As the Morean Arts Center is not your typical museum, it makes sense that Spice Routes — the new restaurant tucked into one corner of the center — would not be your typical museum cafe. Not that you'd be able to tell what distinguishes it just from eating a casual lunch in the modern and simply designed space, or out at one of the sidewalk tables. The food, accented by bits of Mediterranean influence prevalent enough to be more than mere dabbling, also doesn't set it apart from other spots. (If you read my roundup a few weeks back, you'd know that the Bay area's museum eateries are doing quite well in the culinary department.)
And, despite the early press — me included — that expected Spice Routes to be a kind of St. Pete hangout to help draw people into the inclusive and populist arms of the Morean, it doesn't really feel like a neighborhood rec room. It's a cafe, built primarily for the lunch crowd, comfortable, tasty and pleasant.
For people not already attending a Morean class or show, Spice Routes' biggest draws are the simple and smartly constructed sandwiches and salads that show influences from cuisines around the Med basin. The meatloaf is more Middle American than Middle Eastern, although there are hints of sweet spices inside the delicate slab of tender loaf. It's placed between two slices of commercial wheat sandwich bread with lettuce, mayo and onions. Grab a fork and ignore the sandwich fixin's — this is well worth eating plain.
That's not the case with Spice Routes' lamb meatball pita — the dense nuggets of seasoned lamb seem to have seized up, requiring bright tzatziki and fresh tomato to add some moisture to the meat. Egg salad — tinged a golden yellow with yolk and curry powder — is simple and tasty, although $7.50 seems a bit much for even this updated version of a classic.
I suspect that the cafe's salads will be more popular, if only because people are starved for decent salads with ingredients that are thoughtfully combined instead of merely piled on. Chunks of sweet and tender roasted butternut squash are tossed with toasted walnuts, tangy blueberries and salty feta in one — a great combination — while another winner combines smoky lentils with Kalamata olives, more feta and sliced hard-boiled egg. There's also a competent — if somewhat boring — salad topped by slow-cooked beef.
All the salads are helped by a house-made vinaigrette loaded with dry spices and a little chile heat, although I'd prefer something other than the pre-bagged spring mix greens that Spice Routes uses as a base.
A few platters round out the menu, from house-cured salmon, herbed cream cheese and the usual fixings served with dense pumpernickel to a Peruvian dish of sliced potato and tuna doused in olive oil and citrus. Best of the bunch is a typical but tasty collection of hummus, baba ganoush, stuffed grape leaves, olives, feta and pita that's a bargain at $7.99 for the smallest version.
There are drinks, too — from beer to coffee — and a very pleasant staff obviously devoted to the success of Spice Routes. But even though the restaurant's now been open a month, the food can take a lot longer to come out than it should. The pleasant surroundings only mitigate a long wait for so long.
But perhaps that slow food service is by design. After 15 minutes in a seat, I pushed away from the table and started to wander about, heading deeper into the Morean than I likely would have otherwise. Saw some art, considered the schedule of classes, even took down a book or two from the center's library.
If Spice Routes is here to help bring more people into the Morean, I think they were right to keep it smart and simple. Make it too comfortable, too fast, too much like a neighborhood living room, and people might be less inclined to leave its confines for the rest of the center.
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Here is a link to the new shot menu! Go grab some! http://bit.ly/16A7PlK