I would be completely happy if I died and found out that heaven is exactly what I experienced last night.
I went to Ame feeling very suspicious. When I left Toronto two years ago, the restaurant was still called Rain, and was known as a fine dining Toronto establishment. Since then, the same owners, Italian brothers Guy and Michael Rubino, have translated the restaurant name into Japanese and done the same with the dishes. Asian fusion is often the subject of culinary abuse. Authenticity is often under-rated. Ame, however, is a rare example of respect for another food culture. Each plate is a balance of Japanese ingredients, flavour, presentation and perfection. Ame’s also thrown in a robata grill for good measure (the only one in Canada) and a Hawaiian-trained sushi master, but it’s the incredibly high quality of every ingredient – fish, meat, and plum – that makes each drop of Japanese Rain feel like the most sensual touch.
I have only three complaints, and then I will again allow myself to be seduced by the chef’s kiss in every sweet memory of miso.
In the incredible atmosphere of this restaurant – a subterranean, cavernous design – every detail of ambiance is intentional. The lounge and bars are sleek, yet lush and enticing. The lighting is dark, yet intimate. The effect is ruined, however, the moment you sit down and see in front of you a pair of stuck-together wooden chopsticks resting on a beautiful stone. The contrast between the wood and the stone is jarring. This is not a wooden chopsticks kind of restaurant.
Second, since Ame is not trying to be a traditional Japanese restaurant, I am not sure how to react to the sushi being served at the beginning of the meal, before the cooked dishes. Normally it would come at the end. The sushi list is even located at the beginning of the dinner menu, seemingly to encourage your sushi selection to come first. Not being Japanese I do not really see a problem with it. Just that if the restaurant is trying to follow the fine-dining Japanese restaurant trend set by Nobu et al in North America (what one may assume from the rest of the menu that features whole fish, ramen, pickled vegetables, seaweed salads and wagyu beef), customers expecting this kind of experience may question the restaurant’s expertise. There is, however, nothing else at this restaurant that makes you feel like it’s trying to follow another restaurant’s example. Perhaps I misunderstand the Chef’s intentions.
One fault that can’t be overlooked is that the sushi rice was too sweet. Sweet seems to be the theme for most of the meal, and it works in every instance except the sushi. If the sushi were served at the end of the meal it may be less noticeable. With the completely traditional nigiri sushi options, the restaurant’s sushi rice must be perfect to rationalize the incredible rating I want to give it. Having read the Chef’s recipe for sushi rice on the Made To Order website (the Food Network show that the Rubino brothers host in Ame) it is clear that the rice is intentionally made sweeter and saltier than most versions by added mirin and extra salt, and by cooking the rice directly in a large amount of vinegar and sugar that is traditionally poured over the rice only when it has finished cooking in plain water with just a touch of sake. Since the sweetened rice was intentional, I can only say that I felt it was too much.
Finally, the miso flavouring of the Dungeness crab roll was too salty. This was the only other time (besides the sushi rice) that a flavouring was not perfectly applied and balanced. Though wonderfully free of Japanese mayonnaise, the salty miso mixed directly into the juicy crab flesh made the flavour of the crab itself unidentifiable.
The Ontario trout and the mackerel nigiri were very good. Salmon nigiri is not on the menu and the choice to highlight the local trout (a less buttery, but prominent flavour) is impressive. Mackerel can be judged on a scale from “fishy” to “texture without flavour” to “delicious”, and the slight pickling of the fish (though there was certainly no taste of vinegar or lemon) placed this version a respectable two-thirds of the way up the scale.
Salmon belly sashimi (not trout, in this case) artfully came with a dot of miso to flavour the fish and a pile of delicately-vinegared noodle-like daikon. The refreshing radish was a good palate cleanser to bring out in each bite the flavour of the salmon. Upon first tasting the salmon I was disappointed, but I had just tasted the trout and found them too similar. After a mouthful of daikon the salmon began to make its case.
The tuna sashimi was not amazing. In fact most average Vancouver sushi restaurants would match or better it, but the miso dashi reduction was incredible. The sweetness of the sauce did not swallow the flavour of the fish, and somehow the tuna ended up with more flavour through the pairing, while the chewier texture (usually a negative point) was needed to isolate both the fish and miso-dashi teriyaki-like flavour in the mouth. Again, the plate featured a mildly-pickled palate cleanser. This time puréed mango held court, and even the tiniest bit of bite was enough to refresh the mouth for another bite of tuna. The sushi chef knew exactly what he was doing, as the mango would have been too sweet on its own, but was tart relative to the miso.
