The new George W. Bush Presidential Center, aka the Bush Library, which opened May 1 near Southern Methodist University in University Park, was built to give a glimpse into the world of the former president.
But at Café 43, the museum’s full-service restaurant open for lunch daily, what you see is Laura Bush all the way. She helped steer the cafe’s identity, and it bears her signature. The design seems to mimic her cool affability and sense of propriety. The broad menu is a people-pleaser that offends no one and accommodates all tastes, from your basic burger to trendy, foodie items like kale salad.
Executing her vision is Culinaire International, a Dallas-based restaurant-catering company. The obvious alternative would have been Wolfgang Puck, which already does the food at the Perot Museum, Nasher Sculpture Center, AT&T Performing Arts Center and a number of other museums around the country.
But Culinaire is a smart choice; not only is it a local company, but it also owns Nicola, an Italian restaurant in Plano. In addition to Café 43, Culinaire also operates the center’s smaller, quick-service Courtyard Cafe and oversees catering for all events.
Café 43 executive chef John Maas previously worked at Hackberry Creek Country Club in Irving; chef de cuisine Jason Wade was a sous-chef at Whiskey Cake in Plano.
The menu includes starters, sandwiches and entrees, but the dominant category is salads, with eight options, ranging from a basic Bibb lettuce vinaigrette ($10) to meal-size salads with turkey, chicken and tuna.
Ahi tuna salad ($16) was notably colorful and beautiful, and this is a consistent theme at Café 43: Appearance seems to be given equal consideration. The tuna was done in what has become a familiar manner: seared on the outside but with the center left nearly raw. Each slice was ruby-red in the center, with a warm, peppery outer crust.
The tuna slices were fanned out over mixed greens, and grape and teardrop tomatoes. One clever touch: the inclusion of unique watermelon radish, cut into paper-thin sheets. The radish’s whitened edge and pink interior neatly mimicked the tuna.
Chicken salad ($13) was a light, fruity twist on the usual mayo-drenched version. This was a big salad with lots of ingredients: tomato, orange segments, greens, pecans and blackberries. The white-meat chicken was mildly smoky, with a moist, almost droopy texture that was addictive. The fruit was the weak point. The orange was cut into such large chunks that it overwhelmed, and the blackberries seemed out of place.
Starters were large and thus good for sharing. House-made ricotta ($8), served with toasted slices of baguette, tomato marmalade and olive tapenade, was luscious. Drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of micro-greens, the cheese was sweet and tangy, with a firm, slightly clumpy texture — lots of personality there. The idea was to spread some on the toast, then top it with a spoonful of the sweet-and-sour tomato spread and salty tapenade — almost like a make-your-own bruschetta.
Hummus ($7) was of the nubby variety, as opposed to velvety smooth, with glistening drops of olive oil. And yet the flavor was bland. Accompanying herbed pita triangles were rather too thick and indelicate. Crispy pita chips might be more fun.
Entrees ran from $22 beef tenderloin to an omelet ($12) with salad and fruit; it’s always a pleasant surprise to see an omelet served at lunch or dinner. There is grilled chicken with the trendy grain quinoa ($14) and two pristine seafood options: a snow-white halibut ($17) with wilted greens, and arctic char ($16) with a succotash made of peas and mildly wilted kernels of corn.
One of the best entrees was the house-made pappardelle ($14). Long billowing sheets of pasta were cooked to just the right point of chewy doneness. The accompanying ingredients added a complex assortment of flavors: braised mushrooms, bright green asparagus, sweet tomato and salty pecorino cheese.
The cafe brags on its carrot cake ($7), but those seeking the traditional chunky two-layer wedge will want to dial down expectations. This looked more like a brownie in size and shape, but with an ethereal lightness that made it seem like you were eating something inconsequential. The cake had been griddled so that both sides were oddly crisp. There is also a flourless chocolate cake ($7), seasonal fruit ($7) and ice cream or sorbet ($6), and a small selection of wine and beer.
The restaurant is nestled on a corner to the right of the entrance, with brick columns and an understated sign that make it initially hard to spot. The interior is white and very grand, with 25-foot-high ceilings and a wall of windows that make it feel bright and airy. There’s a parking lot across the street, where you have to pay a hefty fee of $9.
But one nice thing about Café 43 that sets it apart from other museum restaurants is that anyone can eat there — even those who aren’t visiting the museum. It just wouldn’t be polite to do it any other way.