East Meets West
With an Asian-inspired menu, a tricked out space and the trendiest following this side of Westminster, Ama’s is quietly creating a cult-like stir.
3 Luongo Square, Providence, 421-1100. Open for dinner Wednesday–Sunday. Wheelchairs can technically fit, but on a busy night even arms seem like a burden. Street parking. Cuisine Scaled back Japanese with an oyster flourish. Capacity Less than your dining room. Vibe Newfound hideaway on a slow night; newfound claustrophobia on a busy one. Prices $2–$15 (a.k.a. less than your lunch). The bar serves wine, including sake, and beer. Karen’s picks Oysters, udon noodle bowl, bento boxes.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Mike Sears might be Providence’s culinary Salinger. He seems to avoid the limelight at all costs, doesn’t advertise and practically shuns publicity when it lands at his feet. Even branding a restaurant with its own name (or visible signage) seems to push him out of his comfort zone. I’m beginning to think the lights in all of his establishments are purposely dim so he might avoid being recognized.
Who knows? My overt hunt for the man behind the bar may just send him out of state in search of anonymity. Three bar-restaurant hybrids (Lili Marlene’s, The Avery and its new neighbor, Ama’s) have cast him into the unwanted position of West Side mogul though, with the sale of Loie Fuller’s to Chef Eric Wolf, one can’t help but think he’s trying hard to escape the tedium that comes with his alternative empire. It’s tough to be cool when the squarest folk in town (ay, says I) keep coming in and ruining the party.
It would be easier if Sears and his design compatriot, Kyla Coburn, were a little less adept at morphing unadorned spaces into dreamy amber-lit showcases. Their newest venture may be the runt of the litter (capable of seating fourteen and change if you count the bar), but it’s no less charming than its predecessors. Coburn’s Arts & Crafts aesthetic is on display, this time with a nautical Asian theme and a splash of oceanic teal on the walls. For those who believe Sears’ mood lighting is an overture to after-hours nudity, you need not wait until the meal is over; serpentine divers in the buff meet the eye’s gaze from nearly every angle.
If you’re after more raw flesh, it’s found on the bar, rimmed on the interior with ice to hold its treasured oysters (Japanese ama, after all, dive for pearls). The locally sourced variety ($2 each) changes daily, shifting between salty and sweet. Sushi lovers can go elsewhere because, frankly, it’s too chi-chi for Sears’ effortlessly hip and unflappable crowd. Ama’s is all about the bento box, which, let’s face it, is a vogue lunch box if I ever saw one: each corner quietly striking a minimalist pose and only vaguely acknowledging its neighbors. At $15, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, quite a feat considering every box is a four-course meal designed by diners. With fifteen options — compartmentalized as meat, seafood, hot veggies and cold salads — as well as a sake-soaked bar, there’s still room for creativity in this undersized space.
Given the size of the dining room, in fact, I expected a tub-sized kitchen and half-cooked noodles and Taro chips. Gloriously low expectations were bulldozed with skewers of minty shiso and citrus-marinated lamb cubes, as well as miniature panko pork cutlets with sweetened tonkatsu sauce. Grilled chicken roulade with pickled plum sauce benefits from the same small stature that allows for quick cooking and heightened flavor. Seafood is treated with equal care, from delicate teriyaki scallops to seven-spice shrimp. Even fried flounder with wasabi mayo manages to maintain its integrity despite a firm crust.
If protein-rich tidbits stole the early focus, Ama’s elusive owner, striding out of the kitchen in his signature style (dressed in black and bearded) nearly brought me to stalker status. The crowd was still thin and Sears glanced outside quickly (more real estate to conquer?) before disappearing again. I ate my veggies — cool logs of sesame coated spinach and salted soy mushrooms — alone, boring a hole in the kitchen door with my prescient eyes (a bar, perhaps, to spring up soon in a patiently waiting Victorian shed?).
If there’s anything to skip, it’s the cold cha soba (green tea buckwheat) noodles, which, despite a fish sauce-infused soy sauce, don’t rise past ordinary. Besting its cold cousin, however, is one of the few non-bento dishes: a hot udon noodle bowl that is the menu’s preeminent cold weather dish. Miso-scented and bubbling, it’s packed with seasoned shrimp and cubes of pork that are advertised as confit but seem more the result of simple poaching.
The end of meal is imminent though the scant seats are precious and hard to relinquish. One bento corner left to tackle. The cool salads serve as digestifs and, while the red cabbage appeals in a Germanic Far Eastern manner, it’s the homemade pickles in brine and julienned carrots and daikon radish in sweet vinaigrette that command attention. The vegetarian palate cleanser is perfunctory though, since dessert is limited, often non-existent. A plate of fruit is the sole option and when berries are unavailable, you might end up with a lone clementine. But the night is young, the seats full, the Japanese divers still bare and, for the time being, Ama’s is still serving under Sears’ tutelage. Grab a meal before he changes the address and moves on to parts unknown.