Sake. I have sampled a lot of sake, but the Wakatake Junmai Daigingo “Onikoroshi” was incredible ($125 for a 720mL bottle). Mildly floral, sweet, clean, and smooth, this sake got better and better as the meal progressed, pairing incredibly well with the Chef’s sweet sauces and delicate fish. It did not complement the sushi rice (but sake is not meant to be paired with rice since they are made from the same ingredient and therefore compete in the mouth) but a sip with each bite of fish, meat, fruit and vegetable gave a new and eye-opening perspective to the dish.
Eel Ramen was delicious. The broth was mildly bitter which worked so well with the large chunks of sweet eel. Ramen is an art in itself and to receive such a thick, concentrated broth with al dente noodles and tender eel was a pleasure.
Then the robata grill. Apparently the only such grill in Canada. Charcoal is traditionally heated just below the grill rack, and the chef uses salt to encourage the heat and drops of water to settle it. Our server informed us that the restaurant instead used “organic” (it’s a tree…) cedar planks, but the rest of the cooking technique remained unchanged. The whole sea bream was cooked slowly until it caramelized, and was served immediately instead of being allowed to cool slightly. In fact, the fish is known to be done when it is cool enough to touch. The sea bream itself was simple, to the point of being plain, despite the aplomb of the cooking technique, but a small dipping bowl of sweet white miso made a believer of those who trusted the chef’s recommendation of the dish. Again, the miso was slightly sweet, but more with a slight flavour of apricot, so again not overpowering. An amazing choice of dip by the chef.
Cod rice. This sounds…well, bland. Not when it’s made with black cod. It was like taking a cup of rice perfectly cooked in a cod and mirin broth and then stirring in melted butter (black cod, since there was no actual butter in the entire meal). It was sticky and sweet, and with finely-shaved sweet umeboshi (pickled plum) placed on top of the rice tower, for a tangy (as well as a colour) contrast.
The miso black cod was one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. I am not new to black cod. I have eaten it at other respectable Japanese restaurants, and cooked it several times myself. Most of these times it has been served with a sweet miso sauce. I thought I knew what to expect from Ame’s version – a perfectly-cooked, sweet and a little salty pool of butter-less butter – but somehow they made what is naturally good, sublime. Served on a hot plate so the bottom skin sizzled, this dish went from rare to medium-rare at our table, but disappeared before it could reach a blackened skin. Since the fish was cured in the marinating process by mirin and miso, it could be barely cooked and still be perfectly tender and safe to eat. The skin should have been a delicacy, and was for the first few bites until it became obvious that it was over-salted. The sweet miso on top of the cod soaked down through the lusciously soft flakes of flesh, however, and quickly made you forget the skin…until the flesh was gone and your chopsticks screamed for more, only to find the salty remains of what it craved. It’s possible that the skin was only lightly salted before it was placed on the hot plate, but the salt of the miso that descended the flesh and combined with the initial salt at the bottom made it too much. Still, it was heaven.
You can taste heaven.
The Wagyu short-ribs ended the meal on another high note. I was not the table’s wagyu beef expert. The man to whom that title fell said it wasn’t the best he’s had, but that’s compared with imported Japanese wagyu at various Nobu’s, it was just very good…but I thought it was amazing. This was a local organic wagyu-style beef and it was not fall from the bones (it was not supposed to be) and it was not chewy (again, it is not supposed to be). What made it incredible was that the game-y flavour intensified in the first three chews of each bite. It tasted wild and every mouthful challenged you to find more subtleties in the meat. The green plate garnish that appears in every picture is a cilantro-scallion oil, but with the Wagyu beef another garnish was present – an umeboshi fluid gel. What is a fluid gel? Yes, I asked too. It’s a combination of a liquid base with agar-agar. Agar agar acts like gelatin but is made from seaweed. The cilantro-scallion oil was more colour than flavour, but the sweet umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) was probably made with Japanese sweet plum wine (like a port or dessert wine), so intense was each drop. The sweet and sour effect of the plum worked very well with the jus of the short ribs. Beautifully plated, small miso balls the size of pebbles matched toasted buckwheat for crunch and a nutty flavour to complement the sweetness of the sauce and plum, as well as the strength of the meat.
This was one of the best meals I have eaten. I am also thrilled to see that an entire list of recipes is available on the Chef’s website. The recipes were used as part of the Food Network show, Made To Order, in which the two Rubino brothers star and, of course, cook.
This means that despite the high price tag of the meal, heaven is accessible. While dining in the restaurant was a true experience, rather than simply a very good meal, the food itself is innovative yet based on tradition.
Wondrous flavour. Seductive atmosphere. Would I could return to heaven.
Expect to Pay: $345 with sake, tax and tip.
Hours:Wed 5:30pm-11pm, Thurs-Sun 5:30pm-midnight