Dining for the culture

WASHINGTON — Add the culinary scene to your agenda when visiting Washington, but don't look in the usual places.

Try to snag a lunch reservation at the National Gallery of Art's Garden Cafe. If you're lucky enough to get a table at what has become a D.C. hot spot, look for a sign saying Cafe Catalonia, not Garden Cafe.

You are about to embark on a taste trip of the flavors and dishes of the Spanish region that famed artist Joan Miro called home. Vegetables are infused with cherry, and salads have the cheese and almonds of the area. They accompany chicken and beef stews with dried fruit and mushrooms that are ladled out of large pots on a buffet table. Some items are available a la carte.

Inspired by Catalonia and created by Washington-based Jaleo executive chef Jose Andres, winner of the 2011 James Beard award for outstanding chef, dishes connect with each exhibit at the National Gallery. "Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape" just ended in the East Wing, but Cafe Catalonia will continue to serve its Spanish cuisine through mid-September. Call to find out if the menu is Catalonian or has moved to the next featured cuisine.

Last year in the cafe, you would have thought you were lunching in Italy. In 2010, you would have read the menu with a French accent. This fall the cafe will feature American dishes to reflect the origins of two exhibits: "Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830," opening Oct. 7, and "Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective," opening Oct. 14 after its run at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Guest chefs collaborate with executive chef David Rogers of Restaurant Associates, the group responsible for the National Gallery's three cafes and an espresso bar.

"We try to have a balance between unusual items and those people might know," Rogers said. "Among the more unusual current offerings are the sopa freda de cireres de Santa Coloma de Cervello (a cold cherry and tomato soup recipe developed by Andres) and beef cheeks," he said.

Indeed, the cherry and tomato soup is on one of three recipe cards handed out when diners are ready to leave the cafe. The cards are popular with tourists and locals who collect them, Rogers said. "When the locals come in, they ask if the recipes have changed yet," he said.

For dinner, if you are more concerned about exploring cuisines and neighborhoods than what time you eat, Washington has an unusual culinary adventure.

Step into a Moroccan joint for street food, sample Ethiopian dishes or go to a restaurant steeped in the area's history. Since 2007, such a food exploration is easy.

To encourage visitors and locals to seek out different food flavors and combinations, Jeff Swedarsky, a world traveler (51 countries), has cobbled together culinary tours in the area under the Food Tour Corp. label. Along with experiencing authentic dishes of other countries, guests learn about the cultures and D.C. neighborhoods.

"I wanted to find a way to connect people — locals and tourists — to the food and culture of an area," Swedarsky said. "When I traveled, I loved learning about different cultures and found that mostly everything about a culture came by way of the food."

Tour-goers meet at a specified location, then walk to each neighborhood restaurant. Though eating and walking may add up to three or more hours, the restaurants typically are within a mile to mile and a half. Food allergies and diet restrictions are screened during the reservation process.

A recent Dupont Circle tour visited four very different cultures. It started at an upscale contemporary bar frequented by locals for cocktails and a delicious crabmeat appetizer (drinks are included in the tour price). The tour continued through the area and down some stairs into an inexpensive Malaysian eatery where chef-owner Penny Phoon came out to explain the dishes. It also went to a Japanese restaurant and an African place.

His tours are not intended to focus on popular tourist destinations. "I wanted places that are independently owned and operated, by a family when possible," he said. When available, the restaurant's chef, owner or manager talks with his groups. The tour's guide, well-versed in the neighborhoods and restaurants visited, also explains what people are eating and its cultural background.

Given that tours run from 3 to 6-6:30 p.m., there is an unending presentation of food and drink, so the experience easily takes the place of dinner.

If you go

The National Gallery of Art, on the National Mall between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue NW, has a closer entrance to the Garden Cafe at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue. For reservations, call 202-712-7454. For more information, visit

For information on Food Tour Corp. neighborhoods, costs and times, call 202-683-8847, or visit

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