A Bug or Two

Ama Lur has bold ambitions, but the results are mostly mediocre

What's astounding about the Gaylord Texan Resort is this: no bugs. Not a single gnat, fly, ant, earwig or pill bug milling about the stone terraces or burrowing in the dirt. And there is plenty of dirt. The center node of the Gaylord is one gigantic terrarium with uncountable varieties of foliage, from ficus trees to red-hot flamingo flowers to peace lilies. Stone paths wind through the neatly spaced sheaves of green.

"Are all of these plants real?" I ask the woman at the Ama Lur hostess stand. Ama Lur means "mother earth" in Catalonian, so if anyone would know the answer, it would be an Ama Lur recruit. "Everything except that oak tree over there," she says, pointing to a tree that bears a striking resemblance to a live oak. Plastics sure have come a long way since The Graduate. She wants to know if I want to eat on the patio. I pause. A good piece of the mother, after all, has been excavated and redeployed indoors in this resort and convention center. And where the mother goes, battalions of creepy crawly invertebrates are sure to follow, especially when there is row upon row of flowers to maul. Would I face an errant glassy-winged sharpshooter or maybe an ant from a tactical fighter wing? "How do they keep this place bug-free?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," she says. "We have a horticulture department, and early in the morning I see them walking around spraying." This is good. Fruit flies in the margarita are distressing--at least until the third one, when they suddenly become cocktail garnishes.

Ama Lur's Nuevo Latino cuisine is more misses than hits.
Tom Jenkins
Ama Lur's Nuevo Latino cuisine is more misses than hits.

And what margaritas we have here. Ama Lur serves Nuevo Latino cuisine, an amalgam of eats with Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American timbre. "Nuevo Latino cuisine, emphasis on tapas, we encourage you to share several of our 'little Latin dishes,'" says the menu.

And Nuevo it is. The standard frozen margarita comes in a shapely glass. But here's the Nuevo part: The salt around the rim is dyed yellow on one half and green on the other--a continuous ring of discontinuity, which is what tequila is anyway when you think about it. And these are not just pale streaks of green and yellow, but intense shades that you might find on bike shorts.

Intense color is a subversive theme here, and just as it dawdles on the rim of the margarita glass, it is toyed with in the soup. Red and gold gazpacho with shrimp and spicy cucumber is a brilliant visual presentation. Gold and red flows curve and cup into one another, creating a yin yang icon. Four pieces of shrimp hug the surface, dipping slightly into its chilled depths. The tomato flavors are distinct, with the red side slightly richer and equipped with a sharper spice prick. The golden side is milder, almost sweet at first blush, with a less penetrating bite. Yet both sides lacked the rush of richness that comes from well-ripened, lush tomatoes sneering with acids. These taste barely different from the common pallid pallet travelers that wind up in produce departments and institutional kitchens. The pepper seemed more a lame attempt at resuscitation than a true accent.

Even more distressing is the shrimp--wretched little coils that choke off any potential briny, sweet counterpoints. The stench of the shrimp hovered above the surface like ribbons of fog. They only viciously invaded breathing ports once these ribbons were disrupted by the soupspoon. The little shrimp exploded in the mouth with a vile fishiness, the kind you quickly shuttle down your throat to forestall a retch and then pray you won't end up with a case of the gazpacho trots.

Color is a prime motivator in the Chilean sea bass escabéche as well. What's escabéche? It's a Spanish dish of poached or fried fish that's slathered in a spicy marinade, slipped into the chiller for a daylong stint and served cold. How this version is Nuevo is not exactly clear. But here is an explanatory attempt:

It arrives in a tightly coiffed banana leaf--nothing Nuevo about that, though it is a wonderful thing to behold. It's artfully positioned on a square glass plate with the leaf cleanly shorn and spread over half the plate. The blunt edge is pressed flat into the glass, while the other end is drawn upward and tied off. The edge of the plate is pooled in drools of creamy jalapeño sauce that's smooth and surprisingly rich, yet lithe. Sea bass is cut into a square patch--a perfect finger sandwich of flesh with a tortilla strip crown. Yet for all of this beauty, the chilled fish falters with loose, spongy textures and flavors that reflect little in the way of marinade potency.

Ama Lur is outfitted in Austin limestone and wood. An arbor is constructed over the seating in the patio portion of the restaurant, the part closest to the foliage, the splashing fountains and the fake oak. It's a good place to maul little tapas plates, which are proudly delivered and knowledgeably explained by an army of servers.

I had questions about the Peruvian ceviche, and our server delivered an ingredient roster scribbled on a guest check: yellow tomatoes, orange, red onions, garlic, scallions and lime juice. It was perplexing. Ceviche is a dish that's part satiation, part pleasant bitch slap. The fish cooks cold in a well-spiced flood of searing citrus juices. At its best, it wakes the mouth, invigorates the throat and tingles the gums. This stuff is different.

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