The wooden beams of Douglas fir arc and weave dramatically over the dining room through a wreath of shuffled boards. As I gazed up from my saba-swirled bowl of creamy parsnip-pear soup at this ceiling sculpture, it felt as if I were eating inside a giant upside-down basket.
“Mr. Gehry calls it a nest,” says Mark Tropea, executive chef for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who oversees Stir, the ambitious new lunch-brunch restaurant designed by famed architect Frank Gehry as part of the museum’s larger renovation.
It only makes sense that a world-class art museum restaurant with aspirations to become an actual destination for a modern dining experience — not just a pit stop for wrap sandwiches between galleries — should itself become a work of art. The Art Museum couldn’t have found a more famous name for the job than Gehry, the modern master known for the swooping metallic curves of buildings from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. But tucked away, down a back hall, and fitted with sleek but naturalistic wooden tones, the subdued nature of this small space does not meet those lofty expectations.
“He liked this room,” our server said, recalling Gehry’s visit for a meal. “He just didn’t like the stainless steel hoods over there.”
She motioned toward the small open kitchen near the entrance where, yes, you’ll find an industrial steel hood and grill — sort of a necessity for a restaurant that actually cooks food. A lot of pretty museum dining rooms don’t do more than warm prefab plates. But that was telling: Gehry may be an architectural visionary, but restaurant design is not his forte.
Here, he essentially designed some fancy rafters; the rest of the restaurant’s functional details were an afterthought. With nothing but small, frosted windows filling the space with muted light, there’s an airless, cruise-ship vibe to this boxy 76-seat room. A “Bilbao wow” it is not. Perhaps someday, when the construction trailers outside are removed, those windows can be unfrosted to at least reveal a vista that gives this room a sense of place. Or perhaps the museum will move this restaurant altogether to another location that takes better advantage of the building’s grand architecture.
Someday may be a long way off. And meanwhile, all the hard wood surfaces of Gehry’s nest, whose amorphous ceiling paddles hover like floating chunks of gym floor, deflect sound off the granite tabletops and amplify the din. Considering the silver-haired art crowd I saw on my visits — the same demographic who write me tirades against restaurant noise — the sound problem is a serious miscalculation. It could be addressed with more attention to soundproofing. For now, best to aim for one of the comfy, plum-colored leather booths along the room’s exterior if you want to chat.
If you’ve come to dine, Stir aims high. But the restaurant, which is run by Constellation Culinary Group (formerly Starr Catering), has its own inconsistencies to tackle, with a lunch menu that slides easily into the mid-$20s a plate (despite some cooking hitches), the ridiculous option of $30-plus glasses of wine (along with some more affordable, but less inspired selections), and a service staff that varied greatly in skill, professional on one visit, tone-deaf and sluggish at another.
“We serve all our white wines at that temperature,” insisted our server in smug reply to a legitimate complaint that the chardonnay was actually warm — not the automatic “let me take care of it” gesture that would have been a more savvy first reply. My guest added ice cubes to chill her vino (so much for the winemaker’s art), then again to dilute the intensely sour-sweet (and also warm) sage gimlet brought as a follow.
It turns out the restaurant’s draft wine system (and temperature control) was broken, and still was weeks later at my next visit, when our outgoing server smartly brought a pair of preview sips from some bottles, and I happily settled on a crisp $12 South African chenin blanc that was one of the more interesting standard glass options. (There are high-end pours through a Coravin system, but considering that Orin Swift’s 2016 Abstract retails for $40 a bottle, I can’t imagine paying $33 a glass.) The Brûléed Old Fashioned with Kinsey rye, nutty house bitters, and the smoky singe of burned orange rind was sweet but balanced — a clear upgrade in craftsmanship over the gimlet from my first meal.
The service improvement on my second visit offered hope that Stir is trending in the right direction. But the food is too inconsistent for the prices. That creamy parsnip soup was certainly a highlight, its earthiness rounded with pears and toasty, spiced pecans and swirly sweet-tart circles of syrupy dark saba. A lumpy little crab cake full of sweet meat topped with celery root rémoulade and perched atop a circle of minced tart apple relish was an artful nod to one of the old museum restaurant’s longtime specialties.
But details of execution kept tripping Stir up. The $17 seared foie gras was wildly oversalted, as was the bountifully overdressed chopped salad with heirloom carrots and peppery local greens. White Idaho potatoes were added to keep the sweet potato gnocchi light — but not nearly light enough, since ours bounced like rubber plugs in thick Parmesan glaze. A gorgeous salad of verjus-marinated persimmons with stracciatella would have been fantastic had there been more of that lusciously creamy cheese than the parsimonious smears dabbed on our plate.
And then came the eggnog bread pudding our server insisted we order. Made from the restaurant’s doughy leftover housemade Parker House rolls, it had seemingly been forgotten at the back of the oven. By the time it arrived, it was so impenetrably dry and dense, I thought of consulting the nearby Rodin Museum for assistance. Because I could have used a chisel.
