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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ame: Some Early Observations And Initial Thoughts

One of the most highly anticipated Bay Area restaurant openings of 2005 occurred back in November, when Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani opened Ame in the new St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.   For nearly 18 years, Sone and Doumani have owned and operated Terra - a beautiful, rustic restaurant in St. Helena offering a menu infused with Asian, European and California influences.   The accolades that Terra has generated over the years have been positively glowing at times, with some even characterizing the establishment as second only to The French Laundry in terms of wine country destinations.   On my sole visit to the restaurant a couple of years ago, however, I found a bit of a mixed bag;   some of the dishes were truly spectacular, but others were good but unremarkable.   Still, I saw enough signs of promise that evening that I was very interested when plans for Ame were first announced in the middle of 2005.

I visited Ame on its third night in business, early enough in the restaurant's lifespan that I feel it would be more fair to offer only preliminary thoughts and observations at this point rather than a full review.   The menu at Ame is very reminiscent of that at Terra, with a comparable range of dishes, a nearly identical combination of influences, and a few dishes that have been copied verbatim.   In fact, it would be hard to tell the two menus apart were it not for the one distinguishing factor - a sashimi bar section on the Ame menu that finds no counterpart on Terra's menu.   On the night that I dined at Ame, there were several sashimi selections that looked intriguing, but the one that immediately caught our eye was the "Poke" with Ogo Seaweed, Hawaiian Sea Salt and Green Onions.   A mixture of different types of fish is rolled "maki style" in rice and nori, after which it is coated in a light tempura batter, deep fried, and then cut into bite-sized pieces.   A seaweed salad bursting with a bright citrus dressing is served alongside.   This dish was, in a word, outstanding.   The fish was amazingly fresh, the accompanying sauce was incredibly flavorful, and the wonderful salad helped the entire plate come alive.
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There's more...

The appetizer section of Ame's menu offers a number of possibilities, including Burrata Cheese, White Bean Soup, or Fricassee of Miyagi Oysters.   My dining companion and I, however, decided to try both of that evening's appetizer specials.   First up was a Mixed Green Salad with Radicchio and Sweetbreads.   The various flavors here - bitter radicchio, nutty and sweet parmesan, lemony mustard vinaigrette, black pepper - came together nicely, and the crispy sweetbreads further contributed toward making this a very satisfying dish.   The second appetizer was a Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras Wonton.   Now, one might be tempted to surmise - as did I - that any dish combining American "Kobe" beef with foie gras would necessarily be sublime.   Yet, this appetizer fell woefully short;   the foie gras was barely detectable, the beef likewise did not fully register on the palate, and the accompanying veal broth and chestnuts seemed like rather odd choices.   In short, nothing really came together and nothing harmonized - a real disappointment for a dish that started out with such promising and luxurious ingredients.

The entrees we ordered were also a study in contrasts, albeit to a lesser degree.   The Broiled Sake Marinated Alaskan Black Cod, one of Sone's signature creations from Terra, was absolutely spectacular.   The fish was cooked to perfection, its sweet and tender meat lent a wonderful depth by a rich and flavorful shiso broth.   Rounding out the plate were delicate shrimp dumplings so delicious that a lesser chef would have been tempted to put them in a starring role in a dish of their own.   To put it plainly, this proves that Sone's kitchen is capable of four-star cuisine.   The Spaghettini "Crabonara" with Dungeness Crab, on the other hand, did not reach quite the same heights.   The carbonara sauce struck me as slightly more "eggy" than it should have been, although it did have a very nice butter flavor.   But a more significant concern was that the entire dish was infused with a harsh and briny edge - the sort one might expect to find in the water in which the crab was boiled.   This may not particularly bother those of us who love crab, but a more refined approach - in which the overall flavor is well-rounded and smooth with the harsher edges removed - could readily have lifted this dish into the stratosphere.

Desserts were nicely executed and very satisfying.   The Warm Chocolate Cake with Hot Fudge Sauce was a solid rendition of the now-ubiquitous classic, but it was given a decidedly unusual twist by being paired with a delicious, bright red, sugar beet ice cream.   The Warm Bartlett Pear Crisp was also presented with creative flair, the customary sugar-butter-flour topping and accompanying vanilla ice cream replaced here with a pecan streusel topping and gingersnap ice cream.   The flavors melded together beautifully, the warm crisp and cool ice cream converging to create a comforting dessert on a wintery San Francisco evening.   If these two selections are any indication, I look forward to working my way through the remainder of pastry chef Marissa Churchill's dessert menu.

