The Marx Bros. Cafe in the Anchorage Museum has undergone a transformation. Gone is the original awkward layout; it has blossomed into Muse, a gorgeous, graceful space in its own right. My head almost swiveled off my shoulders as the hostess led us to our table. Light streamed in from the side of the restaurant, which was floor-to-high-ceiling glass, and brightened the red, corrugated walls opposite. The sun, simple shapes and vivid colors made me feel like I was riding on a Calder mobile -- which was highly appropriate given the setting.
The lunch menu concentrates mostly on salads and sandwiches, with a handful of entrees for those who want a heartier meal. Van's famous Caesar is offered ($6.50 half, $12 whole) along with more unique options; a golden beet salad with chevre and a two hearts salad with artichoke hearts and hearts of palm ($7.50 half, $13.50 whole).
If walking through the exhibits left you really famished, it has a pork chop entree ($15.25) or baby back ribs ($14.25) to revive your flagging spirits. I settled on the caprese salad ($8.50) and the French dip ($12.75 whole). There was some discussion of splitting a salad, but my friend was being selfish. I was glad of her foresight when our salads came out.
Slices of very ripe tomato alternated with the freshest buffalo mozzarella I've tasted in a restaurant. A sweet balsamic reduction coated the bottom of the plate, providing plenty of dressing, and a tangle of peppery arugula supplied a spicy herbal counterpoint.
After such a palette (and palate!) of flavors, my sandwich came as an anticlimax. The French dip is served on a crusty roll with a generous bowlful of au jus and a choice of regular or sweet potato fries or a salad. The sweet potato fries were limp but delicious, sprinkled with a mixture of garlic, parsley and kosher salt. The sandwich lacked flavor, however, and needed a jolt of horseradish to liven it up, which the server happily provided.
My next visit was timed to take advantage of the "amuse" menu that begins at 3 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. An "amuse bouche" is meant to tickle the tongue and get the juices flowing. As with tapas, I could make a whole meal out of these little appetizers and planned on doing so.
The menu itself got the juices flowing before I even tasted anything. Kodiak scallops with golden caviar ($12.75), venison brochettes ($11.25) and smoked salmon and halibut bruschetta ($9.75) are elegant, intriguing propositions.
Many of the menu items are Alaska-sourced. Kudos to the restaurant for its efforts to keep the food as fresh and local as possible.
Trisha Mueller, the front of the house manager, touts Muse as an opportunity to experience Marx Bros. food and service in a more accessible and more affordable way. I couldn't agree more; with these prices, I was able to order three dishes off the amuse menu for myself, without feeling like I was being extravagant. The extravagance would come later, in a procession of beautifully plated appetizers.
The first thing I tucked into were the oysters ($2.50 each). They are available on the half shell, with lime chipotle mignonette or Rockefeller. My oysters came out on a bed of ice with the mignonette giving them a faint pink hue. I was afraid the chipotle would overpower the delicate flavor, but that was not the case. Instead, the hints of lime and heat made the creaminess of the oysters sparkle.
The duck spring roll ($10.75), of which I had harbored such high hopes, did not meet expectations. My favorite part was the garnish it was sitting on, a bed of sweet-chili dressed slaw. The roll itself was too much carrot and not enough duck.
I saved the best for last: ahi nachos ($11.75) served with seaweed salad. Cubes of fresh, ruby tuna lay scattered over wasabi cream, with fried wonton triangles serving as edible utensils. A pickled ginger rose and champagne-colored tobiko completed this masterpiece.
The server cleared my plates and noticed I had only taken one bite of the spring roll. When she brought my bill, she told me she had not charged me for it because I hadn't eaten it. This is the kind of fine-dining service that Mueller is talking about when she refers to Marx Bros. quality at a more accessible price. No muss, no fuss, just a desire to make the diner happy. And I was.
• Got a restaurant tip, a new menu, a favorite dish or a chef change? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Options: Dine-in, catering and takeout Want to rave or pan? Write your own review of this restaurant or any other recently reviewed place at play.adn.com/dining.
By Riza Parsons
Daily News correspondent