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My Dinner at AmaReview By: Andrea Strong
The other night I experienced a rare and unfortunate combination—bad food and bad service, at Ama, a sleek Pugliese restaurant on MacDougal Street owned by Donatella Arpaia, the beautiful co-owner of David Burke and Donatella. I was quite surprised to have had such a bad experience, because I had read glowing reviews of her little place. Unfortunately, at least on the night I dined at Ama, it was a restaurant that fell into a category all its own—a lazy, could-care-less restaurant without an ounce of passion or spirit; a thoughtless place with a kitchen serving lousy fare. In short, Ama, was a disgrace.
I had dinner there last week, on a stormy night that followed an all too humid day. My friend Michael and I were ignored as we entered, a waiter pushing past us to get to a computer, and a bartender continuing his telephone conversation. NOTE TO RESTAURATUERS: Greeting guests who enter your restaurant to dine is important. You should actually stop and say hello. We are not there to stand around and stare at the four walls.
While waiting for someone to welcome us, I spied Ms. Arpaia perched next to a writer I know from The New York Times’ “T” Magazine. As she fawned over the press, Ms. Arpaia could not be bothered with monitoring the rest of the room. In fact, she sat with her back to the door for at least 45 minutes, oblivious to the service flaws in her restaurant, before leaving for the evening. Way to go Donatella!
Eventually the bartender noticed us and seated us at a table—a deuce along the banqueted wall of a lean, rectangular room, dressed elegantly in neutral tones, with mirrored walls and a ceiling glossed in cloud-like swirls of soft pinks and creams. The room was pleasing, but the lights were so bright we wondered if we would be getting facials with our appetizers. Sadly, we didn’t. But I wish we had. At least then I would have gotten something good out of the dinner.
Once tucked into our table we were offered menus and a wine list, presented by a waiter who seemed to have an elastic face. Honestly, it was like silly putty and with his thick dark eyebrows, wide glasses, and trimmed goatee, he appeared to be a cartoon character, yet one without any knowledge of wine. We asked him to recommend a white, and, with a slightly scary laugh, he told us he knew nothing about the wine list. But he kindly offered to fetch the sommelier to help us—who turned out to be the bartender who ignored us as we entered. Fifteen minutes later we had no bartender/sommelier and the waiter returned. “He is very busy. What are your questions and I will ask him.” Insert strange laughter again and elastic face stretching in an odd way. Looking around the room, which was not even full, I was not sure why he was so busy, but I appreciated the waiter’s efforts. We told him we wanted a crisp, bright medium bodied white, and the price range ($35). “Okay, crisp and bright. Crisp and bright, crisp and bright,” he muttered to himself, like a little kid memorizing the capitals of states for a school quiz. After a few more minutes, the waiter returned with a Sorni (a Chardonnay blend from Alto Adige), which was honestly a bit too oaky for my taste, but I was not about to argue. I needed wine and this was cold, open and available to me. I took it and kept my mouth shut.
The table next to us was also not having a good night. They flagged down our waiter several times complaining that they were still waiting for their wine as they picked at their food. We should have drank the wine and left but we had heard wonderful things about the octopus salad and so we stayed and ordered dinner.
Well, let me say that the octopus salad—Polipo di scoglio ($13)—was okay, but quite ordinary. Its limbs were sliced into inch-long chunks and braised until almost too tender (read: soggy and spongy) and tossed simply with celery, red onion, tear drop tomatoes, olive oil, and lemon juice. I would have preferred a little char on the octopus because the limbs were so limp, but it was edible at least, unlike the bread that eventually arrived stale and hard (rock hard), though with a nice bowl of white bean puree. Soon, our wine glasses were drained and with no one in sight to refill our glasses or check on how we liked our octopus, I refilled our glasses. Our waiter did not return once the entire evening to check on our food, to pour our wine, or to offer us any sort of facial. I was amazed at the complete absence of service. It was not even bad. It just did not exist.
