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Museum Artifacts: The Moss Room and the Academy Cafe

Yes, I’ll be headed to the amazing, new California Academy of Sciences to marvel at the albino alligator and the suspended blue whale skeleton and the high-tech hand-driers in the bathrooms (a true force of nature).

But I’m to be honest, I think I’ll just let my kids look at the fish while I eat.


Charles Phan stands by the living wall that runs between
his restaurant and Loretta Keller's.


I got a sneak peek of the museum’s two restaurants on Monday night: the stark/modern no-nonsense cafeteria called the Academy Cafe, opened by Slanted Door chef Charles Phan; and directly beneath it, Coco500 chef Loretta Keller’s restaurant, The Moss Room. The only thing these two spaces share is a huge “living wall” that’s been erected the length of the stairwell that leads you to Keller’s much more formal dining experience. (This includes a $90,000 light fixture that’s specially designed to help keep the wall living, according to Charles.)

The cafe is divided into stations in kind of a global representation of street food. There, I had Phan’s signature, and always good, spring rolls at one station and some curry at another. But it was the station called—quirkily—“Taco Man,” that I found myself returning to more than once for braised pork with tomatillo salsa on perfect little tortillas from La Palma Mexicatessan. It’s all the food most people love and it’s well done with that kind of effortlessness that Charles seems to always pull off. It’s a slam dunk.

On the other hand, The Moss Room’s success remains to be seen. The subterranean room is lacking in windows, and although it’s very tastefully designed—it gets the majority of the moss wall as well as a little “river” that runs through it—it’s lacking in the character and warmth that Coco500 has plenty of and I think people expect from Keller’s food. And no matter how great the menu is (we were just served little hors d’oeuvres, so I can't speak for it), I’m just not sure how many people are going to want to go to dinner at night in the middle of the park. Keller was clearly given the most difficult assignment—it would be a challenge for any chef.

The doors to the Academy open in two days. Make sure to wash—so you can dry—your hands before you eat and let me know what you think.