The service on the night that I visited was less than stellar, and in ways that cannot be entirely chalked up to opening week kinks.   To set the stage, the restaurant was no more than an eighth full when we arrived, and the only table that our server appeared to be handling at first was ours.   The evening thus began well enough, with the server providing good descriptions of the menu items and thoughtful recommendations regarding the wine list.   And the first several dishes were presented to us in a well-paced, efficient manner without incident.   But when a party of four was seated at an adjacent table midway through our meal, our server developed a rare form of amnesia in which all memory of our table ever being his responsibility was wiped from his consciousness.   As he doted on the other party while completely oblivious to our attempts to flag him down, we resorted to making our requests - for silverware, for another glass of wine, and so on - to the passing runners or busboys whose attention we occasionally managed to catch as they raced by our table.   And at the end of the meal, it was almost as though our server had decided that he would refuse to bring us our check unless I was moved to get up from the table, hunt him down clear across the room, grab him by the lapels, and shake him violently while demanding our check.   Luckily, it didn't come to that, but a few more seconds of making us wait on top of the twenty-plus minutes that we already had, and it very well might have.   Given that the restaurant at this point was still only a quarter full and our waiter was handling only 2-3 tables, there was absolutely no excuse for this ridiculous service.   On a more positive note, however, I must mention that the host staff were unfailingly gracious - from their response when we called to say that we were running a few minutes late, to their warm welcome when we arrived, to their kind sendoff when we departed.

The atmosphere and decor at Ame are modern, chic and sleek, the dark colors punctuated with colorful accents to provide some warmth and excitement to the room.   The L-shaped dining area is spacious and inviting, with tables spaced a comfortable distance from one another.   The overall feel is calm and refined, without undue formality.

In the end, my first visit to Ame left me with the same impression I had after dining at Terra:   some of the dishes were absolutely spectacular, but others were merely good without being particularly remarkable.   To be fair, you're not likely to find anything at Ame that could be described as affirmatively bad or poorly executed.   But given Ame's price point - $150+ for dinner for two - I think that it needs to hit the high notes a bit more consistently and frequently than it did on my first visit.   Maybe it's already doing so, now that the restaurant has been open for several months.   Or perhaps I just need to delve deeper into the menu to see more of Sone's brilliance.   Either way, I will definitely be returning to Ame for further exploration.


Anonymous Fatemeh said...

Very interesting review.

I'm pleased to report that the "Crabonara" has been refined. C ordered it when we ate there with Joy and Jon a few weeks ago -- it was definitely not too eggy (even for this yolk-hating girl), and the flavor was definitely more refined than what you describe.

January 10, 2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Fatemeh: Thanks for the information - I'm very glad to hear that! I look forward to trying the dish again on my next visit, as it really seemed like it had amazing potential.

January 10, 2006 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Catherine said...

I thought the crabonara was good, but not revelatory. However the matelote of eel and foie gras was the BEST dish I've eaten so far in 2006. The star of the menu. I liked the black cod -- you can't fault it -- but so many places do it and do it well (Sushi Ran comes to mind) that I wouldn't waste an entree on it. Our apps were spectacular -- the burrata, the crudo. I'm with you on service, though for a different reason. Our waiter spent about 20 minutes reciting everything on the menu in detail -- interesting for people like me, a huge imposition for many others -- but the fault I found was that (a) he did it before taking our drink order and who can enjoy sitting through that when what we really need is WINE? and (b) the one question I asked him after his soliliquoy, he forgot to get answered when he came back to take our order. But the food is excellent, and room beyond gorgeous, and I can't wait next time to start off with a drink in the swanky St. Regis bar...

January 10, 2006 8:09 PM  
Anonymous JS said...

yay, i'm glad you posted up your review! if you're curious, i've got mine here ... but in short, we thought it was good enough to try again, though somewhat inconsistent. i loved the ocean trout mi-cuit, the duck confit ravioli, and the chawan-mushi, but our entrees (we had the black cod and the quail with polenta) weren't as good and our dessert was nothing special. :/

January 10, 2006 8:53 PM  
Blogger K & S said...

ooh, poke!! if you ever make it, try using sliced boiled octopus and adding some sesame seed oil and chili pepper. :)

January 12, 2006 4:45 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Catherine: Thanks for the tip about the matelote of eel and foie gras - that wasn't on the menu when I went, but I'll be sure to try it on my next visit. Your experience with the service sounds as frustrating as mine. I completely agree with you that the drink order should be taken well before diving into an exegesis on the menu, and servers who simply forget express requests are a personal pet peeve. I really hope that Ame is able to bring the service more into line with the rest of the experience.

JS: Thanks for the link to your review - I really enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to more of your posts. It appears that you and I ended up with very similar assessments, although the service you received certainly sounds better than what I had to endure. If the restaurant can get more of its offerings to consistently reach the level of its best dishes, I think it could very easily become the hottest ticket in town.

Kat & Satoshi: I don't know that I would have ever had the thought to try to make poke myself, but your comment now has me intrigued! Thanks for the tip!

January 12, 2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger Arthur said...

Thanks for this, NS. I'm going for lunch tomorrow - looking forward to it.

January 13, 2006 3:50 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Arthur: Thanks for your comment - I'll be interested to hear your assessment, whether here or on your site!

January 16, 2006 11:45 PM  
Anonymous JS said...

did you see the recent review in the chronicle? http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/01/22/CMGQIF60701.DTL -- 3 1/2 stars on the food...

January 23, 2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger SF Photorama said...

I should definitely try it too! I only live 2 blocks from where it is!

April 05, 2006 7:54 AM  

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