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French food gives gallery visitors a taste of Cezanne’s Provence

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WASHINGTON — Baby vegetables with anchovy sauce. Braised beef with carrots and olives. Chicken fricassee and potatoes roasted with garlic and thyme. Strawberries sauteed in honey with Szechwan peppercorns and lime sorbet.

Sound like a menu from French restaurant?

Well, it is, sort of. During the run of the "Cezanne in Provence" show at the National Gallery of Art, which goes through May 7, the gallery's Garden Cafe, a 90-seat cafe space on the ground floor of the gallery's West Building, has been turned into a Provencal bistro.

Both the buffet offerings and the a la carte menu at Cafe Provencal were developed by prominent Provencal chefs Francis Robin and Rene Berges in collaboration with the gallery's Restaurant Associates executive chef Thomas Marr to highlight the cuisine of Cezanne's birthplace. The wines ($6.50 to $9.25 per glass) are from the south of France as well.

Plants and flowers — daffodils, lavender — from the gallery's greenhouse and vests worn by the wait staff echo the southern French theme.

Does the union of food and art make a difference to the museumgoer? Gallery officials think it does. "Looking at a painting by Cezanne is a very sensuous experience," says Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings and curator of the exhibition. "It finds its equivalent in the Provencal food being offered in Cafe Provencal." He is particularly fond of the eggplant caviar toasts and endive salad on the buffet.

It is the first time that the food at the gallery has meshed with a major exhibit, but it probably won't be the last. The Sunday that the Garden Cafe was turned into Cafe Provencal, it served almost half again as many people as it did the previous Sunday.

Cafe Provencal, ground floor of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and Sixth Street NW entrance, Washington. Full buffet, $17.95; individual dishes priced separately.