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02.16.2006

Restaurant Review: Ame, San Francisco

I was very excited when I learned that Starwood Resorts was going to be opening a new property in downtown San Francisco. Not that I'll ever stay there, but I'm generally a fan of their hotels and I'm of the opinion that San Francisco could use a few more good high-end hotels, especially ones which lean towards the contemporary in their design, as theirs do.

I was also pleased when I found out that the hotel was not only going to satisfy from the design perspective (it's very nicely done) but that it would play host to Ame, a new restaurant venture from Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, proprietors and chefs at Terra Restaurant in St. Helena. I've never ame.card.jpgeaten there, but I've heard great things about it, in particular about how the food, which tends to be Californian and American in focus, is nonetheless suffused with a more direct Asian sensibility than one usually finds in a typical Californian cuisine.

Chefs from San Francisco and the Napa Valley cross populate all the time, opening new venues when their success allows, or sometimes when they want a change of pace. Ame is another in the chain of such openings, and like many of the other such experiments, the owners are using their new location to try something different. In Ame's case, it seems that Sone and Doumani have pushed more Asian influence in the menu, an experiment that in theory should go over well in San Francisco.

The restaurant, and indeed, the entire hotel are beautiful. Walking into the restaurant foyer I had a flashback to some of my nights dining out with design colleagues in Tokyo. The Japanese (when they are not trying to hew to a flowers_columns.jpgmore traditional aesthetic) have a flair for the dramatic and a love of modern Italian design. With an interior boasting mostly modern Italian elements and colors but integrating small bits of Japanese sensibility into the seasonal flower arrangements and some of the lighting, Ame would fit right in amongst the trendiest places in Harajuku.

The lighting in the restaurant is impeccable, with beautifully recessed square halogen lights illuminating the tables precisely from a ceiling that soars a good 20 feet overhead. These squares matched a very rectangular approach to form that pervades the restaurant, highlighted and reinforced by some occasional organic forms, such as the curved laminate wood slats which perforate the wall separating the restaurant from the hotel lobby.

The tables are nicely placed in the L-shaped dining room, giving the modestly sized restaurant a good number of seats without being too crowded. The aisles are big enough for the servers in their earth toned shirts, ties, and slacks to move easily in between diners without creating the feeling of being in the midst of chaos.

One of my favorite features of the room was the gorgeous curtains that hung over the large windows facing the street. They were beautifully colored and translucent enough to allow you to see the street outside, but not clearly enough for you to realize you are just staring at the nondescript corner of Mission and Third. Their curves and red_table.jpg layers bent the light, creating a very nice impressionistic effect, which made the room seem deeper and more alive. The soundproofing, thankfully is excellent, so you don't notice the constant traffic. The floors are stunning end grain wood blocks, stained dark, and again repeating the rectangular forms of the architecture, and matching the nice tones of the woven dark leather chair backs.

Ame's tabletops (with the exception of a single nice red lacquer table set for 9) are formally linened, and the tableware is nicely designed to match the rectilinear aspects of the room, including the use of Rosenthal Loft plates and bowls with very subtle concentric lines in them, which, post wedding, are now the "special occasion" dishes at Chez Vinography.

I must admit, my initial expectations about the menu at Ame were off by a wide margin. I came to the restaurant expecting fusion, but with the exception of a couple dishes like the whimsically named "staff pasta meal" which is a main_room.jpgpasta made from cuttlefish topped with uni sauce, or the popular unagi and foie gras matalote, for the most part the menu is an even mix between gourmet Asian dishes and solidly Nouvelle American cuisine. In theory, this isn't a problem, but when it came time to order I found myself a bit befuddled. It was extremely hard to create a meal that had a progression of flavors that made much sense. The menu is divided into three sections: "sashimi" selections, appetizers, and main courses. No matter which dish I was drawn to in each section, the dish from the next section seemed an awkward or even awful way to follow it. My dining companions also found the menu a bit confusing in that respect. In the end we found ourselves with two choices -- either to select dishes that we wanted but thought were going to make for a disjointed meal, or to choose dishes that we weren't as excited about in order for the meal to have a reasonable progression of flavors. We chose the former, throwing caution to the wind in order to give the chefs the benefit of the doubt.

