- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

This is the year of Paul Cezanne, and the National Gallery of Art is offering a little food for the body as well as food for the spirit and soul. In keeping with the “Cezanne in Provence” theme of its Cezanne show, the Gallery’s Garden Cafe has been transformed into Cafe Provencal.

Table decorations feature fragrant lavender and the buffet table harks of summer in Provence, decorated with bouquets of herbs and pots of flowers. France’s southern region, Provence, is a land of brilliant sun and blue skies, of red-roofed villages with little marketplaces lined with plane trees and surrounded by cafes. There’s beauty everywhere: in the rolling landscape, the stone farmhouses, the sparkling sea, the pine forests and the medieval towns.

The weekly markets are resplendent with colorful fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, cheeses, olives, breads and meats, as well as the blues, greens, reds and yellows of the Provencal fabrics and tablecloths sold in many of the markets.

Cezanne painted the landscapes and the gorgeous Mont Sainte Victoire, as well as his friends and family, over and over again, and the National Gallery’s cafe extends the pleasure of the eye with dishes created by two chefs from Provence who came to Washington for the first weeks of the exhibit — Francis Robin of Le Mas du Soleil in Salon-de-Provence and Rene Berges of the Relais Sainte Victoire in Aix-en-Provence.

The menu is divided into a buffet for $17.95 per person and a brief a la carte menu. Go for the buffet. The dishes are authentic; they are well prepared; and there’s a variety of Provencal specialties.

Start with the lovely, delicate tomato and basil flan. It’s a light savory custard and very good. The eggplant caviar on toast goes well with the flan as a starter. Move on to the salads, stuffed vegetables and the hot dish.

Three salad dishes offer a mix of vegetables in a subtle anchovy-based sauce; a curly endive salad with mixed herbs and croutons in an olive oil vinaigrette; and a salade nicoise. The salads are fresh and pleasant, but all three could be improved with a little oomph.

The stuffed vegetables are first rate. These are usually stuffed artichokes and zucchini, although sometimes the vegetables change. The zucchini is particularly tasty.

Best of all is the hot dish, a rich, fragrant beef stew with potatoes and carrots. The smaller chunks of beef are tender to the fork, though the larger pieces can be a tad tough. The dark red wine sauce is wonderful. It’s an excellent dish, tempting the diner to second helpings.

Cheeses and strawberries round out the buffet offerings. The three cheeses are the real thing, a runny ripe epoisse, a rich tangy blue and a harder cheese such as cantal are the mainstays. These are not your usual buffet cheeses.

Bread is fresh and quite good and there are jars of chopped olives and figs. The strawberries, lightly sauteed in honey and Szechuan peppercorns, are delicious.

The a la carte menu offers a choice of soups: Provencal fish soup and a soup du jour, such as vegetable pistou or cream of pumpkin. Lighter fare includes a tomato salad with anchovies and basil or a marinated tuna and garden vegetable sandwich.

The main course is a chicken fricassee with roast potatoes.

Desserts include a classic creme brulee and a lovely thin apple tart with apple sorbet. The Cafe Provencal menu will be available until the Cezanne show closes May 7. Across Fourth Street Northwest in the East Wing, the gallery’s Terrace Cafe is now called Cafe Dada to honor the East Wing’s terrific Dada exhibit, which closes May 14. The bistro menu is quite short, but the cafe, with its windows overlooking the Mall, is a pleasant place in which to relax on a weekend afternoon after viewing the invigorating exhibit, so full of puns and political comment.

Cakes and warm drinks are the specialties — coffee, tea and Valrhona hot chocolate. Although the Dada movement has no roots in Vienna, the pastries at the Dada Cafe are primarily Viennese. The pain au chocolate and the crisp palmiers (sometimes called elephant ears) are properly Parisian.

Apple strudel, cherry cake, Sacher torte and a chocolate and pear tart, among others, are very good. The Sacher torte in particular is excellent, a rich chocolate cake with layers separated by apricot jam and iced with good dark chocolate.

On the more substantial side, the cafe prepares a nice plate of cold cuts that includes salami, prosciutto, alpine dried beef, a little Savoy cabbage slaw and some tasty onions pickled in red wine. Unfortunately, the country bread is sliced thin and sometimes not as fresh as it should be.

The cafe serves a trio of smoked seafood that includes salmon, trout and sturgeon, a scoop of potato salad and black bread, as well as a cheese plate of artisanal cheeses served with quince paste and grapes.

The two sandwiches are a ham and Gruyere cheese on a croissant and a prosciutto and Fontina cheese panini served with arugula.

Service is particularly pleasant and helpful at the Cafe Dada, which is not always the case at the Cafe Provencal.

Both cafes serve red and white wines by the glass, ranging from $6.75 to $8.50. The same wines can be ordered by the bottle.

Both cafes will serve their respective menus only until the close of the exhibits. Both are charming places for a snack, lunch or refreshment to savor the exhibits they honor.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Provencal, West Building, National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest; Cafe Dada, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest; 202/842-6047 for reservations for parties of eight or more.

HOURS: Cafe Provencal, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; Cafe Dada, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Cafe Provencal buffet, $17.95; a la carte $5 to $17; Cafe Dada main courses, $7 to $9.75; pastries $3 to $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street and Mall parking

ACCESS: Both cafes are wheelchair accessible

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