except for a decent bowl of pappardelle (smothered in a rich wild-boar ragù), the pastas tended toward lumpiness, and so did many of the entrées, like roasted sturgeon (muffled in a viscous tomato sauce) and a radically overcooked Berkshire pork chop, served tragically with collard greens and a thick slop of sweet-potato hash. Those old business-lunch standbys, grilled chicken (brick-flattened in the ubiquitous faux-Tuscan style) and seared duck breast (atop a savory mash of quinoa), are the things to get, and if you stick around for dessert, the ricotta fritters are pretty good, too. But they do nothing to disprove the general rule that you should never visit a museum just to eat the food.