Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ame: Sweet Rainy Soul

689 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Chef Greg Dunmore (formerly sous chef of Terra)
Lunch and Dinner daily

Last tried: September 2007

Ame has found a consistent path of excellence. Most memorable on my last visit (in addition to Lissa's staff meal, which I always have to have-- salad of raw scored squid with quail egg topped with salmon roe and freshly grated wasabi) was a modern riff on vitello tonnato, using perfectly grilled kurobuta pork tenderloin, instead of veal, with a creamy tuna-caper mayonnaise, accompanied by a baby arugula salad. Elegant and satisfying. Crispy, sweet fig tempura for dessert. Ame and Terra seem to be neck and neck.

Last tried: January 2006

When I first started baking, the direction that I had most difficulty following was the last one-- the one that told me to wait before eating, for the baked item to cool, to set, to be ready. I have the same difficulty waiting to try new restaurants, no matter how many times I have heard that restaurants are working out kinks in the first couple of months of opening and not at their best in that inaugural period. Given that Terra, the flagship restaurant of superchef couple Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani (from the original Spago West Hollywood) in St. Helena, has been one of my favorite restaurants for years, I had the patience of a five year old waiting for sunrise on Christmas morning when I heard that they were opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Ame ("soul" in French; homonym for "candy" or "sweets" and "rain" in Japanese but different kanji), and rushed in with a reservation as early as I could within the first couple of weeks of its opening.

Whereas Terra is housed in an old stone cottage in the Napa Valley, Ame is in the brand new St. Regis Hotel, whose decor is so sleek and modern that it makes the Clift Hotel look dowdy and dated. During my first visit to Ame, the service was solicitous but not quite polished, and while the food was certainly creative, it was not as well executed as the fare at Terra. Not even the shaved white truffle supplement I decided to splurge on changed my somewhat deflated impression of the overall dining experience. Nonetheless I resolved to go back at least one more time before making up my mind about how I felt about the new restaurant. Based on my recent second visit to Ame, I realized I should have let the cookies cool before diving in.

The sashimi offerings were as fresh and interesting as on my first visit. Although they did not have any toro this last time (a good sign that they will only serve it when they can get the good stuff that's creamy and melty, instead of the stringy, chewy kind I've had at some sushi places, which tastes like undercooked cheap fatty beef), I almost did not miss it after tasting the sparkling Japanese sea bream sashimi with angel hair strands of raw daikon, offered on top of several generous discs of pinkish golden monkfish liver and ponzu sauce.

The "tuna five" is a visually arresting dish of five variations of the familiar fish in usual and unusual forms. The jewel-red maguro slice with a pearl of freshly grated, bright green wasabi tasted as good as it looked. The razor thin slice of bottarga (salted, pressed, and dried tune roe) was very cleverly paired with a mini-roll of tamago, the Japanese sweet egg omelette, each bringing out the flavors of the other while playing on the "egg" concept. The tartare and tataki were less exciting but quite respectable. The only offering that did not work for me was the mojama (white tuna fillet cured in sea salt) with garbanzo beans, which was the only fish there that tasted "fishy."

The mi cuit smoked Tasmanian ocean trout with salmon roe and Japanese cucumber salad (thin, small cucumber slices marinated in vinegar and sugar), sprinkled with bits of hijiki seaweed and lightly drizzled with creme fraiche, was also quite lovely. I only wished that the trout had not been smoked, as the smokiness overwhelmed both the sashimi and the dish as a whole. We also had the kampachi crudo in olive oil with meyer lemon zest and sea salt. Like the rest of the sashimi, the kampachi was fresh and soft (similar to but slightly firmer than hamachi, also known as yellowtail), but the olive oil overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the fish.

The gracious and soft-spoken Anani Lawson, Ame's wine director, brought out three different wine pairings for the sashimi dishes: a glass of Kikisui Junmai Daiginjo sake; a 2004 Sancerre, Georges Roblin, Chateau de Maimbray; and a 2004 Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Loimer Langenlois. I think he intended the Sancerre to match the salmon-like flavors of the Tasmanian ocean trout and the Gruner to balance the olive oil while still matching the creaminess of the kampachi crudo. While both white wines were beautiful in their own right with perfect acid, fruit, and minerality, they were not quite the right match for any of the sashimi dishes. The sake, on the other hand, paired perfectly with all of them. In particular, the faint coconut scent in the nose of the sake highlighted the both the clean flavors of the sea bream and the rich foie gras-ish taste of the monkfish liver, without fighting the sweet acidity of the ponzu sauce. It also worked well with the cucumber salad and cut the smokiness of the trout.

