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Artifact offers a tour of global cuisines at Mingei International Museum

Dishes from the Maghreb menu at Artifact in the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
A few of the dishes served in March as part of the Maghreb dinner at Artifact restaurant in the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
(Ron Kerner/Mingei International Museum)

Urban Kitchen Group is crafting monthly regional prix-fixe menus. This month’s theme: Oaxacan food

For 44 years, the Mingei International Museum has taken its visitors on a world tour via its collection of tribal masks from the Congo, Ainu prayer sticks from Japan, fiber necklaces from Oman, children’s toys from Germany, maracas from Cuba and hat boxes from China.

Now, it’s taking diners on a global culinary expedition at its new restaurant, Artifact.

Artifact debuted in December in the lobby of Mingei’s Balboa Park location, which reopened last summer after a three-year, $55 million renovation. The sleek and modern bistro and bar is run by Tracy Borkum’s Urban Kitchen Group (UKG), best known for her popular Cucina Urbana and Cucina Enoteca restaurants. UKG also has a robust catering business, with operations at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the recently acquired Waters Fine Foods on Morena Boulevard and the Mingei museum.

Artifact restaurant in the lobby of the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
Artifact restaurant is surrounded by exhibits in the lobby of the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Over the past four months, Artifact has been serving a globally inspired lunch-only menu created by UKG chef de cuisine Jeff Armstrong and executive chef Tim Kolanko. But on March 3, the restaurant introduced dinner service from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, the two days of the week when the museum is open until 8 p.m.

During the dinner hours, diners can either order from an abbreviated menu of lunch items, or they can choose a $75 prix-fixe themed dinner option, which I highly recommend. Each month, the Artifact culinary team will create a new prix-fixe menu representing a different international cuisine, inspired by the objects in Mingei’s permanent collection. The inaugural menu in March featured dishes from Maghreb, the region of Northwest Africa that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and several other countries. April’s menu will focus on the cuisine of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Kolanko said he and the other UKG chefs are having fun creating their own fresh takes on regional ethnic dishes. The goal is to re-create the flavors and style of traditional dishes without being locked into old-world preparations and ingredients.

Tunisian braised bass dish at Artifact restaurant at Mingei International Museum.
Tunisian braised bass was one of the dishes on the Maghreb menu served in March at Artifact, the new restaurant at Mingei International Museum.
(Ron Kerner/Mingei International Museum)

The three-course menu is served family style, with all members of the dining party sharing dishes communally. Don’t worry about going home hungry, it’s a substantial meal. Three dishes made up the first course of the Maghreb meal, four dishes were in the second and a dessert and beverage in the third course. All of the dishes in each course arrive at the table together, making for an entertaining mixing and sharing experience.

The first course included a warm whole wheat cilantro flatbread for two, served with a bowl of muhamarra, a creamy and flavor-packed Lebanese roasted red pepper dip topped with toasted walnuts and tangy pomegranate molasses. A crudo dish of local yellowtail amberjack was delicately accented with threads of floral saffron, a squeeze of citrus, chili shavings and fresh herbs. And a spring salad of blood and Valencia orange supremes topped with cinnamon, orange blossom water and Manzanilla olives sounds like a strange combination but it was a well-balanced mix of saltiness, sweetness, spice and acidity.

Muhamarra spread with fresh-baked whole wheat cilantro flatbread at Artifact restaurant at Mingei International Museum.
Muhamarra spread with fresh-baked whole wheat cilantro flatbread served during the Maghreb dinner at Artifact restaurant at Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
(Ron Kerner/Mingei International Museum)

The second course had two main dishes. The best was a luscious chermoula-spiced lamb loin, served on a bed of labneh, a Lebanese yogurt spread, with a side of crunchy, acidic thin-sliced fennel, pickled with preserved lemons. There was also a hearty and perfectly cooked dish of Tunisian-style seabass braised in a sauce of crushed tomatoes, chili powder and cumin topped with parsley, mint, dill and olive oil. The two entrees were served with two sides, a featherlight couscous scented with Tunisian tabil spice and studded with sweet nuggets of tender apricot, and harira, a Moroccan dish of lentils, fava beans, roasted cauliflower and lemon.

The dessert course of petite Tunisian, Moroccan and Turkish pastries was served with a mug of Moroccan mint tea sweetened with honey and brown sugar.

The new Oaxacan prix-fixe menu kicks off on tonight, with follow-up dinners planned on April 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 28 and 29. Among the many featured dishes are spot prawn aguachile with finger limes, cucumber and avocado; jicama and chayote salad with grilled nopales and cactus pear chile vinaigrette; huitlacoche tamale with golden chanterelles and shaved black truffles; achiote Duroc pork cooked in banana leaves; Mary’s chicken with mole negro; coconut flan; and Oaxacan dark chocolate cookies.

In future months, unique prix-fixe menus may also be developed to pair with specific art exhibits. The restaurant’s bar offers an international selection of wines, some of which can be paired with the three-course meals for an additional $30.

Artifact

Dinner hours: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays

Where: Minge International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Online: mingei.org/visit/artifact

Artifact restaurant at Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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