How much do you trust the opinion of others?
Close friends, family – both to varying degrees, sure. But what about a complete stranger? What about someone whom you’ve met but once? Or someone with whom you’ve had a few somewhat superficial conversations over IM? Would you buy a car because a complete stranger rushed over to your table on the patio at the Coffee Bean, sat down, but carefully so as not to knock over your large Creme Brulee-flavored-no, no-room-for-cream-one-packet-of-Splenda, introduced himself, then raved about the Mini Cooper for five minutes? Would you call up someone you met yesterday (assuming you have his phone number, which you most certainly do, vixen) and ask him whether the baby pink tank or the white baby tee looks better with those jeans? How much do you trust the opinions of people you don’t know very well, if at all?
These are questions that plague me. Okay, they don’t quite plague me, but they certainly do pop into my mind when I think about restaurant reviews and recommendations, which are really just official-ized terms for “opinion,” and how they influence the dining habits of others. I am always curious about the psychology behind online food communities like Chowhound, Citysearch where random users can post “reviews” of restaurants, and even Zagat, which seemingly has “street cred” because it’s a conglomeration of many people’s tastes and for goodness’ sake it’s Zagat.
What about food critics? You don’t know these people, they are complete strangers to you, and yet, so many people live and dine by the recommendations of these people who are just a by-line in a newspaper or a magazine. Would you go and spend $150 per person at a restaurant based on a “w00t!!! tuna tartar was 2 die 4!!!” from f00d4life99?
Of course not, I say. I am *ahem* above that. “w00t” my ass.
Though most people would like to think that they are of their own mind and are not swayed by what others think, I’m quite sure that everyone allows varying degrees of influence of the opinions of others around them, whether friends, family, and even strangers. Sometimes the influence is very powerful because of trust or respect – your sister says that skirts above the knee are not classy, so you give all your mini-skirts to Goodwill. Sometimes the influence is barely perceptible, but it’s still there. It may not overturn a final decision, but you can’t say that you didn’t hear it. And it certainly affected you.
So this whole cycle of questioning played out in my head again when my friend suggested we try Ame for dinner. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him. I have known Ryan for longer than I should admit. I trust his taste (though it is wildly different from mine) and respect his appreciation for finer things. Ryan had never been to Ame, but he mentioned that the Chronicle’s critic, Michael Bauer, had given it a good review.
*sucks in breath*
We’ll see about that.
We had a 9:00 reservation, but went a little early to have a pre-dinner cocktail in the bar, as if all that wine tasting just hadn’t been enough (Spit? Who spits it out!? If I pay money, I’m swallowing!). Ame is located in the St. Regis Hotel, and the hotel bar is run by Ame as well. We walked in and as we rounded the long fireplace/sculpture that divides the foyer from the bar, a strange feeling came over me. I’ve seen this blue streak of fire before. Deja-vu? Sleek, highly polished dark wood. It was like I had been here before.The mass of tiny cylindrical lights hanging from rods attached to the ceiling sure...looks...like Wilshire. The decor was exactly the same, but I'm too lazy to do the research to verify if it's Thomas Schoos.
We sat down, and as chic and trendy as the decor was, our cocktail server looked like she had just gotten there from after her shift at Denny’s and had forgotten to change. Much older than I would expect, and dressed in a very dowdy plain black hotel staff uniform and shoes that were so sensible, my Mom wouldn’t have worn them. But it didn’t matter, she was efficient and brought us our cocktails right away.
Less than halfway through my Absolut Mandarin and Soda (which isn’t long, since Sarah on a cocktail is faster than the first lap at Churchill Downs), the hostess came out to the small lounge area where we were sitting and said she could seat us slightly earlier than our reservation. We took it, and followed her through a long, dark, narrow tunnel. Where upon exiting the lobby bar and entering the hallway we had been loud, laughing, throwing our heads back as we do with cocktails in our hands, by the time we stepped out of the hallway and into the dining room of Ame, we had unconsciously hushed our tone. However, I shrieked “What the hell is that doing in here?!?!” when I saw a sushi bar right when we entered.
