Pleasure and Plein

Lunch for the belly and soul

Photo by Jeanne RiceArt is food for the soul, but it rarely does much for the belly, hence the newish lunch room at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA). The Plein Air Café, where the mango-and-brie quesadilla blends seamlessly with the California Impressionism, is run by the team at Mark's Restaurant. Mark's, as you may know, is a very cool, top-notch Laguna Beach restaurant, which was also the site of the OC Weekly's first theater-awards ceremony, a drunken brouhaha that is completely irrelevant to this story but conjures fondly blurred memories.

The café is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday. That's also when the museum is relatively empty, so the café attracts people who wouldn't typically be there and tempts them to stay by offering free admission to the exhibits. And since the dining area sits by the installations, it's impossible to pass up this freebie.

Around noon, the café is busy, but if you come later, you can enjoy a leisurely lunch without a lot of hassle. When my wife and I showed up at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, two other patrons were finishing their meal. Otherwise, we were alone.

While its menu features mostly sandwiches and salads, the Plein Air Café is a bit more gourmet than Quiznos. The shrimp-and-vegetable dumplings with which we opened showed great panache, as the morsels—stuffed with shrimp, carrots, garlic and cilantro—swam in a tangy soy sauce. The buffalo shrimp thrown in among them were a nice touch.

While there are only 10 main-course items, the choices are varied enough to make you change your mind a few times. A standard turkey club competes for your attention with a shrimp frittata and fresh Dungeness crabcakes. And if you're feeling Minimalist, the angel-hair pasta with tomatoes, garlic and basil and the Plein Air salad with avocados, mango and bay shrimp will more than satisfy.

Our waiter noted that the portions would be big, a comment duly noted when my wife's Chinese chicken salad came. A mound of greens looking like an Impressionist volcano featured a lava flow of sliced chicken breast hugging its side. While the salad employed the de rigueur bitter greens found in trendy salads, the spicy plum dressing more than compensated. Still, the very Chinoiserie of the salad was missing, despite the won tons. However, my chicken focaccia sandwich looked like a modern-art masterpiece, with gooey mozzarella drooling over a chicken breast sautéed in garlic and basil. It was big, messy and delicious, and the cold asparagus spears on the side were the perfect touch.

All that was missing was the wine (sadly, they don't have a liquor license yet). The bill didn't match what some poor chump paid for Sunflowers, as most main-course items range between $7 and $10.

Sated and satisfied, we turned to the museum, which we practically had to ourselves. Boy, the OCMA has changed since its days as the Newport Harbor Art Museum. While the Weekly's art critic, Frau Rebecca, has discussed the merits of Peter Alexander's "In This Light" installation, I've got a few comments on Michael Brewster's "acoustic sculpture." Basically, you stand in a dark room for six minutes while "woo . . . woo . . . woo" sounds echo off the walls. In The Blair Witch Project, such noises are entertainment; here, they're art. Go figure.

Plein Air Café, located in the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, is open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (949) 760-9711. Lunch for two, $15-$25, food only. No alcohol. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.
 
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