With our main courses things got even worse. The orecchiette salentine ($17)—a generous portion of little ear-shaped pasta flecked with crumbled bits of sweet (read: flavorless) sausage, cherry tomatoes, crispy artichokes with shaved pecorino cheese was fine, if you were eating at a chain restaurant. The pasta was perfectly cooked, but it was bland and greasy. Sadly though, this dish was a star compared to the horrific coniglio arrosto ($19)—an oddly unseasonal signature rabbit dish stuffed with chestnuts and swiss chard. The dish arrived: four hockey puck-shaped rounds of what appeared to be creamed spinach (and little else) wrapped in a thin border of pale, rubbery flesh (the rabbit). I cut myself a slice of this spinach paperweight, and noticed immediately that the rabbit had the texture of a worn out Good Year tire. I rarely want to spit out my food, but there’s always a first time. I felt quite certain that if I had thrown one of the pucks against the wall in front of me, it would have bounced right back at me, possibly injuring me. It was definitely heavy and bouncy. Michael made an attempt at it but he too was unwilling to venture past a first bite. It was awful. I don’t know what the story is with chef Turibio Girardi or his kitchen staff but someone in there is taking a nap at the stoves. Our side order of fava beans with shaved pecorno ($7) was so overly cooked and mushy that I thought it would spontaneously morph into a puree at the table. It was really sad. While our waiter had still not seen fit to visit our table and inquire about the continued presence of food on our plates despite the passage of some time, our bus boys were quite attentive, filling water glasses and eventually removing the offending (mostly uneaten) meals.
The rain was coming down in sheets when our waiter finally came over with dessert menus, but we were in need of a quick exit. I could not take five more minutes of this pathetic place. And so we ran out into the rain—no one said goodnight or goodbye or thank you to us—and searched for a cab to find salvation in the form of dessert at Craftbar. We found redemption in the form of two perfect desserts from a new star in my book—pastry chef Anya Regelin, who was Karen DeMasco’s pastry sous chef.
Her crispy banana chocolate gateau with chai ice cream ($8) had me squirming with pleasure in my chair. The pastry, about the size of a square knish, was fashioned from thin crispy layers of phyllo dough and stuffed with a flourless banana gateau (think really moist banana bread pudding) served hot and doused in a rich dark chocolate sauce and topped with bruleed banana slices with a scoop of this wild spiced Chai ice cream. It was an instant cure to the Ama trauma that we followed up with her new rhubarb financiers ($8)—three fluffy miniature financiers dusted in powdered sugar and plumped up with diced rhubarb and served with a quenelle of thick and tart lemon verbena cream and a refreshing ruby-pink rhubarb granite that is the color of the perfect summer lip gloss. I want it in a tube. We left, smiling and happy, the past erased by a good dose of dessert.
I am sorry that Ama was so disappointing. Maybe we ordered poorly, or maybe our food suffered so much because we were there on a Monday night. But still. I had to pay for my meal on a Monday even though it was presented in a service free environment by a kitchen on some self-destructive form of auto-pilot. More than the disappointing food, what upset me the most about the place was the fact that it feels like no one cares. Give me a restaurant with so-so food and a wonderful passionate staff and an owner who seems invested in her restaurant, and I will come back. But with Ama, there was no reason for me to care about being there because the feeling I had from the moment I walked in the door was this: Get out! Leave us alone! Don’t bother us by eating here! And as an owner, how do you allow this to happen on your watch? As I mentioned, Ms. Arpaia was seated in the restaurant for most of the evening (with her back to the door—not wise when you are a restaurant owner or Tony Soprano) and made no attempt to take the pulse of her dining room. We were close to flat lining as she made nice-nice with the reporter from the Times. If she keeps this up, she’s going to lose the patient. As it stands, she has already lost me.
Neighborhood: Greenwich Village
Entree Price: $15-20
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