Museum of Fine Arts - Café Clementine
When the pandemic arrived in spring of 2020, most restaurants closed up shop, and the café at the Museum of Fine Arts was no exception. A joyous museum staff finally announced the sorely missed independently-run café would open in late April this year with a new name, a new menu and new owners.
Café Clementine has quickly become the French pastry shop, and expert bakers Paulina and Vince Gervasi have become the darlings of downtown for their jaw-droppingly beautiful and delicious pastries. Thursday through Sunday, a regular clientele of downtown residents makes a beeline for the small pastry counter tucked in the back of the museum’s main lobby. Similar to a French patisserie, the shelves present artistic creations from elegant cream puffs and fruit tarts to organic salads, fresh paninis and breakfast bowls.
The famed salted honey croissants are a starring attraction — if you get there early enough. “We always sell out,” claims Paulina, “so now we offer pre-orders by phone.”
Everything is made from scratch, with ingredients sourced locally when possible. Eggs and butter are organic, which she says is key to the delicate puff pastries and other dishes such as the popular Turkish Eggs featuring two poached eggs on herbed Greek yogurt.
The young couple, who met in high school in Orlando, gained notoriety in recent years as a pop-up vendor at St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market. “People would be waiting in line the minute we opened,” said Paulina.
Now, they arrive before dawn to bake each day’s offerings, a limited selection of melt-in-your-mouth pastries that look as astounding as they taste. The menu is somewhat limited with a half dozen brunch dishes including a soup and a daily special in addition to the pastries. The Croque Monsieur is a marvel, layered with smoked ham, gruyere, bechamel, slathered with whole grain mustard on a fresh croissant. A Spring Caesar is made with Brick Street Farms greens; a Peach and Heirloom Tomato Salad surround a mound of soft burrata cheese.
A selection of coffees, organic teas and bottled juices and kombucha are ready to grab and go. At this time, no alcohol is served, but hopefully it will be in the future. With the light menu and pleasant view of the Tampa Bay yacht basin, a glass of wine would be a fine accompaniment.
Must try: The salted honey croissants are said to be in top demand, but we almost fell off our chairs when we encountered the Sweet Corn Custard Filled Brioche. Be forewarned, these pastries are big enough for two, do not try to eat one alone.
Café Clementine at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg is open from 9 am to 3 pm Thursday through Sunday.
While many people visit St.Petersburg's museums for their works of art, they might be missing out on some rare finds at the museum cafés.
By Marcia Biggs
St. Petersburg is rich in culture and the arts, and lucky, indeed, to have three outstanding museums downtown. While many people visit these institutions for their works of art, they might be missing out on some rare finds at the museum cafés. We visited the top three to discover what each has to offer. What we found were hidden gems, each with its own personality and charm – and cuisine that stands out from the ordinary. All are well worth a trip to the museum, even if you don’t come for the art.
Dalí Museum - Café Gala
Since the reincarnation of The Dalí Museum on the downtown waterfront some 11 years ago, Café Gala has been enticing museum-goers from around the world, as well as locals, with a carefully curated menu of light Spanish tapas, salads, soups and desserts. At the helm since opening is Chef Chuck Bandel, a St. Pete native who was hand-picked to run the show by café owner and St. Pete restauranteur Steve Westphal (they are now café co-partners, says Bandel).
The light, airy café is named for Salvador Dalí’s wife and muse Gala, focusing on authentic foods of the various regions of Spain, the artist’s homeland. Located in the museum lobby beneath the geodesic glass dome Enigma wall overlooking the Avant-Garden, Café Gala diners are in the midst of the action from the adjacent museum store and the famous helical staircase that rises three stories to the galleries above.
A seat at the counter is the perfect location to chill out and watch baristas whip up a latte or cappuccino. Or you can line up to place your order at the counter, then grab a seat at a table to wait for a server to arrive. The menu is constantly changing, says Bandel, according to what suits his whims, what’s seasonal, and often reflecting the major exhibit or artist at the time.
He travels to Spain every summer, working in the kitchens of top restaurants with renowned chefs, where he studies the nuances of every dish. This inspiration he brings back to the Dalí, where he works creative culinary magic.
