Cafe Society

Amu is a secret worth spilling

On a rare slow Sunday night at Amu Sake Bar and Grill, a robed chef stands behind the wooden bar, pressing gingerly but firmly on a large knife to shave paper-thin strips of daikon radish for a garnish. We watch, mesmerized, leaning back in our chairs at the sushi bar, silently sipping sake from tiny ceramic cups — until finally, I wonder aloud why parts of Amu's Japanese menu were never translated into English.

Without looking up from her task, the chef shrugs. And then another diner at the bar pipes up: "Chef Nobu-san got sick of catering to people who didn't like the Japanese specials," she says. "So he stopped translating them onto the English menu. You want them, just ask."

These dishes are just the latest revelation in a ball of slowly unraveling secrets at Amu.

The first secret was that the restaurant existed at all. The friend who told me about it offered the recommendation with a stipulation. "Go," he'd said, rolling his eyes in exasperation that I'd never even noticed the restaurant tucked beside Sushi Zanmai, always distracted by the crowds gathered there. "Immediately. But do me a favor: Don't tell all of your friends."

Nao-san, who owns both restaurants on Spruce Street, has built an empire in Boulder based on caricatures of Japanese eateries as seen through the eyes of the West, featuring sake bombs and karaoke along with California rolls at his sushi flagship and a couple of bento and noodle places on the Hill. Sushi Zanmai is the most raucous of all, and just a thin wall separates it from the quiet hallway where Amu is located.

But in this unlikely spot, Nao-san has managed to create an oasis that feels like a secret Japanese tea garden, a place where it would be unsurprising to find a babbling brook or groomed sand or even some wise old sage sitting cross-legged and offering insight on the good life. A spa-like serenity fills the space, which is decorated with pale woods and images of cherry blossom trees. It's a place conducive to intimate conversation and a contemplative reverence for food — even if much of that food comes out of a kitchen shared with Sushi Zanmai. Amu's narrow bar, where a chef prepares cold dishes and sashimi, is the focal point, and it's often packed with Japanese businessmen as well as romantic pairs. Larger groups are led up a short staircase and behind a curtain, where a couple of low tables are surrounded by tatami mats.

Loosely translated, the word "amu" means "everything and nothing." In keeping with his pet project's name, Nao-san has chosen a hands-off approach for Amu's marketing, letting the restaurant quietly and self-confidently exist for the past six years, the yin to the rest of the Zanmai yang, easily missed by the masses while fervently supported by fans and Boulder's chefs, who spend hours chopsticking delicate morsels in this authentic izakaya. As opposed to Nao-san's Westernized sushi spots, designed to meet eaters in the middle of their comfort zones, Amu brings patrons East, showing them that there is more to Japanese food than rice and raw fish.

And that means no sushi, which is the first thing the host tells you after you timidly open the door and prepare to remove your shoes.

There is sashimi, however. Great sashimi: fat, firm slices of yellowtail or octopus or one of those Japanese specials, silver Spanish mackerel, splayed across the carefully hollowed and cleaned body of its source, left off the English menu because of cultural squeamishness surrounding being served anything with eyes.

In fact, many of the dishes listed only on the Japanese menu might induce squeamishness. But if you've got a tough stomach and a penchant for strange cuisine, they're also the most interesting things Amu offers, a rotating list of dishes constructed from whatever fresh ingredients Nobu-san can obtain that day. One night brought thin strips of chewy squid that looked like noodles, given away by their unexpected bouncy texture. Another night the specials included hiyashi chuka, a cold noodle salad served with a mélange of seafood. Probably the best way to convince your server that you can handle those specials is to order natto off the English menu, a sticky Japanese delicacy made from fermented soybeans that has a flavor profile strongly reminiscent of blue cheese. Amu's version is balanced by a small dollop of spicy mustard, which is effective in cutting the rich creaminess of the dish and cleansing the palate.

There are plenty of standouts on the English menu, too. Beef cutlet, which eats like a delicate version of chicken-fried steak. Glittering, fried green mussels served in their shells with plenty of Japanese mayonnaise. A perfect piece of red tuna set on a soft, delicate paste made from mountain yam. Mochi kakiage, a chewy Japanese rice cake that's battered and fried and delicious. And the superb agedashi tofu, delicate and silky with a crispy fried shell, served in a subtle ponzu broth with a pinch of minced green onions and a single pickled carrot cut into a tiny star resting atop the glorious golden mass.

Shabu shabu is great for the novelty factor, with thin carvings of rosy raw duck or white squid spread in front of a bubbling ceramic pot so that you can cook them on the spot, adding straw-like enoki mushrooms and glass noodles, along with ponzu sauce and onions for flavor. A lot of Amu's food is subtly seasoned, but it takes plenty of ponzu to move this dish beyond bland. And as you struggle to slurp up every last drop of broth with chopsticks, the chefs will happily make the leftovers into zousui, a Japanese rice porridge.

No matter which menu you order from, your meal starts with a daikon radish and carrot salad, a crisp amuse bouche that sufficiently whets your appetite for what's to come. On the other side, mochi ice cream ends the meal with a soft peck on the mouth, in traditional flavors like red bean and less traditional renditions like root beer.

There's a rhythm to a meal here, and it goes back to the restaurant's name. While Western dining often focuses on the black and white, calling forth a particular flavor profile and giving a dish the old Emeril "BAM!," traditional Japanese izakayas operate in a gray area. At Amu, each plate embodies balance. For each soft texture, there is a crispy supplement. For each savory element, an understated opposing sweetness. Nothing is overpowering; nothing is overpowered. Yin and yang. Everything and nothing.

All of the dishes are borne to tables and bar seats by runners who approach silently and leave almost before you notice them at all. When a diner so much as glances in their direction, though, they offer up a warm smile. These servers pamper without coddling, giving directions on how to enjoy the strange dishes when necessary, then fading away. Amu may not have linen tablecloths, but the seamless service creates the type of luxury that comes from care rather than stemware.

This Sunday-night dinner lasts two hours, two hours we spend within inches of a handful of other diners and ten feet from a wall that's the only thing separating us from college students eating shrimp tempura rolls under booming rock and roll, but we've been blissfully cocooned in our own private universe, a secret world of everything and nothing.

The secret's out on Amu. In this tiny hallway, Nao-san is at pushing out the edges of our local dining scene and expanding the horizons of his patrons, one fermented soybean at a time.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk