Bagging the Muse

A passionfruit mojito, prosciutto salad, and a shrimp and mussel salad at Amuse: Hungry yet?
Tom Jenkins

Enter Cryovac. Invented years ago by a company called Sealed Air, which distributes everything from bubble wraps to extruded plank foams, Cryovac vacuum shrink bags revolutionized food packaging by injecting a burst of freshness into fish, meats and poultry sent through the distribution chain to the table.

So it was only a matter of time before they were used as a bona fide cooking utensil. Hence, Amuse Restaurant & Lounge's braised Cryovac lamb shank. Though they have been used for years in cooking, it's ingenious really--a clever deployment of suck 'n seal plastic, time and boiling water. First the shank is burnished in a North African-style rub laced with sugar, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, clove, salt and pepper before it is braised for about three hours. After the braising, the shank is Cryovac'd with its spice-laden juice for two days, and the juice is reabsorbed. Finally, the bag is tossed into boiling water, slit and the shank is unleashed on the plate.

Inelegant? Perhaps. But inventive culinary craft often is, as the Popeil Dial-O-Matic and Solid Flavor Injector have long demonstrated ("Use the solid flavor injector to inject nuts, herbs, olives, pineapple chunks...and candy into hams, leg of lambs, pork loin, roasts, turkey breasts, cupcakes, cakes and pastries.") The shank is disembarked next to a couscous puck seasoned with brown sugar and curry and studded with golden raisins. The thick bone, bleached from braising and boiling, juts from the tawny meat bulb, the sauce staining the base of the bone. Sometimes the meat slithers easily from the shank. Sometimes stubborn connective tissue must be dealt with. Some pieces of shank are dry and gluey. Other sections are juicy, tender and ripe with spice. Textural inconsistencies aside, the flavor is flushed throughout, thanks to the Cryovac vacuum shrink bag. Amuse also Cryovacs its barbecued short-rib osso buco. Maybe it should Cryovac everything.

Amuse is the spawn of the fertile brain of Doug Brown, former chef of Nana Grill and the Landmark Restaurant in the Melrose Hotel, founder of the gourmet takeout outlet Beyond the Box. He calls Amuse a little neighborhood place, one of casual approachability. "You know, a bistro," he explains. "But a little more sleek, a little cooler."

How approachable? How cool? On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, a leashed German shepherd and golden retriever wrestle near a sloshing dish of water on the large Amuse patio. Dogs have brunch options: turkey and egg pizza, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, garlic sirloin burgers. Inside, tables are sparsely attended: a couple here, a group of girls there, a party of seven at a long rough-hewn wooden table by the windows. You'd think there'd be a more billowing crowd on account of Amuse brunch teasers, which include bottomless mimosas and do-it-yourself Bloody Marys. The latter works like this: Amuse bartenders dispense a tall iced glass loaded with a chosen vodka shot, and you march it to the preparation table where a spread of Bloody Mary mix, horseradish, celery, Worcestershire sauce and lime await your exploitation.

I kept draining the shallow mimosa flutes. Our server poured my third bottomless in a tall Bloody Mary tumbler. The shape strangled the fizz, reducing it to a weak and listless breakfast drink, albeit one that still packs a license-suspending punch. Even more interesting was the casual and approachable manner in which our server refilled our pair of empty glasses once brimming with Dr Pepper. He did this by delivering a tumbler filled with the soda. He grabbed an empty glass and held it out from the table, filling it from the tumbler as errant Dr Pepper dribbled down the glass and drizzled over the floor. Set, load, repeat.

Eat. The ham and cheese omelet is a loose but delicate scroll, a curled trembling blanket of barely cohesive egg tucking prosciutto and spinach leaves bound in melted Gruyère cheese. Salmon salad is an abridged chef's salad, julienned cheese and cold cuts being the primary deletions. Instead, vivid crumbles of salmon ring a rising mound of spinach topped with coiled red onion ribbons. A halved hardboiled egg is nested on one edge while four grape tomatoes form square points in the salmon. Feta crumbles and bacon specks comprise the confetti, while balsamic provides pulse.

Prosciutto appetizer almost vibrates; pinches of it are arrayed on a long narrow plate that looks like an ornamented slide rule or the epaulette on a culinary field marshal uniform. The pinches rest on gauzy triangles of manchego cheese. Needles of chive and julienne endive crisscross the meat while strips of roasted peppers drape over the top, playing off the cured sweetness.

But there is weakness. Mexican frittata with grilled chicken, jack cheese and black beans in a fried tortilla is spongy and bland--the antithesis of the Amuse pose.

Amuse sups from the hipness trough. Music pumps with repetitive throb. Servers play cool. Look hard, and you can spot glittery studs embedded in nostrils. However trendy, Amuse seems fresh. Décor is a warren of brassy browns. The corrugated metal roof is sprayed copper, which plays off brassy stains on the concrete floor and the bronze metallic checkered pattern on the vinyl banquettes. This is all set against sky-blue textured walls, gunmetal light fixtures and a lounge area with artworks made of metal and brushed in flaming reds and oranges.

The kitchen is open. Bright lights glare in front where dishes are loaded for expedition, while the grinding work of pan searing, sauce simmering, flank grilling and egg frying is staged in the dim background. Crew faces shift from incandescent to dusky as they move between frontal glare and brooding back shadows grated intermittently with gas flame.

Bowls loaded with flatbread are lined up next to stacked bowls on the expedition banister. Flatbread is moist with hollow pockets and crisp shingles. It shimmers with olive oil. The bread is served with a brownish salsa composed of charred tomatoes, onion, basil, salt and garlic. Plowing bread through it is addictive.

So is the food--typical haute, twisted and flipped and squeezed into new Americanization but not too much. There's gnocchi but not like you would expect. The creamy dumplings are seared, forming a leathery skin that clings like hosiery. Gnocchi are loosely dispersed among mushroom caps and roasted pepper strips in a smudge of sun-dried tomato cream sauce. Flavors are robust--earthy and tangy with a wisp of smoke.

Marinated in a honey, green onion and garlic slurry, flank steak slices are draped over a smear of creamy polenta. The rosy slices, framed in brittle grill marks on the edges, are dank and rich and silky. A thick but slender wedge of honey-glazed salmon is posted on a potato cake formed from shredded potato that's quick-seared on both sides--a glorified hash brown. Salmon cascades from the wedge in clean flakes. But that potato cake, golden and crisp on the edges, is translucent and gummy in the center where the salmon steams and sweats. A buffer of spinach leaves between the cake and the salmon might launch this better.

Amuse isn't perfect, but it doesn't need to be. Its vibrancy, honest edge and clever execution revels in relaxed titillation, and it's vacuum-shrunk fresh. 1326 S. Lamar St., 214-428-7300. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$

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