Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Sept. 11, 2009
Cafe Laguna3809 W. 35th, 458-8191 x211
Cafe Laguna has opened at Austin Museum of Art – Laguna Gloria. There has been a trend nationally to update museum cafeterias from "places to grab a bite while you're at the museum" to "places you would actually want to eat, located in really beautiful surroundings" – a major paradigm shift in the whole concept.
Well, there is no place in this whole city any lovelier than Laguna Gloria, and putting a nice cafe inside the estate is a winner of an idea. The cafe is located in the coach house, with seating in the coach house gallery, the adjoining glass-enclosed porch, and shaded outdoor tables literally among the peacocks. Eddie Bernal, who has already made a name for himself with 34th Street Cafe, Santa Rita Tex Mex Cantina, and Blue Star Cafeteria, was selected to provide Cafe Laguna's menu from his busy catering operation. The menu, while not extensive, sports five entrée salads priced between $5 and $7; five gourmet half-sandwiches made with Boar's Head meats and cheeses priced between $2 and $4.75; three sides (basil pasta salad, potato salad, and green salad, all $1.29); brownies, cookies, and Tèo gelato; and select beverages. I sampled the Chinese Hack Salad ($6.99), a pleasant combination of crisp, succulent greens; Napa and red cabbage; red bell peppers; a grilled chicken breast; wontons; and two contrasting sauces: a sweet chile sauce and a sesame-soy dressing. It was really quite good. The turkey and cheese half-sandwich was also a solid offering: a fresh, soft kaiser roll studded with poppy seeds, heaped with generous servings of sliced turkey and Swiss, and served with a dill pickle spear, lettuce, onion, and tomato ($4). It seems like this cafe could be a major "ladies who lunch" contender!
Except it's not.
It isn't that the food is sub-par, and it certainly isn't the setting, which is divine. It is that this new venture is set up according to the outdated concept: a place to grab a bite at the museum. The salads and sandwiches are prepared elsewhere and kept in a refrigerator case, the silverware is plastic, the beverages are bottled, and the only staff is a cashier. All these things create the impression that the cafe was not envisioned nor meant to be a destination in itself. Strictly speaking, it isn't even a cafe; it bears a closer resemblance to an automat. While Cafe Laguna must be a godsend to the folks who work at the museum, it seems unlikely to bring in much dining traffic on its own.