The Cleveland Museum of Art's skylit atrium sets an impressive, even wow-inducing tone before you ever set foot in Provenance.
The five-story ceiling of curved glass panels encloses what amounts to a football field of openness dotted with greenery, benches, tables and chairs. Yet, like an Old World piazza, it's inviting and communal, a perfect visual and spiritual appetizer for Douglas Katz's fine dining restaurant, lounge and adjacent self-serve cafe that opened in October.
With a blend of the classic and modern, the atrium gracefully links the original 1916 building to various additions, just as Provenance means to connect culture and art — or in this case, cuisine.
In the art world, provenance is the term for a work's origin and ownership history. Applied to food, the word references where ingredients come from, how they're raised and who produces them. It's an important concept for Katz, who's known for his commitment to seasonal, local and sustainable products.
"Whether you're talking about an ingredient or a painting, tracking the story is important," he says.
Take his local mesclun greens salad ($8) with shaved strawberries, cucumber and mint-champagne vinaigrette, for example. He'll easily rattle off that the greens come from Green City Growers Cooperative, a hydroponic greenhouse in downtown Cleveland, and the strawberries from Rittman Orchards in Doylestown, Ohio.
Katz buys from people he's vetted and visited. The chef recently had a party for his staff at Scott Boehnlein's New Creation Farm in Chardon, where they "hung out with his pigs" before eating one.
"We try to connect with the farm so we know where we're buying from, and they end up teaching us a lot about their farm when we're out there," he says. "Our dishes reflect my relationships with trusted farmers and purveyors."
But Provenance is more than just eat-local, natural aesthetics.
Museums throughout the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago and San Francisco's Exploratorium, have been upgrading their dining operations in recent years, celebrating the culinary arts and responding to the dining public's enthusiasm for quality and creativity.
That is certainly true here, as the uncluttered openness of the atrium continues inside Provenance with a wall of windows for light that also frames a view of the west lawns and gardens. The black and white modern decor mixes clean, geometric lines with little additional color and no decoration other than some unimpressive photos of the museum exterior.
Katz views himself as a curator and educator charged with reinforcing the gallery-to-plate associations. So Katz and on-site executive chef Matt Jankowski work to connect what's on display in the building with what they serve, showcasing flavors and techniques from around the world. The Japanese robata grill, an Indian tandoor and a Mediterranean stone oven lend authenticity to the preparations.
For example, slices of tender grilled skirt steak ($9) — cooked on the robata grill — are fanned over Moroccan spiced wheat berries seeded with dates. A smear of spritely mint pesto and another of yogurt complete this nicely done presentation.
"I pick countries represented in the museum's collection and create dishes to tell a story and express my understanding of that place," Katz says.
A pleasingly simple pasta ($26) captures the essence of Italian cooking by featuring Ohio City Pasta spaghetti, crab meat, spinach, leeks, chives and Meyer lemon butter. Seasonal incarnations of the menu have — or will — offer a varying selection that could include beet borscht, chicken satay, duck spring rolls, pho and pork belly posole.
The true highlights, however, are Katz's monthly three-course prix fixe dinners ($37 plus optional wine pairings; two-course lunch, $22), inspired by a current exhibit.
This spring the starting point for Katz's planning was American Vesuvius, a collection of photographs documenting the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Playing on the volcano's location in the Pacific Northwest, Katz chose wines from Oregon and seafood from the region's chilly coastal waters.
He created a wonderful starter featuring crisply fried oysters atop an herb-laced crepe with mixed greens and a swirl of lemon aioli. A portion of cod was lightly crusted with ground hazelnuts, quickly cooked and presented with fingerlings and a crunchy toss of cucumber, carrot, fennel and celery root in a lemon-honey dressing. The blackberry pie a la mode was picture perfect, and the filling was thick with fruit, but the crust was doughy and lacked the requisite flakiness.
The prix fixe menu changes around the beginning of each month. This month, Katz will focus on Indian cooking to mark the opening of the North Wing galleries, which features Asian art among others. Expect samosas, yogurt and spice marinated chicken skewers, coconut fish curry, goat with dal (lentils) and paratha (flatbread), and saffron kulfi (ice cream).
Although Provenance is only open for service two nights a week, lunch is offered Tuesday through Saturday with many items on the evening menu available in smaller portions, for less money.
Meanwhile, Sunday brunch is a treat and so popular that reservations are recommended. Prices for egg and potato hash ($18), eggs benedict ($22), and French toast ($18) seem high until you realize that unlimited access to a bountiful chef's table buffet is included. There's yogurt, fresh fruit and compotes, salad, house-made jams, croissants, scones, irresistible gougère (cheese puffs) and cinnamon rolls drizzled with frosting. The server offered us clean plates, suggesting we might want to return to it "for something sweet," after polishing off the last of a poached egg ($16).
We resisted and went exploring instead. A walk through some galleries and then outside around the lagoon insured that our visit ended, just as it had begun — with a wow.
WHEN YOU GO
Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-707-2600,clevelandart.org
Lunch: Tue-Sat 11 a.m.-3 p.m; Dinner: Wed & Fri 5-9 p.m.; Brunch: Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
TRY THIS: Lump crab
quiche ($22) with Camembert, caramelized onions and herb custard with shaved fennel and citrus slaw
INSIDER TIP: Museum members get 10 percent off their tab.