For the next round, we had a series of appetizers: (1) fricasee of Miyagi oysters with leeks and forest mushrooms in a beurre blanc sauce, (2) chowan mushi with Maine lobster and sea urchin, and (3) burrata cheese on grilled bread with tiny braised artichokes, surrounded by pieces of pleasantly bitter and crunchy lettuce that was red and white in color and endive-like in taste. For these, Anani brought out a glass of 2002 Teawa Farms Chardonnay from New Zealand and a 2001 Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley (Samur Champigny, Domaine de Nerleux). He and our enthusiastic young server expertly coordinated the timing and delivery of the various courses with the selected wines. The nutty chardonnay was a perfect match for the sweet and briny oysters and balanced out the richness and saltiness of the beurre blanc sauce. This time, the Japanese egg custard, "chowan mushi," (which had been sadly overcooked on my first visit) had the right texture-- precisely the not-quite-fully-formed panna cotta consistency, like soft tofu-- with the ocean flavors of lobster and sea urchin coming through. The chowan mushi was in a bowl, rather than a cup, and was not as scalding hot as traditional chowan mushi is supposed to be, but it was nonetheless enjoyable and also paired well with the chardonnay. The only wine pairing that did not work as brilliantly was the Cabernet Franc with the burrata. The wine itself was zesty and fruity with the peppery spike characteristic of a Cab Franc, but the silken cream of the burrata was lost when paired with the wine (however, with the grilled bread and artichokes, the wine was lyrical).

A little more on the burrata: I was skeptical about trying burrata in a Franco-Japanese restaurant, but have no fear. It tasted like marscapone whipped with creme fraiche, with the consistency of a perfectly poached egg white. My dinner companion, a professional food writer who happens to be Sicilian to boot, verified what my tastebuds were telling me-- the burrata at Ame is sensational.

From the entrees, we ordered the red wine braised Wagyu beef cheeks and sweetbread cutlet with cauliflower puree and cabernet sauvignon sauce, matelote of eel and grilled Sonoma foie gras on Matsutake mushroom risotto, and of course, the broiled sake marinated black cod and shrimp dumpling in shiso broth-- a dish so popular at Terra that Lissa Doumani joked that it could have its own restaurant. With the cod, we had a glass of 2000 Chasselas, Luc Massy, St. Saphorin Sous-les-Rocs, from Switzerland, which also matched well with the sweet shiso broth and the shrimp dumpling.

The matelote of eel and foie gras is not a stew or chowder, despite its name. Instead, it is a square section of eel that was probably marinated in the Japanese mother sauce of soy sauce, sake, and mirin (sweet rice wine) and grilled with chunks of foie gras and generous slices of Matsutake mushroom on top. Combined with Matsutake mushroom risotto and what appeared to be a port reduction sauce, this is a complex, opulent dish, where even the slightest misstep could throw off the delicate balance of flavors. (When I had tried it previously, the fish was not as fresh as on this visit. While less than optimally fresh eel can be masked with more liberal use of soy, that caused the flavors to clash with the foie gras and killed the subtle flavor of the Matsutake mushrooms.) Unlike my last visit where the risotto was overcooked and so overladen with cheese that it clashed with every element of the dish, this time, the kitchen got it just right-- the risotto was rich and creamy with just a hint of texture, that set off the eel and foie gras like navy velvet for diamonds. Anani's wine pairing for this dish was a safe choice but still could have backfired with everything going on in the dish. His selection, a 2002 red Burgundy, Chassagne Montrachet "Les Pierres" by Marc Colin, worked beautifully.

As for the red wine braised Wagyu beef and sweetbread cutlet with cauliflower puree and cabernet sauvignon sauce, the sweetbread is the understudy that outshines the lead. Those who like sweetbread will love it, and even those who do not care for sweetbread will enjoy this incarnation. The panko-encrusted sweetbread is deep fried golden brown, and the sweetness of the panko matches the sweetbread as though sweetbread were born to be made into a Japanese tonkatsu. It is delectable both on its own and with the cabernet sauvignon sauce. I was less excited, however, by the Wagyu beef cheek. While the meat is fork tender and well seasoned, it is not particularly distinctive in any way. Is it Wagyu, some other type of beef cheek, chuck, flank? It did not seem to matter in this preparation. Both the beef and the sweetbread did match quite well with Anani's wine pairing-- a 2003 Merlot from Greece, Boutari Xinomavro. The spicy, leathery, cherry fruit of the wine was delightful both alone and together with the dish.

Finally, dessert. The churros, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, were good but not much different from the street vendor variety. The hot chocolate that came with the churros was more interesting, with a spike of cayenne that was almost imperceptible except to add a punch to the chocolate. The warm molten chocolate cake-- the tuna tartare of desserts-- was more like an undercooked brownie, but the sugar beet ice cream that came with it was pungent, sweet, and unique. I would have that over a tired sorbet any day. Lastly, the frozen yogurt souffle with mango sauce and black sesame florentine-- my favorite part was the florentine that had the perfect combination of salti-sweetness that is quite in vogue these days. The "souffle" is more like a frozen panna cotta. The flavor was good but the icy texture was kind of strange, like ice cream with freezer burn. For dessert wines, Anani brought out an Australian Muscat, a 15-year-old Madeira, and a 2001 Dulce Monastrell, Bodegas Olivares, from Jumilla, Spain. It was an extragavant conclusion to an overall remarkable meal, with our energetic server watching over us until the end when we finally cleared out, after having monopolized his attention for hours.

Still, my personal preference leans in favor of my first love, Terra. After this last visit, however, I am genuinely looking forward to seeing what Chef Dunmore will accomplish at Ame, flying solo, as I expect that he would be adding even more of his individual touches and making the menu truly his own. At the very least, I do like that the next time I crave the unique Euro-Japanese nuanced flavors of Terra, I can experience it right here in the City, in the sweet rainy soul inside the glossy grey marble and gleaming dark wood of the stunningly chic St. Regis Hotel.

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