Arty Appetite

The "ever-changing" soup and salad bar ($6.75) needs to be completely revamped. After my dining companion returns from a second trip with the same two items -- a weird, chewy, skinned red potato salad and the yawnable Primavera salad (zucchini, pasta and red peppers in a slightly peppery oil dressing) served with all Cafe sandwiches -- I feel so sorry for him I feed him half of my chicken sandwich. There are no other choices, he whimpers, just vegetables, and who wants that in a salad? He returns my favor by making me sample the soup of the day -- a pureed pepper soup that has absolutely no taste and an off-putting oatmeal-like texture.

Here, at least, the chicken is done well enough. A chicken and green chile sandwich ($6.75) may or may not be mesquite grilled; I can't taste any smoke, but I do like the buffalo mozzarella between the wheat bun. I'm almost at a loss to describe the meat loaf sandwich, though ($6.75). What's to make of a pressed flat loaf, looking for all the world like a processed blend? It tastes of nothing on its grilled roll, and stranger still when slicked with a sweet ketchup assaulted by horseradish-tasting spice.

A smoked turkey sandwich ($6.50) is fine, topped with soft Dofino and tangy whole-cranberry chutney thoughtfully served on the side. But there's no mayo available today, our server tells us, and we can only dream how much better lunch might have been. Or how much better the individual vegetarian quiche could be when served fresh. As it is, it's an overcooked pastry of mushroom and overwhelming spinach topped with Asiago.

In fact, one of the most satisfying meals at PAM's Cafe is a kid's entree of grilled cheese ($4.50), blending classic Holsum and Velveeta served with nacho-flavor tortilla chips and sweet dice of strawberry, cantaloupe, honeydew, red grapes and pineapple.

The primary visual interest at the Art Museum Cafe is a cold display case of Saran-wrapped, baked-on-site desserts and Calistoga beverages. New York cheesecake with raspberry sauce and German chocolate-like caramel cake (desserts $3.50) are worth a few bites, but the best of the bunch is the AZ Taste Signature bread pudding, offering a glimpse of the skills I know this caterer to have. This isn't a rocket-science recipe, but simple fluffy bread baked with red grapes and cinnamon. Okay, it's not fancy Chantilly cream -- I see the waitress squeeze the topping from a large plastic bag -- but it's still tasty.

The signs are there. The Valley wants a downtown cultural core. We've built it. Let's be ready to feed them when they come.

Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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