We started with an order of the daily crudo, which consisted of 4 slices of kanpachi (Amberjack) drizzled with olive oil, Meyer lemon zest, and sea salt. The fish was extremely fresh and well cut, and I loved the fact that I got a slight poke_crudo.jpgcrunch of sea salt in between my teeth along with the slippery firmness of the fish. However the olive oil was incredibly heavy, and totally overpowered the dish, making it very difficult to savor the flavor of the fish, which ended up just being a textural element under the butteriness of olive oil.

The restaurant's signature Poke dish, tuna wrapped in seaweed with Hawaiian sea salt and green onions, also failed to impress with taste, though it was plated very nicely. The fish is tightly wrapped in what felt like two layers of seaweed and then flash tempura fried very lightly. I didn't enjoy the texture of the wrapping, again the sauces masked the flavor of the fish, and the frying was totally unnecessary in my opinion. The tuna was of average grade, but that hardly mattered after all the squeezing, wrapping, and frying. Again it became merely a textural element, which is not what you eat raw fish for in my opinion.

Once we ventured away from the sashimi selections, however, the meal improved. It's hard not to like fresh burrata, when done well, even if there was nothing particular to distinguish the restaurant's preparation. In what was the only service error of the evening, this dish was supposed to come with roasted artichokes but it arrived at the table without them. After calling this to the attention of our server, she returned from the kitchen a minute later with only the explanation that they had run out. Perhaps they were hoping we wouldn't notice? The extra Castel Franco radicchio our plate was piled with instead was pleasant enough, but not really a good substitute.

My favorite dish of the evening was probably the last of our appetizers, a bowl of fresh duck confit ravioli with chanterelles and water spinach, in a light sauce of giblets. This was nearly perfect in its combination of flavors -- the savory dark duck and chanterelles coupled with the buttery richness of the fresh pasta was carried beautifully on the light salty sauce (a broth, really) which kept the dish from getting too heavy. They disappeared far too quickly.

The evening we were there, the restaurant boasted a special entree, which sounded too good for me to pass up: a roast, partially deboned squab over gnocchi and trumpet mushrooms in a nettle sauce topped with freshly shaved squab.jpgblack truffles. This was a gorgeously conceived dish -- a fabulous combination of flavors and textures, that arrived marred by one tragic mistake. The squab was so salty, it was nearly inedible, and this from someone who tends to like salty dishes. Someone had just gone a little too far overboard with a spice rub. Once I painstakingly peeled the skin off the bird, the meat tasted fine, excellent even. In retrospect, I probably should have sent it back to the kitchen. It was that rough. The truffles, though, were nice, especially with the nettle gnocchi.

Two of my dining companions got the much talked about eel and foie gras "matalote" over mushroom risotto. I still don't know what matalote means in the context of this dish, but perhaps it means fatty goodness? The dish consists of Matsutake mushroom risotto, topped with a slab of broiled freshwater eel, itself topped with a slab of matalote.jpg seared Sonoma foie gras, all drizzled with a lighter version of the sweet soy sauce you might expect on unagi, plus some butter. Depending on your sensibility, this could be a dream come true, or a recipe for disaster. I was ambivalent, waiting to evaluate it on its merits, and the best I can give it is a mixed review. The risotto was simply stupendous. Really incredible -- the perfect texture, lacking the grittiness that poorly made risotto can have, and bursting with an earthy flavor that was delectable. If I had gotten a plate of that alone I would have been happy. With the addition of the freshwater eel and unfortunately burned foie gras, the dish ended up a flop . The other plate at the table had slightly better prepared foie gras, but the overall effect of the dish was just too sweet and too fatty (I know that for some people there is no such thing) for me to really call it a success -- blunt in its flavors, rather than complex. Overlooking the cooking of the foie gras, this dish was sumptuous to be sure, but lacked a refinement to which the overall meal seemed to aspire. There was just something not-quite-good-enough about this dish.

