One of the lectures I remember most from my days at the Culinary Institute of America dealt with defining a chef's role with regard to the process of cooking. The instructor told us as chefs-to-be, we would be privy to the finest and freshest produce, meats, and seafood available. Our job was not to improve upon their natural tastes (which, according to him, would be trying to outdo God) but rather preserve as much of their inherently delicious flavors as possible.
Chef Alexis Pimentel, of the new Coral Gables restaurant Ammo, is not of my old instructor's school of thought. In fact Ammo's food conjures an all-around culinary cluelessness. It starts with the menu, a compact collection of what's billed as "eclectic cuisine." That's certainly an apt description, but the rest of the menu's words proved less reliable than a Kenneth Lay pep talk. A starter of "octopus Mediterranean salad with grape-seed oil, fresh mustard, and chopped parsley over a bed of yuca and tartufo terrine" yielded rubbery tentacles of octopus tangled atop a flattened mound of cold, mashed yuca, both drenched in grape and truffle oils. I appreciate a liberal application of truffle flavor as much as the next person, but this was really way too much oil, with no mustard, vinegar, or citrus to spark the dish up. And mashed yuca with truffle oil is not the same thing as a yuca-tartufo terrine.
Another appetizer -- green tomato stuffed with melted mozzarella -- was to be "accompanied by black olive pâté." Whatever flavor the too-crunchy, undercooked tomato and mild-mannered melted cheese might have contributed to the palate was obliterated by a thick, greasily fried cornflake crust and potent topping of puréed black olives. Even a seemingly simple serving of steamed asparagus managed to dash expectations. The seven bright-green spears were tasty in tandem with a grilled portobello mushroom cap, but "tomatoes, poached egg, and basil cream" were, respectively, paper-thin slices of unripe tomatoes, a hard-cooked egg, and basil vinaigrette.
Main courses also were mucked up. A thick square of Chilean sea bass was underdone -- the flakes of this fish don't need to be of rare translucence, as they retain their moisture even when thoroughly cooked. Buried beneath the bass were plantain chips, yuca logs, julienne carrots, zucchini, and a black truffle-star anise reduction; on top was a "pâté de arangine," or, more accurately, bitter orange marmalade (no doubt the same "orange skin marmalade" that glazes Ammo's duck entrée). There's no way of knowing exactly how the chef came up with this combination, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it involved a large food map of the world and a set of darts.
A large, tender veal chop with foie gras and a porcini-shiitake mushroom mix, the special one evening, was plated with a wedge of well-executed potato gratin, plantain chips, and plenty of vegetables (no one can accuse Ammo of being stingy with sides). While eating the chop, I was encountering too much fat -- especially in this case, I was thinking, where a lean cut would better balance the naturally oily foie gras. Eventually I came to realize the kitchen was ahead of me on this one: They had solved the problem by leaving out the goose liver altogether.
Pasta and risotto dishes were simpler. Scrunchy bundles of tortelloni, the soft pasta dough yellowed with eggs and filled with sweet butternut squash purée, were alluringly teamed with a creamy pool of jicama cream sauce and a swirl of savory sage butter. Risotto with moulard duck breast, Barolo wine, Parmesan cheese, and foie gras was likewise uncomplicated, though not nearly as successful. The duck was disappointingly diced into tiny pieces, causing the meat to be overcooked and at the same time undercutting the textural and visual appeal afforded by real slices of breast.
I always assumed the culinary rule dictating that plate rims be left unadorned was based on a stubborn old-world adherence to tradition, but after dining at Ammo I understand some of the reasoning behind it. Slices, triangles, and curls of carrots, beets, and cucumbers; dabs of Day-Glo red and green goo; squiggles of blue goo. Each rim is uglier than the next, none has any relation to the meal in the middle of the plate, and it's difficult to find a spot to rest the cutlery between bites without the gooey stuff getting on it. Which reminds me: I'd advise anyone wearing long sleeves, particularly of puffy or droopy nature, to roll them up above the elbows or risk going home with a stained shirt. Wasted food, wasted labor, amateurish appearance, and messy to eat around -- what, I wonder, is the upside?
If you're also wondering what the upside of Ammo might be, it's the look and overall ambiance of the 60-seat dining room. With its high ceilings, smart blue denim tablecloths topped with white linen, understated redwood panels, and strikingly colored artwork on the walls, the cozy space is lovely and thoroughly pleasant to dine in.
Our waiter didn't hand out dessert menus because, as he explained, some on the list were unavailable. Instead a four-option recital: crême de caramel with passion-fruit sauce, chocolate mousse cake, chocolate soufflé, and white chocolate-coated poached pear stuffed with walnuts and dates. We weren't told about the soufflé in advance (it takes fifteen minutes to prepare), so I picked the pear, which was properly poached and possessed a clovelike cardamom kick.
On a return visit we received the written menus, where a description of the chocolate mousse cake, including a "layer of cheesecake," was more tempting than the prior verbal one -- although by now I was more than a bit skeptical about the accuracy of this particular menu scribe. The dense, dark, chocolate mousse cake turned out to be delectable; likewise the purée of "cheesecake" beneath it, which was reminiscent of the sweetened ricotta filling typically found inside cannoli.
I thought Ammo might be an Italian slang word for love, romance, or some obscure cut of pasta, but the waiter assured me it was just an abbreviation of "ammunition." What does this have to do with fine dining? Nothing, which I suppose makes it a fairly apt name.
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