“ A museum? Where?”
Nine out of ten people, including New Yorkers, never heard of it. And no wonder. Even the MET seems unsure. The combo of Met Breuer is tentative, depending on what will happen after the current building’s remaining eight years lease has expired. That much is clear: after The Whitney Museum of American Art decamped to larger quarters, the MET decided to use the space to display some of their modern paintings.
Ironically, if the MET hadn’t rejected Gertrude Whitney’s offer to donate her twenty-five year collection of American art, the Breuer may never have been built. Determined to find a permanent home for the collection, Whitney and her staff decided to build their own museum. They purchased the space at Madison and 75th Street, and chose the Bauhaus trained architect Marcel Breuer to design the museum.
In September 1966, seven years after the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave us The Guggenheim Museum, the Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer gave us The Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Whitney thrived. Thanks to donations and various purchases over the years, its collection grew to such an extent that it needed more space. This time, the museum chose Renzo Piano to build its new home, located between the High Line and the Hudson River.
Met Breuer opened in March 2016, with an exhibition called “Unfinished”. The exhibit displayed centuries-spanning works of art never completed, or left in a deliberately unresolved state by the artists. While “Unfinished” left me unimpressed, their coffee place caught my attention. Making much fuss about how to “pour-over” coffee, it was part of the coffee cult which had swept the nation and hasn’t stopped yet.
I have always liked the Breuer building regardless of who occupied it. The architecture may be powerful –some even call it brutal– but the museum is small enough not to get lost in, or feel overwhelmed by it. In a way, the MET has done me a favor. I look at it differently now. I like the spacious entrance hall, with separate reception and membership desks; the gift shop straight ahead; the comfortable upholstered benches to sit and rest; two elevators each large enough to accommodate an elephant and above all, the courteous service.
But it wasn’t until I saw the preview of “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical” exhibit that I realized how fantastic the Met Breuer space can be. From printed textile to glass columns, ceramics, jewelry, Bauhaus-style cabinets, advertising posters, Olivetti Valentine typewriter, personal letters and observation – each room, wall, and corner displays the enormous variety of the Austrian-born, Italian-based artist.
Assembled from the various departments of the Metropolitan Museum, with additional material from MoMa, MET BREUER has earned its keep.
“What’s for lunch?”
Standing on the bridge of Met Breuer and looking at the moat below, you see what’s going on at Flora Bar and Flora Coffee down below. A copy of the Flora Bar menu informs you what is being served: lots of seafood; some classics, and a variety of unknown dishes. What it does not tell you is how excellent the food can be. Many defy descriptions: Asparagus, goat cheese and egg tart? You’ll not find it in any culinary dictionary. Trust me, it tastes terrific.
I like to come for late lunch, either by myself or with a friend.
“Table 41?” asks the receptionist. It’s my favorite table in the back corner of the dining room. It’s spacious, nice and quiet. In keeping with the building’s design, there are no flowers or candles at the tables. Some people find it too severe. I’m so used to the place, I cannot imagine it any other way. Besides, it has floor to ceiling windows that overlook the outside patio.
To work within the demands of the kitchen infrastructure, the owner-chef team have devised a menu that emphasizes seafood (often raw), plus dishes that don’t require much cooking. Their bread comes from the Saraghina Bakery.
My favorite dish is the Tuna tartare, sunflower, and hijiki. The quality of the tuna is tops; it barely needs anything else. Still, the sunflower-, and black seaweed seeds intensify the flavor, and add a touch of mystery.
No mystery about the Caesar Salad. The Italian born Caesar Cardini invented the dish at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, ages ago. It continues to be arranged this way: the Romaine lettuce leaves are placed with the stems facing out, covered with grated Parmesan and home-made croutons, and doused with specific dressing. No knife and fork were needed; you’d pick up a leaf and start munching. Here, the dressing is made from fermented rye berries and eating with your hands is frowned up. Too bad.
Purple endive, pecans and Bayley Hazen Blue seems a modern version of the Caesar salad. The combination of pecans and blue cheese works well. The local blue cheese recalls English Stilton. But why “purple” endive? Shrimp Roll with Hollandaise and pickles looks appealing and tastes even better.
Some dishes sound bizarre: Potato and Raclette Croquettes? At $17.00, I’m not tempted to try. Nor do Burrata, Meyer lemon, fennel appeal to me.
Portions are relatively small. Prices are fairly high. Madison Ave in the 70’s has almost no eating places. No wonder Flora Bar has an enthusiastic audience. Many stop by for a glass of wine, a cocktail and maybe some cheese. I even spotted Fernet-Branca behind the bar. Awful to taste, but good for whatever ails you.
The Coffee features excellent pastries, and three different types of pre-made sandwiches, already wrapped up. From Macchiato to Cold Brew, there are ten different coffees available. Teas vary from Sencha Fukamushi to Iced Ceylon. All of this can be enjoyed at the counter service, or on the lounge banquette, small tables and chair, as well as the outside patio, weather permitting.
For first timers it helps to know the protocol: you have to get in line to place your order and pay. Try to have a seat available; pick up your order, including plastic cutlery. Sit down, relax and enjoy. Prosecco, white wine from the Loire Valley, and a red wine from Lazio, Italy are sold by the glass. Stay as long as you like.