There is nothing better to inaugurate the summer season than a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This past weekend, a friend and I discovered lavender bearded irises; snowy white viburnum; pink columbine looking like moon landers, and deep red peonies with yellow filaments waving in the middle of their softball-size blossoms. Best of all was the rose garden, laid out in symmetric rows that led to a decorative pergola, with over 5,000 bushes in 1,000 varieties. The fragrance was overpowering.
After relaxing on the lawn among the cherry trees, and visiting the glassed-in cactus conservatory, we worked up an appetite, so we sought out the Yellow Magnolia Café. I’d reviewed it six years ago when it opened, and loved the food and setting. I went hoping the food would be as good as my last visit.
The bill of fare is more vegetable-oriented than several years ago, and more casually eclectic than the Southern-influenced food that had defined the menu. First to hit the table was a mezze platter ($18) that was both expansive and unpredictable. The star was a pureed muhammara made with carrots delicately accented with cumin and irrigated with green olive oil. It was served alongside pita and an herbed yogurt, as green olives and flavored chickpeas rolled across the platter. Lightly pickled eggplant slices flecked with rosemary resided beside cucumber pickles.
The mezze platter was so large it could have been the main course. Somewhat lighter was a tomato soup ($14) painted with crème fraiche and chive oil, reinforcing that herbs sourced in the garden are the major theme of the menu. Drinks steer toward traditional, along with an espresso martini, I’m afraid, and an off-menu bloody mary with vegetables that shot up like green fireworks. The menu boasts beers from three boroughs, along with multiple rose choices, and mocktails, too.
I sipped a flute of fizzy and unsweet Whispering Angel rose ($20) as the entrees began to arrive. First was a celery root Milanese schnitzel with a buttery crust. Topped with loamy Pecorino, the vegetable cutlet may have been small for the price ($23), but it was flavorful.
A better deal, perhaps, was a large burger topped with yellow tomato and melting gruyere. Served medium rare, the pink beef in the middle was coarsely ground so it felt like eating a tender steak. I made the mistake of order salad rather than fries, and it turned out to be the same salad that had come with the cutlet.
The desserts offered were a roster of gelati (including pineapple-sake and mango with olive oil), a chocolate tart, and banana pudding. We couldn’t resist the latter although the proportions were out of whack.
All-in-all though, our meal at Yellow Magnolia was an exceedingly pleasant addition to a trip to the garden. Note that the place is open only during garden hours, and you have to pay to get in before dining there: It’s a shame, since Yellow Magnolia is one of the few museum restaurants that can really stand on its own.