Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: Amis

So after the much-lauded Vetri and Osteria, here's Marc Vetri's third restaurant in town, Amis, located a little off the beaten path on 13th Street near Pine. The concept this time is Roman small plates, served in an atmosphere that is rather more raucous and industrial than Vetri's other two joints. It's a welcome idea, and Vetri is just the guy to pull it off, but we left just a bit disappointed with the execution.

Though the setting is intentionally rougher around the edges, it's still comfortable and inviting. Touches of wood like the attractive multi-toned tables brighten up the dark concrete and metal vibe. I've heard some complaints about the noise level, but for us, it was not so loud that conversation was a struggle.

As is typical in a small plates restaurant, we were a little unsure of the ordering strategy. Our waitress validated our hypothesis that we should order two or three things from each side of the menu. The left side is smaller stuff: bruschette, salumi, cheeses, and other antipasti. The right is pastas and more traditionally "main dish" items.

It was hard not to be intrigued by the mortadella mousse, so that was the bruschetta we ordered. It delivered on its promise: it tasted just like the big round deli meat, but in a creamy, whipped-up form, a bowl of fluffy pink topped with a pretty superfluous drizzle of olive oil. I would have preferred more, thinner toasts alongside it rather than the two thick slabs we got – thinner toast would provide more surface area for topping with the mousse, not to mention making it easier to bite through.

Next, the artichokes. They are fried, small; the entire thing is edible. The browned outer leaves taste almost like potato chips and are just as addictive and delectable. The inner portion of the artichoke is tasty, if a little greasy.

Our third "left side" dish was the sweetbreads. These are small nuggets, breaded with crushed almond, fried, and served with a fennel marmalade. The sweetbreads had great flavor, and the marmalade worked wonderfully as a counterpoint to the, again, somewhat greasy fried items.

On to the right side – we got two pastas, the tonnarelli “cacio e pepe” and the gnocchi with oxtail ragu, and the mixed seafood grill. First, the gnocchi, which were not the typical small potato-based dumplings: they were large, semolina-based, and very, very light, which is just as well because the oxtail ragu on top of them was quite rich. There was a welcome black-peppery zing to the tonnarelli, but they seemed over-sauced to me, leaving a puddle of greasy cheese residue at the bottom of the plate. The mixed seafood grill of swordfish, skate, shrimp, scallops, and squid (brought to you by the letter S, incidentally) was pleasant enough, served with a few small slices of grilled polenta and fresh lemon.

Perhaps you have noted a theme. I have no aversion to fat as an ingredient, or to fried foods, or to nature's fattier fish or meats. In isolation, or possibly as part of a meal that included fresher counterpoints, most of what we had was very good. But the cumulative effect of eating one oil-sodden dish after another was unpleasant. I thought we maybe just happened to order things that tended towards the slippery side, but reviewing the menu again, it doesn't seem like we had a lot of latitude for escaping the lipid onslaught. Even the seafood grill could have used a lighter hand from the oil can. I know that something called mortadella mousse is going to be fatty, but how about, say, a little arugula salad on the side? Or more use of things like the fennel marmalade with the sweetbreads, which woke up the palette a bit and cut through the fried flavor?

Desserts looked pretty good, but with our mouths still somewhat slicked, we took a pass for this visit. Service was decent, though a different pacing of the dishes would have been nice: our first three dishes came out at the same time, and then the second three dishes came out at the same time. Since the second three were all hot, this meant that the last dish we ate was cold by the time we got around to eating it. A more fluid pacing like Amada's would have been nice here, as would have been an option for a tasting menu to make ordering a little simpler.

I would love to give Amis another chance. It could have been what we ordered, or perhaps it was an off night. Maybe with the coming of the spring, some brighter flavors will make their way onto the menu. What I am hoping is that the over-larding of the food is not deliberate, a cynical ploy to appeal to our baser culinary instincts. Fat is an invaluable and irreplaceable tool – to carry flavors, to provide texture, to impart its own flavor – but too much of a good thing becomes unpleasant pretty quickly.

No comments: