Go. Just go. Go for the view. Go for the Bertoia chairs and the rotation of high-end art that only a museum of this caliber could afford to use as eye candy. Go for the food, which has real promise. Go to see and be seen. But go mainly because Amuse, the formerly members-only dining room at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is now open to the public. If you can get a reservation, that is.
Open for dinner only on Thursday and Friday nights, with the last seating at 8 p.m., this is the most sought-after ticket to hit the Richmond dining scene in years. No wonder. The location is unparalleled, and the west-facing view of the new sculpture garden and reflecting pool is simply spectacular. Lunch is more accessible (you can go any day, and brunch is served on Sunday), but for a coveted table at the sleek and sexy evening meal, you'll need to plan ahead.
Service was just as polished as the marble-topped Saarinen tables. My girlfriend Maureen was decked out in a spectacular pale silk pantsuit, so the oh-so-cute waiter draped an oversized white napkin on her lap. He also draped a black napkin across my black skirt. At dinner the following evening with my favorite dining companion, Russ, two pieces of gingery pickled pineapple packed a pleasant punch as a complimentary amuse-bouche despite their diminutive size. The bamboo toothpicks were a subtle, but effective detail.
And that's really the net of eating at Amuse versus some of the other high-end options in town. Details matter, and discerning diners notice — and appreciate — them.
The food, by chef Greg Haley, most recently of Michelle's at Hanover Tavern, is a work in progress but deserves almost as much praise as the elegant and contemporary setting designed by London-based architect Rick Mather. The menus are not extensive, and there was a fair amount of crossover between lunch and dinner. Maureen and I were knocked over by the tuna-tartare-and-avocado tower topped with micro greens and a star-anise-flavored cracker we split at lunch, but I was less impressed with the same dish served the next day as a dinner appetizer. It was equal parts perfectly ripe avocado chunks with firm, delicious raw tuna the first time out, but the second version skimped on the fish, perhaps because the kitchen had run out of this made-to-order delicacy by the last seating of the night. An ample portion of Prince Edward Island mussels with Surry sausage in a flavorful broth served with buttery, toasted bread as a first course was the highlight of dinner. My duck confit was tasty but not quite as "fall off the bone" as I'm accustomed to. Not really a big deal except that the yummy accompanying goat-cheese-and-apple tart would have been even better with decadent shreds of the magnificent mallard in each mouthful.
The crab cakes served atop a large salad that Maureen enjoyed for lunch would make any Richmonder happy. My more ambitious hoisin-glazed skate wing served with miso-glazed eggplant and a roasted-red-pepper salad was out of this world.
Russ' grilled skirt steak for dinner with fluffy, almost soufflé-like polenta and sherry-roasted mushrooms was mildly disappointing, mainly because the demi-glace had a strange undertone that neither of us really liked. For dessert, Russ and I shared the profiteroles served with butter-pecan ice cream, chocolate sauce and freshly whipped cream, as well as the dense chocolate-hazelnut torte with a generous layer of chocolate ganache on top. Both were fabulous, but we decided that the sorbet trio ordered by the table behind us looked even better. Served in individual white bowls, the triptych mirrored Amuse's clean and simple midcentury decor.
There was a slight sense of being rushed at dinner — again, that could have been because of our late seating. The entrance to the museum is also the exit to the museum and therefore to Amuse. We encountered five security guards who were clearly positioned to make sure no wandering took place. Still, go. Go for the soft lighting, the breathtaking view and the fiery sunsets. Go for lunch, which is a deal, as the menu is so similar to dinner. But go, too, to support the VMFA expansion — truly one of the most exciting cultural happenings in our city and state in years.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, 340-1580
Prices: Lunch entrées $10 to $15; soups, appetizers and tapas $5 to $12; dinner entrées $17 to $26; desserts $6.
Hours: Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily (brunch on Sunday is also 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m.); afternoon tapas from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.; dinner on Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m., with the last reservations at 8 p.m.