The museum cafe, long a place of soggy sandwiches and mediocre meals, is getting a makeover in the Bay Area. Case in point: The recently reopened Exploratorium in new digs at Pier 15 in San Francisco, which offers creative fare tied to the mission of the museum, known for its interactive exhibits and playful approach, designed to encourage curiosity and experimentation.
Think seawater cocktails. Honeycomb with almonds and apricots. And living or fermented foods.
Visitors have three eating options: The 200-seat Seaglass restaurant, complete with panoramic views, a glass-topped raw bar, and open kitchen, which serves up familiar, family-friendly fare like tacos, pizza, and sandwiches — albeit with a sustainable pedigree — along with more adventurous eats such as marinated sardines, batter-fried green beans, and kelp salad with quinoa. There’s even a local riff on Welsh Rarebit (that’s gussied up grilled cheese to the uninitiated.) A full-bar serves cocktails promising a taste of the sea and in-vogue drinking vinegars known as shrubs. Near the museum’s Embarcadero entrance, the Seismic Joint offers take-away chow such as a chickpea-battered fish fingers, various spins on clam chowder, salads, and sandwiches. Mobile food trikes (built by Luigi Oldani and crew of CRO Cafe) roam the floors, peddling espresso Thanksgiving coffee, baked goods, and Strauss organic soft-serve ice cream.
The culinary duo behind the Exploratorium’s restaurant menu features acclaimed chef Loretta Keller of Coco500, a perennial Chronicle Top 100 restaurant, and her Coco500 partner, catering operations manager Clay Reynolds. The pair, who previously partnered with Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame to run The Moss Room at The California Academy of Sciences, have teamed up with Bon Appetit Management Company, known for its emphasis on scratch cooking with sustainably sourced ingredients, for the Exploratorium’s edible enterprises to form the Curiosity Catering Company.
Keller talked with BAB about her plans to feed people well and offer a side of education at the Exploratorium.
What got you excited about creating food for the Exploratorium?
What resonated with me about this project was a sense of place. The Exploratorium moved from this dark, cavernous space to a venue 800 feet over the water. Place is both a subject to explore and engage with at the Exploratorium. For me that means something in terms of food but also as a human being.
The environment and human experience, that’s everything to me. The importance of farming and where our food comes from is a very familiar mantra in the Bay Area. When you spend as much time as I do as a professional inside the food industry here you can get to a point where you’re in your own zip code. It can become precious and you can lose sight of the fact that our work is not done.
More than any other reason to be involved here, the museum offers a new and incredibly creative, intelligent and organic opportunity to do work on environmental consciousness, sustainability, and awareness around food and the planet. The Exploratorium is a great way to shake things up and have people engage with an exhibit in a hands-on way. That’s where the learning begins.
Is that where the honeycomb comes in?
Yes. The honeybee is in peril so by serving the honeycomb I’m hoping to help people stop and think and connect the bee with the almonds and the apricots — that’s why those things are always going to accompany the honeycomb. We want it to be a real exhibit and educational model that people will become intrigued by and realize how endangered bees are, which means your almonds are endangered, and all your stone fruit is endangered, and a whole way of eating is at risk. Bees are struggling with so many things right now; they’re overworked and experience bee jet lag. Bees want to winter in Florida, but instead almond growers in California pay exorbitant prices to have them flown or trucked here and put to work to meet demand. California is the biggest producer of almonds in the world, something like 70 percent, and people just take that for granted.
How are you incorporating living and fermented foods into the menu?
We are so lucky to have master chef Sachio Kojima, who had his own popular restaurant, Kabuto Sushi A&S, on Geary for more than 20 years, come on as our director of fermentation. He’s making seaweed and kelp salads, with kelp gathered from Marin, Mendocino, and Monterey counties, we’ll have algae on the menu too. And from our pickling program, we’ll offer traditional Japanese pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Where does sustainable seafood fit in?
We are doing an ocean bar, serving sushi, sashimi, and oysters that Sachio oversees as well. It’s all West Coast, Monterey Bay Watch-sanctioned seafood.
We missed the herring run this season but we’ll be serving herring next Spring. And we’ll serve anchovies in season too; these are really the last of the commercial fisheries within the bay. People have to understand that their choices are becoming so limited with regards to fish. There are very few wild fish that are sustainable. So we’ll be serving what people think of as bait and also serving whole fish. That starts a conversation in the U.S. because most people here are not used to seeing a whole fish or bait on a plate.
What about seawater and its connection to the new space?
My partner Clay Reynolds wanted to serve filtered seawater to drink, but the technology isn’t quite there. And then we wanted to run the dishwasher on seawater but it became clear that that was a whole project on its own. But the Exploratorium is using seawater to heat the building, which is quite extraordinary.
We’re using seawater in a cocktail. It turns out that the health department doesn’t recognize seawater as a consumable, so we’re not allowed to serve seawater per se. But there are kelps available that contain seawater, and there’s a Monterey County kelp called sea grape, that we add to our signature martini, which tastes great with a little bit of seawater. So we’re garnishing the drink with this kelp whose buds are full of seawater, when you burst them in your mouth you get a nice jolt of salt.
We’re including seawater in other ways in the restaurant too. The multi-hued glass tiles are based on a museum exhibit called “Color of Water.” To create the piece, a fixed-position camera took time-lapse photos of the bay, the color variations are caused by sunlight, tides, and microorganisms.
The piece in the dining room called “Thermal Mixing” also demonstrates the dynamics of the bay: It’s a triptych of panels of colored water of different temperatures that swirl like giant mood rings on the back wall. “Icy Bodies” is an exhibit where fragments of dry ice are pushed into a tank and spin around like comets across a sheet of water below a glass-topped bar. All these are nods to one of the most extraordinary places on the planet for moving water.
What role does food play at the museum?
By and large, with few exceptions, the food served at museums in this country is like prison food, just terrible. All this money was being spent on creating the new Exploratorium, which is a gift to residents and visitors of San Francisco, and so it’s critical that the food match the museum and its surroundings.
First and foremost we want to serve healthy, well-prepared fresh food to the museum goers, that’s our mandate. The challenge within that framework is to build in education, implicitly and explicitly, about sustainability. I get to be creative and think outside the box. We plan to do corn education tied to an exhibit and blind wine tastings at our adult nights. At the Exploratorium it’s not about looking at stuff, it’s about interacting with stuff. There’s an intimacy here that provides a direct way to get to people’s minds. And food has always been a great platform to reach people because it is so intimate and it’s a necessity; people have to eat every day. There aren’t that many mediums that offer that.
The restaurant is open during regular museum hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm; Wednesday evenings until 10pm; every Thursday evening adults only (ages 18 and up) 6pm-10pm. It caters primarily to museum guests, but the public can access the restaurant from an exterior entrance.