Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tough Times at the Oakland Museum's Blue Oak Cafe

By Jesse Hirsch
Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 7:31 AM

This week’s review was initially going to be a battle royale between Oakland and Berkeley to determine which city has the best museum cafe. The contest would have pitted Babette at the Berkeley Art Museum against the Oakland Museum of California’s Blue Oak Cafe. As it turned out, they weren’t playing in the same league.

During the Oakland Museum overhaul in 2010, Blue Oak was installed with Chef Robert Dorsey (Bay Wolf, Blackberry Bistro) running the kitchen. “The way to the heart of the Oakland Cultural Renaissance may well be through the palate,” said Dorsey in a loquacious press release. “What an amazing affirmation of the importance of food to the stories of our state to have a restaurant … embedded in the beautifully refurbished museum.”

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  • Oakland Museum of California

The Blue Oak Cafe would offer items like Dorsey’s signature shrimp and grits, Thai curry noodles, and grilled portabella mushrooms, a welcome departure from milquetoast museum food. Ingredients would be sourced locally (of course), with some coming from a community garden Dorsey planned to start.

But when I arrived at Blue Oak on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I got “cafeteria food” vibes from the start. The first thing I saw was a refrigerated cooler filled with pale, packaged salads and soda. Behind the counter, small, pre-made sandwiches sat shrink-wrapped on sheet pans. An industrial vat of potato leek soup burbled near the cash register, next to a basket of green bananas.

Blue pile carpet and institutional sadness dominated the dining area, only brightened by tabletop succulents (they’re everywhere!). I ushered my lunch date outside to the sunny patio, for a meal that was … singularly unremarkable.

Cold grilled chicken and tri-tip sandwiches were served on dry, food-service focaccia. The red tint of an achiote marinade gave visual personality to otherwise dull chicken in a sandwich you might get at Starbucks. The tri-tip fared about the same.

The soup was fine, if a bit gummy, followed by the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of side salads. It was teeny-tiny, soupy with vinaigrette, half the greens were wilted, and the one gigantic tomato wedge was rock-hard. The meal’s brightest spot was dessert: a moist vanilla bean cupcake with buttercream frosting and white chocolate bits, and a tangy little lemon bar flaking off light, buttery shards of crust.

When I asked to speak with the chef, I was directed to a woman who said, “Are you from the newspaper? I have a story for you!” This woman, who gave only a first name of Niloufer, had taken over chef duties after Dorsey left under duress in December. She said the departure had come as a shock, as his food had been popular and he was much-loved by everyone in the kitchen.

Dorsey is still listed as the Blue Oak chef on both his personal website and the Oakland Museum’s, so I had expected his cuisine on my visit. Now the standard-issue cafeteria food seemed more understandable — Niloufer said she’s still learning how to run her own kitchen, and she clearly deserves a little room to grow. (Dorsey told me by phone that he’s now working on a community garden at the Lake Merritt Garden Center, as well as an undisclosed project in Orinda.)

So if you find yourself hungry at the Oakland Museum anytime soon, baked goods are probably your safest bet — Niloufer interned at Chez Panisse’s pastry program before coming to Blue Oak.

Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.

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