The menu is a study of regional Spanish cuisine often with a modern twist — Pan Con Tomat Burrata & Jamon offers grilled bread with fresh tomato rub, burrata cheese, and serrano jamon drizzled with EVOO. The classic Tortilla Españolo is a small plate Spanish omelet with onion and potato, topped with lemon aioli. The Pressed Serranita presses roast pork and serrano jamon with Manchego cheese, tomato and pimento aioli. Avocado Toast is one of the top sellers, says Bandel, a far cry from mashed avocado by adding goat cheese mousse, with pickled tomatoes and spiced walnuts, topped with microgreens.
Shareable boards include A Taste of Spain featuring a trio of Spanish meats and cheeses, artichokes, nuts, peppers, olive, dried figs and apricots and grilled bread slices, and the Farmhouse Cheese Plate with a trio of Spanish cheeses. Most produce is sourced locally when possible, says Bandel, such as greens from Brick Street Farms.
Café Gala is a great place to drop in for coffee and pastry or a wine after work (although you’ll have to fork over $10 to park). A selection of desserts includes a popular Tarta de Santiago almond cake, Basque cheesecake, scones, biscotti, muffins, and croissants. Kahwa is the house coffee, and the baristas are quite adept at making everything from cappuccino and café con leche to a Dalí Stinger double espresso with honey, vanilla, cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Look for a wine list heavily influenced by Spain, and a selection of local craft beer and, of course, red or white sangria by the glass or pitcher.
Don’t miss: Bandel claims his recipe for chilled Gazpacho has been perfected over a decade to its current dreamy creamy state. It’s marvelous. The Catalan Mushroom Bisque, with mushrooms provided locally by ZephyrGills Farm, is a simple yet divine black truffle crema topped with spiced croutons and chives.
Café Gala is open during regular museum hours, 10 am to 6 pm, and Thursdays until 8 pm.
James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art – Canyon Café
Entering the James Museum is always a transcendent experience. The lobby atrium lined with soaring sandstone walls is reminiscent of a wind-carved canyon in the American West, complete with an 18-foot waterfall and life-size bronze sculptures. Look left, and an airy museum shop invites visitors to browse, but it’s hard not to be drawn through to take a closer look in the café where a stunningly restored, 30-foot antique mahogany saloon bar is a work of art itself. Its origin goes back to 1905 in Chicago, eventually moving to San Francisco in 1923. James Museum founders Tom and Mary James purchased it from an antiques dealer in Cincinnati prior the museum’s opening in 2018.
After being dark for two years, the Canyon Café recently reopened under the management team of locally owned and operated Saltblock Hospitality Group. With an entrance and floor-to ceiling-windows facing Central Avenue, Canyon Café is perfectly situated in the heart of downtown for a quick and healthy nosh with a decidedly Southwestern flair.
Grab a seat at a café table or sit at the magnificent bar, the choice is yours. A compact menu offers a full expresso bar and pastries for morning visitors, but the lunch menu of small plates and lighter fare is where the menu excels.
Everything is made on premises and from scratch, says manager Mike Ragib, and it shows. Dishes come out with the freshest ingredients, perfectly seasoned and attractively presented. In true Southwest fashion, Chef Taj Neuhoff has an open grill fired up in the kitchen where she chars fresh corn and sears squash for the Three Sisters Bowl which comes with a scoop of authentic wild rice, red onion, cherry tomatoes and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. The Southwest Caesar comes with or without charred chicken, smoked pork or farmed salmon.
The Street Tacos plate is a winner with three fresh corn tortillas filled with your choice of smoked pork, shredded chicken or chipotle roasted squash and black bean puree. (Vegetarians will be happy here.) It comes with a fresh side salad. If you’re hankering for a burger, you can’t go wrong with the flavorful and healthful Bison Burger, accompanied by choice of wedge fries or house salad.
Want to share a nibble at the bar? Order a nacho plate with warm tortilla chips. A decent selection of beer and wine is available, too.
The menu will be changing occasionally to take advantage of seasonal produce and special dishes will be created to complement the theme of special exhibits, Ragib added.
Chili Alert: As a chili aficionado, our high expectations were handily met with a bowl of house-made chili. This thick rendition combines a blend of roughly pureed pinto and black beans and ground bison, and is perfectly seasoned with smoked chipotles, a topping of sour cream and a few warm tortilla chips. Not spicy, but smoky and flavorful. Ask the server, since it’s not always on the menu.
The Canyon Café is open during regular museum hours, daily from 10 am to 5 pm, and until 8 pm on Tuesdays.