But I shrieked it in my head.
The dining room is brightly lit. As late as our reservation was in the evening, every table was full. But, as full as the dining room was, the atmosphere was strangely quiet – not uncomfortably quiet, but peaceful. I kind of wanted to scream, and whisper at the same time, sort of the way Ame's name is printed in all lowercase, but in big! font!
Almost unnoticed, a tiny round loaf of bread appeared on each of our plates as we looked over the menu. I willed myself from trying the bread, for fear that I might gobble up the entire delicious thing in two bites, signalling for more, and thus filling up valuable stomach space with bread before we had even ordered. I touched it. I picked it up. I smelled it. If I had to guess, based on my olfactory experience at the Ferry Plaza Marketplace, I would have said Acme. It took quite a bit of restraint on my part from breaking it apart with my hands and gobbling it up like a greedy little monkey. I focused on the menu.
We left the majority of the decision-making to Ryan. San Francisco is his town. He had read the review. Ame had been his suggestion. If someone was going to screw up, we wanted to blame him. LOL! We chose three starters and three entrees that we thought would be a fairly decent showcase of what Ame had to offer – sashimi bar, Asian-inspiration, and some hearty new American.
If it had been up to me, I would not have selected anything at all from the sashimi bar. If I had wanted to eat raw fish, I would have gone to a sushi bar. Because all my energy was already being funneled into trying to resist the weakening by the kryptonite roll on my plate, I didn't resist when we "had to have" the Tuna Five. According to someone, Tuna Five is a must-have at Ame.
The dish was presented on a long, shallow white jewelry box of a plate. Like antique brooches that has been carefully placed in an estate sale display case, five different glittering, bejeweled Japanese-style preparations of tuna sat at perfect intervals down the center of the plate. It was pretty. And precious. It totally seduced the little girly pink princess out of me. I think I might have squealed at the sight of it.
If the presentation was a princess' jewelry box, the taste was something more like, oh, a shoebox full of '80s gummy bracelets for a penny each at your parents' garage sale. The tataki and tartare preparations were familiar, and didn't taste particularly special. The two that were new to me were unusual treatments of tuna, bottarga and mojama. Bottarga was paper-thin slices of tuna, dried like prosciutto, draped over a tiny pile of what looked like caviar or roe to me (so I left the majority of it to my dining companions). Mojama was also dried tuna, though more thickly cut, and perched atop a tightly folded piece of tamago that was perfect in its texture and barely-there sweetness. The tuna jerky, I suppose meant to be an exact contrast to the egg, was too hard and chewy and reminded me of Asian dried fish snacks. The only preparation I liked was the zuke, a very simple slice of all raw fish drizzled with a dark, slightly sweet sauce.
I cannot say it in any other more descriptive or sophisticated way. The Tuna Five was *eh*. But I believe I hold a minority opinion. In fact, I think I am the only person on the planet who does not love it.
However, I did love our two other starters, Burrata on Bruschetta with Spring Vegetable "Bagna Cauda" and Sauteed Calamari and Chorizo on Asparagus with Aioli. I've always known "bagna cauda" as a warm, gurgling cauldron of garlic and olive oil, so I wasn't quite sure how the Spring vegetables were a bagna cauda, even with the quotation marks around it. However, it didn't matter what it was called. The burrata was a gorgeous creamy cloud floating atop a rainbow of vegetables that were too bright and crisp to have been bathed for too long in anything, olive oil or otherwise.
The addition of chorizo was a familiar, but no less inspired way to prepare the calamari, which had been cooked to just barely color it. The asparagus seemed out of place, and looked only to serve as a guilt-free reminder that yes, indeed, there are vegetables in this chaotic mess of cholesterol.
