New Britain Museum of American Art's executive director Douglas Hyland was getting ready for a trip to Cuba when he found out that Jordan's Caterers, the Cheshire-based food business that ran the museum's successful NBMAA Café on The Park, would be going out of business in just two days.
Hyland had to find a replacement and quick.
"We depend on a catering service not just for our café but for our director's dinners, our Heritage Society, our galas and special events," he said. "We know that having a café means visitors stay twice as long. We knew we had to find a new caterer quickly."
The museum immediately sent out some feelers for a new provider, but as luck would have it, also on the trip to Cuba was art enthusiast Debbie Grazier, who had worked for Jordan's and had museum and special event experience but had left to take over as general manager at Riverhouse Catering, whose venues include The Society Room in Hartford, the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station in Haddam and Belle Terrace at Avon old Farms in Avon.
Long story short, a deal was struck and NBMAA has a new caterer with expertise, flair and a menu that is as inspiring as the museum galleries.
Still a work in progress, Riverhouse has quickly made its mark on the contemporary café that offers convenience to museum visitors who want to linger for the day and destination diners who like to take advantage of the seasonal patio al fresco dining overlooking Walnut Hill Park.
"We are still experimenting, seeing what people like and what we can add," said Grazier about the menu by executive chef Rich Coletti that includes an assortment of made-to-order paninis, sandwiches, homemade soups, quiches and simple desserts. Fresh produce, quality meats, artisanal breads, gourmet dressings and relishes make lunch as much a treat for the senses as the art around the café.
Homemade soup on a recent lunchtime menu was a Tuscan chicken, rich in meat and vegetables and served with a side of warm bread. The daily panini on thick peasant bread was stuffed with grilled chicken with caramelized tomato and onion jam, buffalo mozzarella, crispy pancetta and baby arugula. The "grownup" grilled cheese is a sophisticated with its three cheeses, smoked bacon, and roast pepper relish and then stepped up with the option of a baked egg with cracked peppercorn on top. Homemade quiche is a pretty pie with wild mushrooms with caramelized leeks and gruyere, while a salad featuring baby lettuce, haricot verts and crumbled goat cheese becomes an even more interesting lunch when dried apricots and toasted hazelnuts are added and then light lavender honey vinaigrette is drizzled on top.
Hyland, who celebrates his 25th anniversary with the museum this year, wants the food and the dining experience to be an extension of the museum visit.
"With Riverhouse we want people to be challenged and delighted," said Hyland. "I think they will be."
Besides the museum on Lexington Street, Riverhouse has also moved into some other former Jordan's clients, including the Palace Theater and Mattatuck Museum.
"This is something new for us," said Grazier about Riverhouse's decision to begin the off-premise service. "And we also see it as a plus because of the number of special events that are held at these places."
NBMAA is well-known for its own parties, as well as weddings, special events and its monthly Museum After Dark get-togethers. Riverhouse, whose venues are prime locations for such events, is also expected to help market the museum as a private party venue.
When a planning committee recently got together to re-assess the menu for an upcoming gala when Jordan's closed, Riverhouse was ready to impress. The tasting menu included an endive, lobster, avocado and pink grapefruit salad with a second course featuring grilled filet of beer with Italian salsa drizzle and saffron rice.
It's good food is not the only thing Riverhouse has brought to the museum.
"Our staff here all used to work for Jordan's," said Grazier. Among the former Jordan's staff expected to make an occasional appearance there is former Hell's Kitchen reality show contestant Van Hurd, who is now a sous chef for Riverhouse. Hurd co-hosted the museum's popular exhibit-related wine dinners, which are expected to continue.
Hyland said plans are to give the café a makeover. Riverhouse is also offering children's menus for the many groups of students who come on school field trips.
NBMAA's Cafe on the Park, 56 Lexington St., is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. Information: 860-229-0257 and nbmaa.org