(The bread pudding has since been altered to use soft croissants so as to be more fork-friendly.)
Given Tropea’s history, I know he’s more than talented enough to make Stir a success. I gave his Northern Liberties BYOB, Sonata, a fine review several years ago. Of course, that was a small DIY operation, long before he joined Constellation and traveled the country for the company as a private chef in New York and Miami.
He’s picked up some nice moves along the way. The grilled shishito peppers with black garlic vinaigrette lit some festive appetizer sparks, with a surprising pop of heat from an aji chile jam to bolster the usually mild shishitos. A tender duck breast with crisply roasted crosshatched skin was served over flavorful wheat berries with a tart cherry-Port reduction and tiny carrots scented with vadouvan curry.
A meaty filet of striped bass channeled cold-weather elegance over chanterelles, fingerling potatoes, and Savoy cabbage in a creamy onion soubise. That’s a dish I’d happily pay $27 for at any restaurant. A loin of venison was a pleasant surprise at a museum restaurant, for sure, and I loved the combination of its giblety meat with earthy Castle Valley grits and a tart peppercorn gastrique. However, the loin itself was so tender, it was borderline mushy.
The seared scallops also were less than perfect — a little overcooked, with a seemingly smart pairing of romesco sauce, piquant salsa verde, and bacon whose bold flavors, for whatever reason, didn’t quite harmonize. The portion was a little too skimpy when a colleague ordered it on a subsequent visit, with only three scallops for $29. Great scallops aren’t cheap. But the kitchen then has to deliver.
I loved the earthiness of the smoked sunchokes added to the shaved Brussels sprouts and celery root served alongside the herb-roasted Ora King salmon with tangy buttermilk dressing. But once again a good piece of seafood was overcooked.
Many museumgoers will not desire a boozy, dinner-sized meal in their pause between exhibits. Stir’s menu has some lighter options, from salads with add-on proteins to sandwiches like the grilled chicken Cobb, whose soft sourdough bun and bland stuffing got a thumbs-down (“museum food”) from Rick Nichols, the retired Inquirer food columnist who happened to be eating at the next table. A big and juicy burger had considerably more promise, thoughtfully built with dry-aged beef, cheddar and bacon both from Lancaster, and some onion jam for style. If only the puffy brioche bun was shrunk to fit, it would have been a home run. The fresh-cut fries dusted with thyme salt, though … oh my, they were masterpiece frites.
Of course, burgers, fries, and salads are the kind of standard cafeteria fare for which a restaurant with serious ambitions and a world-class architect really isn’t needed. And just down the hall the Art Museum has a new cafeteria for pizza, tacos, and shawarma, though it was under renovation when I tried to visit.
But that doesn’t address the larger point. Other elite museums across the country already have proven that a well-designed and well-executed fine-dining experience can tangibly enhance a great museum. Stir’s issues of cooking and soundproofing can be improved immediately. But it’s quite possible that it is flawed by design, because it feels like a transitional space. Its cramped little room lacks the light, character, and grandeur needed to make a statement worthy of the museum’s evolving Gehry phase — no matter how fancy his rafters are.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-684-7990; philamuseum.org
Famed architect Frank Gehry has brought his groovy contemporary lines to the upscale new lunch destination at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but his primary statement — a giant upside-down basket hanging from the ceiling — is more ornamental than functional, given the small room’s surprising noise problem and lack of direct sunlight. The modern American kitchen run by ex-Sonata chef Mark Tropea has promise, but too many inconsistencies with the cooking and ambitious drink program, worsened by tone-deaf service, made this effort to create a destination-worthy museum restaurant feel like a work in progress. However, some improvement at a follow-up visit showed potential for a ratings bump by year’s end if that trend continues.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Parsnip and pear soup; grilled shishitos; persimmons and stracciatella (if more cheese); seared foie gras (with less salt); crab cake; duck breast; dry-aged burger; venison; striped bass; olive oil cake; chocolate marquise.
DRINKS A full bar adds boozy possibilities to an art-viewing afternoon, with craft cocktails and a wine list that has pretense of fancy options. Unfortunately, execution was a mess on one visit, with a faulty draft system delivering warm white wines (worsened by condescending service). A follow-up visit showed progress, with a knowledgeable and outgoing server who provided tastes of glass options (try the South African chenin blanc). High-end wines by the glass poured through a Coravin preservation system, however, were not nearly good enough to merit huge markups for $17 to $33 a pour. A sweet but well-balanced “Brûlée Old Fashioned” made up for the warm, sour sage gimlet at an earlier visit.
WEEKEND NOISE A hearty din caused by the design, rather than dampened, is one of Stir’s biggest flaws considering the older clientele. Noise is more manageable in booths that ring the room.
IF YOU GO Lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday until 3:30 p.m.
Lunch entrées, $15-$29.
All major cards.