I was none too pleased with the order of Broiled Sake-marinated Cod and Shrimp Dumplings in Shiso Broth. I had come to Ame for it's New American cuisine, as its website and others have labeled it. We had already filled our quota of Asian-fusion-is-acceptable with the Tu
na Five. I can see how this cod dish impresses diners - a gorgeous, glossy piece of fish looking like it's sunning itself in a fairy pool on a raft of ravioli. Carrots are carved with precision into sunbursts and shiso leaves look like floating feathers. The fish was slightly oilier than I would expect for cod, and I didn't love the flavor of the broth, which was neither strong or salty enough for my taste. The key words are "my taste." The others loved it. Perhaps my taste was tainted simply by my subconscious. I am not immune to my own personal bias.
My favorite dish of the night was the Grilled Kurobota Pork Chop. There was a point in my life when the only thing I would order in a restaurant was a pork chop. If you must know, it might have had a little something to do with a guy I was dating. But only a little. It was always a challenge to the kitchen to make a deliciously juicy and tender pork, and more often than not, they overcooked the pork until it was Spam. I got over the pork phase (and the guy) pretty fast when I realized that I was hoping for something that I would never find. (Surprise, surprise.) Ame's Kurobota pork practically slapped me out of my seat with how tender it was. It was even more impressive because the pork was super thick, and yet didn't look or taste like it had been undercooked on purpose to preserve tenderness. The Kurobota pork chop won me. It won me so hard that I didn't mind the somewhat space alien suspension of oil and sauce around the plate, and I even didn't mind that the pork chop was so thick and heavy that it seemed to annhilate the frail leek and pea puree underneath it.
The Grilled Wagyu Beef Loin with Fried Oysters and Remoulade was pretty close to tying for "best" with the Kurobota pork chop, but the fried oysters and potatoes are what tripped it up. Supremely tender slices of beef propped themselves up against a pile of very basic, very boring potatoes. The meat was blood red, but didn't taste bloody or metallic, and didn't weep its wounds all over the potatoes or the plate. It was a clean presentation.
The oysters were cleanly presented, too. Breaded and deep-fried, the pert pair sat off in the corner by themselves atop a Lincoln Log stack of asparagus. I only tasted half, and immediately remembered why I love raw oysters. Because cooked oysters, no matter how they're prepared, are gross. The Remoulade, which was intense, thick, and delicious in its own right, did little to balance the negatives of the oyster.
The meal had been relatively large for being so late in the evening, especially after wine and cocktails. We were full, but we ordered a dessert anyway since Ryan was *ahem* "working it." I was utterly blinded to everything else on the menu when I laid eyes on "chocolate monkey." We ordered the Banana Rum Ice Cream Sundae with Brittle, Fudge Sauce and a Chocolate Monkey. The sundae was good, the monkey was better, but neither, I thought, were worth $9.50. Desserts anywhere are already a wee bit of a rip-off, though I tolerate it most of the time. $9.50, however, was one step beyond the limit.
Overall, dinner was not too bad, especially since I was benefitting financially from being the only girl in the group. Here's a word of thanks to my *ahem cough cough* sponsors: Thanks! ;) I'd certainly go back to Ame for that Kurobota pork chop. However, it's a good thing I don't have another trip to the Bay Area planned for at least three to four months. That's how long it will take for the service to get into a smooth groove. Our server was young, though physical youth wasn't the problem for the staff; it was a lack of confidence that almost always come with inexperience and an extreme pressure to perform. Everyone just needs to relax. Zen out. Have just a teeny bit of fun. For God's sake, there was a chocolate monkey hanging from the side of my dessert.
Yes, and I'd most certainly go back to Ame to try a few more of the "New American" dishes, though I think I've come to learn what "New American" truly is. It represents a little bit of everything, from Japanese sushi to Italian pasta to French country-style pate - that is exactly what America is. Only in my humble opinion, of course.
in the St. Regis Hotel
689 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
** a year ago today, a little reminder to "all hail, the queen of cuisine!" **