Mixx Grill needed a new direction to stand out in Anchorage's downtown dining scene, so the restaurant's management offered executive chef Matt Little Dog the creative freedom to reinvent the restaurant.
"They kind of handed it to me and said 'do what you do,' " Little Dog said. "It's nice to be able to create my own menu."
Little Dog started his career in Alaska more than a decade ago, relocating from Montana to head the kitchen at Simon & Seafort's. Before Mixx, he was helping some friends build up Cafe Croissant.
The chef said he hopes to overcome the bad reputation Mixx (located inside the Inlet Tower Hotel & Suites) earned over the past few years. His plan: a new menu, less expensive prices and consistent quality and service.
Some of the additions to the menu include penne pasta Bolognese ($15), seared Alaska halibut with beurre blanc sauce ($28), calamari with spicy sesame aioli ($11) and pepper & sesame seared ahi tuna ($15).
The first change Little Dog made after taking over in April was to open for breakfast and lunch. He said he wants to win back customers and he is willing to put his money where his mouth is to do it. Locals get 15 percent off food items anytime, just by asking their servers for the discount. The bar at Mixx also hosts happy hour nightly, offering half-price appetizers from 5:30-6:30 p.m.
But discounted dining is only a good deal if the food is as pleasant to the palate as the check is to the wallet. My sister and I decided to put happy hour to the test. When we dropped in there were a few other patrons in the bar but open seating was abundant.
The happy hour appetizer menu features steamer clams ($6), spicy buffalo wings ($5.25), calamari ($5.50) and mushroom cheesecake ($5.75).
We ordered the pepper and sesame seared ahi tuna ($7.50), the seared beef tenderloin tips with roasted mushrooms ($7.75) along with a regularly priced Caesar salad ($7).
The Caesar was sprinkled with house-made croutons and was weighed down with a hearty amount of the classic dressing.
The ahi came out on top of a chili soy reduction and spicy sesame aioli with a marble of wasabi. The reduction, aioli and wasabi combined with the pepper-and-sesame-seed crust to blend harmoniously and gave the dish a deep-layered flavor.
The beef tips were served swimming in a port demi-glace and topped with a generous amount of chunky blue cheese, which added color to the dark dish. The beef tips were pleasantly large and tender.
We enjoyed the food but were a little disappointed with the service the bartender provided. He delivered our dishes and one round of drinks, then never returned to check on us. Of course, it is hard not to be distracted when someone shows up at the bar with a laptop to book a trip online with you. While the bartender stood with his back to us asking, "So when will we get back?" we sat at our table with empty drinks and dirty dishes lingering in front of us. I ended up going to bar to ask for our check.
When I returned a second time for a late lunch, I stood at the wait-to-be-seated sign for a minute or two before anyone greeted me, but I received spot-on friendly service once I was seated in the dining room.
Lunch did not disappoint. I had seen Little Dog featured on an episode of "Chefs A' Field" on PBS, where he talked about using only fresh, wild Alaska salmon, so I ordered the ginger soy grilled salmon burger ($12).
While I waited for my entree I enjoyed a cup of the signature roasted tomato soup ($4.50) since the server had highly recommended it without prompting. The brightly colored soup was so creamy it was not red, but more of a pumpkin color. Dark balsamic syrup, shreds of smoked provolone, yellow and white cheddar swirled atop the thick soup. I drifted into matchmaker mode as I ate it -- thinking what a superb pair the soup and a grilled cheese sandwich would make. My iced tea ($2) was served with liquid sugar on the side in the tiny pitcher usually used for cream with coffee.
My salmon burger was dazzling. The patty was definitely handmade from fresh salmon and had the deep red color that sockeye are known for. It was spiced and bound using oats then grilled and served on a toasted ciabata roll. The bread's firm texture was necessary to keep the sandwich from crumbling under the weight of sliced avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, arugula and a serious dousing of spicy sesame aioli. It was served with plenty of hot and crisp french fries.
Chef Little Dog said he intends to add quick lunch options, such as soup and salad combos, to the menu and $25 three-course deals, but right now he wants to focus on turning Mixx around.
"I don't like to bite off more than I can chew. I like to make sure it is successful," he said.
Mixx has got some good things going for it. It has one of Anchorage's top chefs at the helm, its decor is hipper than most hotel restaurants and it's more accessible than most downtown spots, with outdoor dining on the patio and free parking. The food is good, but the restaurant has no vibe yet -- it feels kind of empty and quiet. If Mixx's hospitality can live up to its food and location, it won't stay quiet for long.
Location: 1200 L St.
Hours: Breakfast, 6-11 a.m.; Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner, 5-10 p.m.; Lounge opens at 5 p.m.
By Rachael Fisher
Daily News correspondent