Leave it to Pam Reynolds to sum things up: “It's just a magical space,” the local philanthropic legend says of the new restaurant, Amuse, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “It's the most incredible destination restaurant I'd say on the East Coast, not just in Richmond. We'll have these major, world-class exhibitions here and we'll have a world-class restaurant.”
Not to put the pressure on new chef Greg Haley, who in his first week on the job was still learning the way around a labyrinth of kitchens, banquet rooms and service areas in the museum's dramatic expansion [featured in Style Weekly's cover story last week]. Haley won the job after presenting a hiring panel, which included chef J Frank, a sampling of dishes: an amuse-bouche of red curry and coconut rock shrimp, Asian-inspired tuna tacos and Grand Marnier truffles.
Now he's running the biggest kitchen of his career after 12 years with Richmond Restaurant Group holdings such as Michelle's at Hanover Tavern and Europa Italian Cafe and Tapas Bar. Haley's putting together an opening menu for Amuse that will focus on local foods that are “a little lighter with more contemporary flair,” he says, in an American fusion style that allows for creative leeway as things get up to speed.
The dining room is a stunner, with glass walls, Knoll furnishings, ipe-wood decks looking out over undulating water, a sculpture park and the western skyline. Bertoia chairs are covered in a nubby neutral weave; round Saarinen tables are topped with black and white marble. Acid-green Saarinen Womb chairs near the bar continue the midcentury theme, a brilliant and appropriate stroke of interior design that manages to squash Richmond's stuck-in-time complex, albeit with haute retro sensibility. Neutral tones throughout the museum flatter and draw focus to the art. In Amuse, big white plates, solitary orchids in glass vessels and soft lighting will frame the food and drinks.
The bar, topped in glass, “is too small,” Reynolds predicts, but will be a focal point for signature cocktails and spirits. Drinkers will have to start early — the restaurants close at 5 p.m. except on Thursdays; by July hours will expand to include Friday nights. Tony Karabaich will manage front-of-house operations; Danny Ayers and Cathy Turner continue in their longtime roles as executive chef and director of food services, respectively. Already their master calendar is ripe with special occasions and events, sometimes three at once in the new spaces.
Museum goers looking for more casual service will find it at ground level. Best CafAc will serve coffee, pastries and a cafeteria lineup of hot dishes, sandwiches, pizzas, soups and salads in a bright contemporary setting. The cafe's name is drawn from the former Best Products business founded by museum benefactors Sydney and Frances Lewis; large letters from some of the original store signs will decorate walls in the 120-seat spot. Its terrace will hold another 70 or so diners. Both Best CafAc and Amuse will be open to the public daily starting May 3.
For chef Haley, it's a dream gig: “I get to come to work every day and see art and meet a lot of people,” he says, knowing that great food will be part of their expectation. “It's the opportunity for Richmond and the state of Virginia, and I want to be sure that when people come here to eat, they remember it.”
There's no time to waste as flatware and furnishings arrive, more staff is hired and those four gleaming walk-ins are filled with fresh ingredients and a museum's fondest hopes. Food is a significant profit center, but with art as striking as Sol LeWitt's Splotches #22 — a tall, vividly colored sculpture visible through the restaurants' glass walls — it will be a contest to see what's most stimulating for visitors. “It's the whole package,” Reynolds exults, “and it all belongs to Virginia.”
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