It’s a great time for Japanese cocktail culture here in the United States. The style, celebrated for its elegance and attention to technical detail, has been flourishing in New York and Chicago bars for the better part of a decade. Earlier this year, two separate books on the subject won top honors; The Way of the Cocktail at the James Beard Awards, followed by The Japanese art of cocktails at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Now the approach has come to an upscale omakase concept on the California coast.
This summer, the five-star Rosewood Miramar Beach resort in Santa Barbara cut the ribbon on AMA Sushi. The restaurant is run by Kentaro Ikuta, a native of Osaka, who has spent the past 13 years in various Michelin-recognized outposts, including Okane and Kinjo in San Francisco. With his latest project, the executive chef focuses largely on Edomae-zushi traditions; hand-crafted nigiri and sashimi, prepared during an hour-long presentation in its 13-seat bar. Seafood is flown in daily from Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo’s Kōtō district.
Sensational sushi is obviously nothing new to Southern California. The region has long existed as the unofficial epicenter of cuisine in the United States. And enjoying it next to the Pacific Ocean is something already familiar to anyone who’s dined at Nobu Malibu (which, by the way, is where AMA sushi chef Wendy Ramos was formerly employed). Still, this newcomer stands out as truly unique and its commitment to cocktails is a big reason for that.
The program was designed by Nils Schabert, Bars Manager at the Rosewood property, which is home to no less than five other drinking establishments. The anchor of success here is a carefully curated collection of sake and spirits – including more than 30 varieties of Japanese whiskey – and a willingness to pour them into inventive drinks. Multiply that by a thoughtful set of garnishes placed on a sterling ice cream service and you have something quite special, indeed.
The menu does not overwhelm drinkers with a host of options. Instead, it streamlines half a dozen entrees, each named after a Japanese custom or mood, and executes each with laser-like precision. Notable examples include hinode (“the feeling you get when you watch the sunrise”), made with sparkling sake, mezcal, pineapple liqueur and acidified dry vermouth. It is served “Kaikan” style, where an expected drink, in graceful stemmed glasses, is presented over ice instead. Here, that ice cream is an oversized crystalline cube balanced under a single strand of kinome sheet.
Ikagai (“a concept that describes your purpose”) is another winner, made with Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey, combined with locally sourced honey and traditional Japanese plum liqueur under pickled ume. And although there are very accessible crowds such as the Tsumiki– a coconut-infused sake cocktail served in a traditional ceramic vessel with roasted nori – there are also more advanced arrangements such as Kosamewhich plays sesame salt and rice wine vinegar against Japanese Haku vodka for tangy, sweet and sour results.
There’s even a zero-proof reflective section, highlighted by Kaizen. It uses cold-brewed genmaicha tea, which is carbonated and painted with a reduction of pandan lime for a soothing elixir that flexes in the mouth with roasted brown rice.
Because most of these selections lean toward cleanliness but complexity, they pair surprisingly well with omakase fare. For some of the raw fish standouts like chūtoro and Hokkaido uni, you’ll just want to let the protein linger for a few beats before washing it down with any liquid. The restaurant also offers many a la carte options, including a wide range of yakimono, grilled over Binchotan charcoal. For that, you’ll want to head to the heartier whiskey cocktails. Although at AMA you can always choose to just wash it away with the sound of the waves hitting the shore in the distance.