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A Bug or Two

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

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.

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.

Traditionally the composition of basic Peruvian ceviche is lean, with just white fish, lime juice, pepper, cilantro and maybe boiled or fried potatoes. This arrives in a boat with shrimp and tiny ovals of scallop. They float in a yellow soup that at first glance looks like the overflow from scampi, only it's tepid, with seafood that's barely cool and an acid presence that mumbles before it slips off the finish.

How do things fare when they go terrestrial? One of the better entrants is quail in rose petal sauce. It doesn't have the saturated colors--the margarita-salt greens and yellows or the gazpacho red and gold. But it does have rose petals flurried over the dark brown sauce, purple ones that are wilted and folded. The quail is split, and it rests in the sauce bumped with cherries. There is also a spicy, sweet potato mash that does little more than cloy and smear. Yet the meat is plump, juicy and clean of livery off flavors, though the taste ultimately is unremarkable--adequate, to be sure, but not much else.

Barbecued pork tamale is delicious. Shredded pork, moist and chewy, is embedded in a moist, supple corn tortilla slipped into a cornhusk. Barbecue sauce is robustly littered with pickled red onions that are distracting in their intense sweetness.

Oddly, the best little plate here doesn't even have Spanish, Portuguese or South American pedigree. It hails from Italy. Carpaccio is served on a long rectangular plate. The meat, gritty with kosher salt, is precisely cut into ovals spread over the plate in a long column. Perhaps as a nod to its original influences, the dish is littered in manchega cheese shavings. Crispy artichoke chips litter the top (bland), and chipotle cream is dribbled along the sides. The meat is delicious: cool, smooth and rich, fragmenting in the mouth like lace.

Ama Lur was developed by super chef Stephan Pyles and serves as an accessible canvas for his Central and South American passions. David Woodward, former chef of Star Canyon in Las Vegas, is the executive chef. But all they seem to leave on the plates are their shadows. Little is gripping in this tapas parade. Their specter doesn't emerge any clearer in the entrées.

Seared halibut in sour orange mojo is moist and flaky but has no compelling flavors. Plus, it is tortured by a whip of Peruvian purple potatoes that is stiff, waxy and cool.

Double-cut lamb chops, plump and firm, are riddled with bulging fat globules that burst in the mouth seemingly with each chew. A side shuffle of summer vegetable and heirloom tomato tostadas with corn, guacamole and mushrooms smeared across their bumpy surfaces is amusing but unconvincing. Surely Ama Lur is a bold concept stab in this elephantine convention center primarily populated with tastes that mostly skid across the middle of the road. But, unlike the terrarium, Ama Lur hasn't yet figured out how to keep the bugs at bay.

1501 Gaylord Trail, Grapevine, 817-778-1000. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. $$-$$$


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