Veni, vidi, amavi
Recently returned from France and Italy, I headed to Amavi Restaurant. Would new executive chef Megan Tucker, who took over the kitchen in March from founding chef David Sellers, keep the emphasis on western-Mediterranean inspired cuisine? Tucker worked with Sellers at Santacafé and helped him open Amavi’s kitchen in 2007. I greeted with pleasure a menu replete with fresh fish and local lamb and poultry prepared with a Mediterranean muse.
Fortunately, we arrived early on a Saturday night to cadge one of the handful of tables on the charming terrace, barely larger than a seaside balcony, that overlooks Shelby Street. Despite three servers for the five tables outdoors, I had to wait for a soup spoon and finally shared (happily) the trio of bruschetta — roasted beet, unctuous chicken liver pâté, and goat cheese/tomato. Of course, I didn’t have to worry about my gazpacho getting cold. A refreshing summer soup of puréed vegetables, mostly tomato and cucumber, with bread crumbs and a delicious drizzle of garlicky olive oil, it was the Spanish classic. A fresh garnish might have elevated it from simply satisfying to a higher plane, while the leaden zucchini blossom stuffed with goat cheese plopped like a muddy shoal in the center fell flat.
The only other misstep came on a rainy summer night when we took refuge in the cozy lounge. The eggplant Parmesan (with local tazon de llanto, a hard cheese made from raw sheep’s and goat’s milk) is constructed like a vegetarian involtini — two eggplant rolls stuffed with ricotta. The leathery eggplant, undercooked and tasteless, seriously undermined the delicious ricotta stuffing. The gossamer fettuccine on which it rested is house-made. Our charming server/bartender, adept at playing multiple roles, joked, “Everything here is made from scratch except the olives and capers.” The housemade focaccia is both crunchy and chewy and provided for a tasty dip in olive oil and salt. The desserts merit a visit alone; Tucker began her career as a pastry chef, so perhaps that’s no surprise. Especially good was the house special French dacquoise — an extravaganza of crispy almond and hazelnut meringue, coffee buttercream, and chocolate ganache. But more sweet stuff later.
The crunchy Caesar salad comes with pungent anchovy toasts, but my favorite starter is the lounge menu’s fried calamari with a pleasant marinara. In the main-course category we opted for fresh fish on a hot summer night. The white sea bass floated on a subtle and elusive white gazpacho of puréed garlic, bread crumbs, vinegar, and olive oil that seemed to hint of fennel, lifted further by piquillo peppers. The wild Alaskan king salmon, stoked with a smear of black olive and garlic tapenade, spoke eloquently of Provence. Roasted potatoes and fresh vegetables shared the perfect execution of the fillets. In cooler weather, I’d go for the generous and deep-flavored Galisteo lamb T-bone with earthy lentils, tomatoes, and baby artichokes.
Most desserts could easily be shared, but it’s tough picking just one. Flourless chocolate cake is almost fudge with a house-made cherry-vanilla ice cream and cherry sauce. A ricotta-and-mascarpone tart is sweet with luscious cherry conserves and tangy with lemon zest. The apricot-almond butter cake with almond ice cream is an apricot-lover’s delight. Don’t forget the dacquoise.
Sommelier Mark Johnson isn’t left behind in the “house-made” division, concocting a limoncello — a lemon-infused digestive liqueur — that in the hospitable Mediterranean tradition is delivered at the end of the meal. He’s happy to talk about wine, too. We all agreed a Señorío de Sarría rosé from Navarra, Spain, was perfect for the fish, while glasses of Palácio Quémado Riserva — a supple 100-percent Tempranillo from Ribera del Guadiana, Spain — and an intense ruby-red Terredora Dipaolo Aglianico from Campania, Italy, warmed us on the rainy night. Exquisite apricot jellies — made from the chef’s neighbor’s fruit — sweetened the arrival of the check.
Tucker’s menu is proof of her belief in sustainability. Amavi participates in the Farm to Restaurant Project, which supplies restaurants with local agricultural products, and Tucker is committed to using sustainable seafood when possible. Her dedication to in-house preparation and using the freshest local ingredients is tastily evident, while her commitment to sustainability facilitates guilt-free indulgence.