Far more successful was the broiled sake-marinated Alaskan black cod, served over shrimp dumplings in a shiso broth, done in a classic style. This was by far the best entree of the evening -- the dumplings and vegetables were a beautiful counterpoint to the perfectly cooked sweetness of the fish, and the shiso broth had a freshness to it that was unique and lovely.

We finished our meal with a selection of three desserts, which in keeping with the rest of the meal were mixed in their success. A cassis creme brulee over shortbread with huckleberry ice cream proved cloying and one-dimensional in flavor, with the exception of the huckleberry ice cream which was phenomenally good. The pear churros.jpg crisp with pecan streusel and praline ice cream stayed half eaten along with the creme brulee, while everyone wished they had ordered the made-to-order churros and a cup of hot chocolate, which were delightfully, sinfully delicious.

With the exception of not being told about the lack of artichokes and a bit of tardiness in delivering bread to the table, the service at Ame is impeccable, and one of the highlights of my meal there. Sone and Doumani are clearly accomplished restauranteurs and they've done an excellent job establishing a standard for service that is perfectly Bay Area: friendly without being intrusive, and precisely attentive without hovering. Walking the line between relaxed and formal is difficult, but the service at Ame made it look effortless.

The wine program at the restaurant seems to take a "selective" approach rather than a "library" approach. There's a decent selection of wines by the half bottle, though I wish they'd drop some of the more predictable wines off the half-bottle list and find more interesting ones -- which, admittedly isn't an easy thing to do.

The main wine list has groups of 15 to 20 or so wines in a number of different categories: "French reds;" "French whites;" "other European reds;" etc. The French reds category is all you get for France, however, so wine lovers shouldn't go expecting a great selection of Burgundies, for instance. The wines seem to be competently chosen, and quite well priced, with a good half of the list being sub $90 or so to my recollection -- (though there are quite a few in the $200 - $500 range for those looking for something special). Serious wine lovers and collectors will no doubt be better served by bringing their own wines for the $20 corkage fee (waived for every bottle purchased off the list), but those who aren't inspired to bring their own can doubtless find something of interest.

Perhaps the best executed part of the list is the by-the-glass section, which had a number of really interesting wines on it, from a Greek wine I had never heard of, to an aged cru-bourgeois Margaux. The prices are fair and the range of styles and geographies admirable.

My overall read on Ame is that it suffers perhaps from a combination of early opening missteps and an ambition that outstrips its abilities to deliver. It seems to me that one way of judging a restaurant's success is to look at it from two points of view simultaneously. First, does the food taste good, generally? Second, are they successful at what they are trying to do conceptually -- within the genre and quality level that has aspired to? I can only give a partial affirmation to both of those questions. As I said, I haven't dined at Terra, so I may be speaking out of school here, but having looked at the menu, it seems that those dishes which more closely matched Terra's Californian focus were the most successful, while those dishes trying to push the envelope were less so. Doumani and Sone clearly know what they are doing. If they can push for more exactitude in the kitchen, and perhaps refocus the menu slightly, Ame has the potential to be a solid performer in the San Francisco dining scene, but for now it remains a bit awkward and uneven to be highly recommended.

How much?: Roughly $80 per person with tax and tip, exclusive of wine.

Ame Restaurant
689 Mission Street (In the St. Regis Hotel)
San Francisco, CA 94105
415.284.4040

Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. daily. Reservations recommended.

Valet parking is available through the hotel and will be validated by the restaurant. Street parking is difficult. I recommend the garage on Third street between Folsom and Howard. Dress is smart casual, though the crowd can be quite hip, so go ahead and wear something flashy.

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