Restaurant of the Year: Amuse 


If you name a restaurant Amuse, you'd better have a good sense of humor.

And a spirit of youthfulness, no matter how many white hairs are in the room. You'd pick furnishings that tweak the old-Richmond consciousness — those chartreuse womb chairs might have been outrages in the previous member dining room. Here, they're almost ironic.

You'd ditch the inevitable chicken salad and play with real food and new flavors. Challenge your kitchen to switch up the menu every month — piquillo peppers stuffed with chicken and chorizo; beef medallions in cinnamon chili with rattlesnake beans; garlicky mussels and local sausage; five-spice rockfish on sticky rice; gin and juice endive. Desserts and cocktails would connect taste to fantasy — coconut sorbet on a fruity tres leches cake; shimmering mocha towers; apple Napoleon with toothy flake. You'd stock plenty of spirits, hire articulate servers to pour them, and throw in some shockers like triple wine flights and 138-proof absinthe at lunch.

Your guests would advance to the third floor through an elaborate promenade on what seems to be an ocean liner of glass and echoing voices. A transparent elevator and wide stairs sharpen the sense of arrival, and architecture (at least for some) becomes an appetizer, with dozens of art-filled galleries to discover before and after the meal. This is a Richmond dream date without pretension and with eyes wide open.

At Amuse, the host wears jeans. There's a luxurious amount of space between just 16 tables in the muted, glass-front dining room. Another seven tables fill an outpost called the Payne Room, (or to wait staff, the House of Payne), with about a dozen more on the cantilevered balcony. The viewing radius is extraordinary: Grove Avenue townhouses to Confederate veterans' chapel to filigreed tree line to tiles on Benedictine, and the South's first television tower as a looming counterpoint to so much beauty. Sunlight can blind from the western expanse, but sunglasses only would make the guests look cooler.

Marble Saarinen tables hold subtle shakers and hefty Wedgwood flatware (dangerously so) and single flowers in glass. Black and white napkins match guests' preferences or pants colors. Music is wisely absent, the better for conversation or contemplation. White pendant lamps throw light on food presentations that are, in fact, amusing. Polenta sticks are stacked like sculpture, garnishes have color and zip, and savory plays with sweet on big white dishes that are almost cartoonish. To linger over this and realize that Picasso's private collection sprawls two floors below — at least till mid-May — with any number of treasures nearby, helps amplify the experience. A 10 percent member discount on food doesn't hurt.

“Everything about the place is now running smoothly,” Style Weekly reviewer Don Baker says, noticing service improvements since the restaurant's opening in May. “It's a professional staff, there's a funky drink menu and first-rate food.” And while we're not sold on the Guernicava as a cocktail, the Grande Absente, carrying a warning to drink with extreme caution, is an anise-flavored kick-in-the-tongue with a $5 price tag. Wines are generous pours into delicate stemware, from a list that tops out at $80 for a Napa cabernet and includes Virginia wines and two Michael Shaps signature blends.

“The beautiful space earns Amuse high marks alone, but the food stands on its own with high standards,” says reviewer Tess Autrey Bosher, who likes the parsnip bisque and fish dishes in particular. The restaurant's most-ordered entree remains the lump crab cake, indicative of Richmond's predictability but also the voluptuousness of Amuse's version, served with saffron calasparra, lolla rossa and spicy tartar. (As food geeks would remind you, that's rice and red lettuce.) The dish tops luncheon pricing at $15. “They have a pretty ambitious menu and it's one of the more inventive in town,” notes reviewer John Haddad, who praises the kitchen's clean flavors and liberal use of local ingredients.

There are downsides. Hours are extremely limited, with dinner available only on Thursday and Friday nights and last seatings at 8. But there's a lengthy luncheon service every day, and brunch on Sundays for a usually full house. Reservations are advisable but walk-ins find a home, munching in the lounge or at the glass bar where long timers such as bartender Tommy LeSane are smiling reminders that some things don't change.

When Greg Haley was named chef de cuisine to open Amuse last year, a fair amount of jealousy surfaced in the local chef world, because the competition was significant and the opportunity immense. Now that Haley, executive chef Danny Ayers and a 10-member kitchen team turn out some of the city's most visually stimulating and tasty plates, the punch line might be that he who has the laugh, lasts.



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