Epicurious Eating: SDMA Sculpture Court Café
Roman emperor in the museum kitchen
Published Thursday, 24-Sep-2009 in issue 1135
The San Diego Museum of Art may not be known for housing the world’s rarest art collection, but its new café is a masterpiece.
Giuseppe Ciuffa breaks the mold of museum eateries that are non-famous for their cafeteria-style food, served often within spaces that feel as sterile and institutional as hospital canteens. Overpriced ham sandwiches and prefabricated salads seem like misgivings after encountering the brilliance of Dali and Monet, yet such fare rules the day in our nation’s art houses, even when those visual breathers are taken at The Met in New York.
At SDMA Sculpture Court Café, your “art fix” is augmented instead with sexy-tasting Euro-style dishes consumed from linen-draped tables and presented by adept wait staff. Ample seating extends from an entrance patio, which flows into a spacious courtyard that is semi-enclosed by a high canvas ceiling. If you sit inside, the incoming breeze and abundant sunlight gives the impression of being outside. Despite an occasional pigeon waddling past your ankles, a “bad table” is hard to find.
Ciuffa moved to San Diego from Rome about 15 years ago after working in resorts throughout Italy as a chef, bartender and manager. He then launched a namesake catering business and opened the Museum Café in La Jolla, where he has wowed critics with his assimilated brand of California-style cuisine.
At Sculpture Court Café, however, he teases the palate repeatedly with ingredients that are more indigenous to fine European bistros. The “Nieman-Marcus” of proscuitto, called San Daniele, for example, is used on an “ultimate” grilled cheese sourdough sandwich comprised also of rich mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and robust basil pesto. We smelled one cooking from several yards away as we made our approach, and ended up ordering it right off the bat.
For salads, pizzas and sandwiches, Ciuffa calls upon imported truffle and olive oils, using them in tantalizing measures as a ploy to keep your mouth moving for more. Or with a chicken soup of the day, the sunny-yellow broth embodied a whisper of curry, adding a snappy layer of complexity where we least expected it. As for the gazpacho, it revealed a garden patch of flavor with every spoonful, thanks to micro bits of celery, cucumber and avocado that seemingly melted in the chilled tomato liquid – a little acidic, but easily forgiven.
The café’s salads are large and immensely fresh, as though the leafy lettuces were yanked from the soil just moments earlier. My companion opted for romaine hearts punctuated by sweet marinated shrimp, juicy papaya, mild feta cheese and salt-roasted almonds. The flavor contrasts were poignant and inspiring. I deferred to a combo of red and green lettuces with shaved fennel and a loose puck of shredded, perfectly poached chicken sitting on top. Generous shavings of Parmesan Reggiano served as garnishment. In both salads, Ciuffa maintained the integrity of his ingredients with a non-obtrusive vinaigrette balancing olive oil and citrus.
Almost too good to be true was the roasted Portobello mushroom pizza crowned with wonderfully fresh wild arugula. Centered on each slice was a thin wedge of Portobello embedded in mozzarella showing off toasted pockmarks. And somewhere in the construction, Ciuffa uses only a few eye drops of truffle oil. Any extra would’ve ruined everything, including snuffing out the vague sweetness arising from the crust.
Only in the ultimate grilled cheese did the flavors shout loudly, due primarily to the love affair occurring between the extra-hammy prosciutto and the basil pesto. But few will complain. Another sandwich, the “Giuseppe special,” layers chicken breast with tri-color peppers, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese on a baguette from Bread & Cie. It was chewy and luscious and superior to any sandwich you could’ve purchased here from the former operator that sold food from a small kiosk in the center of the dining area.
Service now is more personalized, if not a bit proper as demonstrated by our highly experienced waiter from Denmark. There is also a full cocktail list that rejuvenates your tired museum bones with things like peach bellinis, Veev lemonade and Tommy Bahama mojitos. The wine offerings are limited, but accommodating. On a warm day as this, we encroached on a bright and dry organic pinot bianco from Italy – a step up from thinner grigio and with just enough sugars at play, that we skipped dessert.
Ciuffa recently slashed dinner service for the upcoming season, but he will resume extended hours in spring. Though whether you lunch here on an employer’s time clock, or have the entire afternoon to kill, the café has become yet another reason to eat, drink and play in Balboa Park.