Is it a bad sign when the lamb sliders are your favorite dish at an oyster bar?
Price Check Half-dozen raw oysters $12 Half-pound of mussels $8 Fried oysters with mac ’n’ cheese $8.50 Lamb or oyster sliders $9 Shrimp salad $11 Mahi-mahi $16 Ama Ama Oyster Bar & Grill 4752 California Ave. S.W., 937-1514, www.ama-amaseattle.com. WEST SEATTLE. Open for dinner and late-night snacks daily.
Clearly, a rhetorical question. But it was the one I asked my tablemate as we looked over the remains of my first meal at Ama Ama Oyster Bar & Grill in West Seattle. I was noting the fact that we had left intact a bowl of mushroom mac 'n' cheese, as well as one of the three deep-fried oysters that had arrived sticking out of the murk like a Colonel's extra-crispy Stonehenge. We'd finished perhaps a third of a mahi-mahi entrée, and much of our first-course salad was left beside it. Too much food, perhaps. Except there was no sign left of the palm-sized burgers.
Above the debris of our meal, the view was a triumph of West Elm tiki. To understand the meaning of the global oyster bar's name, as well as its aesthetic, you have to triangulate etymologies: In Hawaiian, ama ama means "mullet." "Hama Hama" is an oyster farm that operates on Washington's Hamma Hamma River. And an ama is a Japanese fisherwoman who dives for her food. Got all that?
Owners Rob Coburn and Paige Crandall took over Ovio Bistro after Ellie and Shing Chin's five-year run, and they gave the space an entirely new look, which is pretty amazing considering that Ama Ama is practically the size of a Whole Foods. They bricked up some of the walls with Sinatra-chic stonework, painted the largest expanse dark pumpkin, and split the room in half with wooden screens carved in a Polynesian motif. The architects designed a host of different seating areas, from booths for six to rows of black cafe tables and a 20-seat bar, then made a sweep through a lamp store and picked out everything that proclaimed "midcentury modern." With a sailfish on one wall and a collection of starburst clocks near the entryway, there's a daddy-O edge to the modernism, but kitsch isn't the main effect.
On my first night at the place, the crowd was small enough that one of the bartenders ruined the vibe by turning all the HDTVs over the bar to a football game and cheering loudly at every first down. (Also, dude, neither I nor the health department want to see you eat while you work.) But on a second night, after the holiday boom-bust cycle, the room was filled with diners, the TV was on mute, and Ama Ama emerged as the place its owners had envisioned: a neighborhood restaurant to dine or snack at, with white wine and fried oysters everywhere.
Brenda Rodriguez, whose résumé includes Flying Fish and Fandango, was Ovio's last chef, and Coburn and Crandall signed her on to be chef of Ama Ama. Rodriguez's menu—organized into oysters, small plates and bites, sliders, salads, and entrées—is nuevo tiki, meshing a love for all spices foreign with all foods comfort.
With mixed results. Her mussels, measured in half-pound increments, were a Southwestern take on Belgian moules-frites. The bivalves were bizarrely tiny given that it's peak mussel season in the Northwest, but they made up for it in flavor, steamed in a kicky, tomatillo-tangy broth and served with a side of chile-coated fries. A shrimp salad went Caribbean-Mexican, the frisée and watercress topped with avocado, crumbly white cotija cheese, and shrimp that had been soaked in a mango-orange marinade so long that its flesh turned floury—or maybe it was just way overcooked. Also Caribbean, and also overcooked, was a mahi-mahi fillet that was coated in jerk seasoning, set on a coconut-rice patty, and topped with 1987's mango salsa. Even the vinaigrette on the mixed green salad was flavored with Chinese five-spice powder. Like sitting next to a woman too fond of her Chanel No. 5, the effect was intriguing at first, cloying soon after.
With the exception of the overbattered "chicken-fried" oysters and grainy mac 'n' cheese that we barely touched, the more the chef let bar food be bar food, the more enjoyable it was. The oysters, presented on ice with a lemon wedge and a thimble of mignonette, were clean and briny. (Side note: At happy hour, they're 50 cents a pop.) Oyster po'boy sliders, the crunchy battered mollusks covered with cabbage slaw and horseradish mayonnaise, went down quickly. And there were the lamb sliders, perfect lil' medium patties with cheese, mustard, and a thick red chili sauce. I'd stop in for a plate of those and a beer any time.
The name Bakery Nouveau, Ama Ama's neighbor across the way, shows up a number of times on the menu, and the bakery makes all the restaurant's desserts. Lemon tarts and chocolate cakes don't really match Rodriguez's savories, but when you're presented with a dense, creamy chocolate-hazelnut torte with a crackly praline surprise at the bottom, it's hard to argue with the logic behind outsourcing.
One dish haunted me all the way across the West Seattle bridge and back up Capitol Hill, because it concentrated all my feelings about Rodriguez's spice-laden cuisine. The chef set perfectly enjoyable salt-cod cakes, spiked with ginger and garlic, in the border between two incompatible sauces: a coconut-milk curry (which worked) and something weird and tomato-cardamom-y that fought hard to conquer the fish cakes, the other sauce, and the garnish. It wasn't the fact that the chef was aiming for bold flavors; it was that she had the pacing wrong—instead of plotting out how the flavors evolve, grow, and fade on the tongue, she seemed to be urging them to rush the palate like first-graders onto a bus. Even more primal was how Ama Ama's food fared on the clean-plate test. Only the sliders passed.