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The last decade has been extraordinary kind to hungry museum-goers, who long had the choice between hamburgers and hot dogs if they didn't want to

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Touring the Museums: Collections Cafe

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The last decade has been extraordinary kind to hungry museum-goers, who long had the choice between hamburgers and hot dogs if they didn't want to eat off-campus. Museums are now curating their cafes with the same seriousness they'd apply to a blockbuster exhibition, well-aware that the right restaurant has similar cash-generating potential. This week, Voracious is visiting the city's newest museum eateries.

Restaurant: Collections Cafe

Museum: Chihuly Garden and Glass

Dining format: Sit-down

Interpretation of the classic museum burger: Topped with bacon, Beecher's Marco Polo, peppadew aioli, red onion jam, $15

What screams museum: The restaurant is decorated with selections from Dale Chihuly's personal collections of juicers, dollhouse furniture, bottle openers and shaving brushes. Each guest receives a a glossy palm-sized guide to the items on exhibit.

My mother recently mentioned that Collections Cafe led the restaurant wish list of a Seattle-bound friend, which really surprised me. Most visitors structure their dining itineraries around salmon, spectacular views or James Beard award nominations, none of which would naturally lead to a restaurant connected to the new Dale Chihuly exhibit space at Seattle Center. But a single lunchtime visit to Collections Cafe made me retract my skepticism: The restaurant is an excellent choice for visitors and locals.

For eaters like me, who can't afford a $19 ticket to the Chihuly exhibition, the restaurant and its gorgeous, chromatic dishes hint at the aesthetic sense celebrated within the museum's walls. The cafe has a lovely patio that's an ideal setting for sipping a Washington Riesling and trading big ideas about art, but the solace for a not-so-sunny day is the long, spruce plank-walled dining room, with accordions jangling from the ceiling and three-dozen back-lit Chihuly drawings along the back wall.

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Collections Cafe
The wall-mounted arrangements of Christmas ornaments and cast iron dogs blur into a riot of color, although careful scrutiny reveals the design achievements of each individual piece (or the perceived carelessness of the curators: While I was at Collections, a guest insisted on dragging a patient male employee into a busy women's restroom to point out a bottle opener which had apparently been hung upside-down.) No matter how you feel about Chihuly and his glasswork, the room's really something.

And the food's beautiful too. Jason Wilson of Crush chipped in with menu development, but Jeff Maxfield of SkyCity and on-site chef Ivan Szilak are credited with creating "a dining experience that celebrates what's fresh and local." That means the kitchen occasionally runs out of ingredients - an encouraging sign - which is how I ended up with a watermelon salad instead of the rainbow chard and roasted mushroom salad that initially intrigued me.

Like every other eater who's spent time in restaurants over the past two or three summers, I've seen my share of pink watermelon dices and feta crumbles. But Collections deviates from cliché with a clump of mixed greens, lightly-dressed with a traditional Balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with crunchy toasted pistachios, tart watermelon segments and slivers of salty ricotta salata. Even more impressive was two curlicues of bruised-purple Pacific octopus, grilled and plated with fleshy green castelvetrano olives and creamy fingerling potatoes perked up by a peppery Berbere spice mix.

The salmon, ordered on my server's recommendation, was terrific: Brown butter flooded the grill marks on the perfectly-cooked fish, which was perched on a bed of fat corn kernels and meaty, long-stemmed mushrooms. Clearly visitors can lunch here and have their James Beard award winner (Wilson), view of the Space Needle and salmon too.

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