Cafe Ami, tu es un vrai ami.
I’m currently blogging from Intelligentsia. I quite enjoy cafe cortados, which are basically mini cappuccinos.My teeth are sore as hell, due to a temporary removable retainer that I have to wear to push one tooth that has moved. Every time I put the retainer on I have to press down as hard as I can until he clicks on with a loud “POP”. New retainer + wisdom teeth removal on Friday = кашмар, or nightmare. I foresee strawberry milkshakes.
Anyways, back to Bloomington. Who would have thought that some of the most authentic-tasting ethnic food would be found in southern Indiana as opposed to, say, Chicago? My theory is this: Chicago has authentic places, but you have to try a million inauthentic, not-so-good ones before you find them. In Bloomington, because it’s such a diverse little college town (and the Dalai Lama’s brother lives there), all the good restaurants are conveniently arranged for you already, one from each country/region. Most of the ethnic restaurants are found on 4th street, including Cafe Ami, a Japanese/Korean place.
What’s so great about Ami: 1) How many so-called “Japanese” places aren’t really just swank sushi bars? And while I need my strange experimental strawberry and eel maki at times, where can you actually find a restaurant that serves mackerel or tempura udon? However, Ami also has sushi, so it’s the best of both worlds 2) How many Korean places have a decent dolsot bibimbap (bibimbap served in a cast iron bowl. The egg cracked on top is basically raw, and as you toss it with the vegetables the yolk coats each grain of rice as it cooks)? 3) The deals. Mondays = 50% off bibimbap and sashimi rice. Neither of these dishes were that expensive to begin with…. think 8 or 9 dollars, including miso soup and salad. Even I with my monstrous appetite couldn’t always finish my food. Also: 8 dollar all-you-can-eat Korean buffet: need I say more?
As if that weren’t convenient enough, there were two branches: Ami and Cafe Ami. Cafe Ami was down the street from Soma and Ami was down the street from my dorm. I mainly went to Cafe Ami, at least until they closed for dinner. The Cafe Ami location is smaller but cozier. The strange thing about Ami is that nobody seems to know about it. Every time I go into the restaurant (with the exception of Tuesdays, 50% maki days), it’s virtually empty. The only other diners are speaking in either Korean or Japanese. I’m pretty sure the cooks are Korean.
And the food: service is pretty fast. Dolsot bibimbap can be a bit of a wait, depending on the day, but it is oh so worth it. How many times did I order it? It’s safe to say twice a week. It was an addiction. I couldn’t control it. Just imagine: your choice of spicy beef, pork, squid or tofu (squid, for sure), scattered over slightly sticky, Korean short-grain rice (so much better than Chinese). Piles and piles of artfully arrange julienned vegetables: carrots, bean sprouts, zucchini, cucumber, and shiitake mushrooms, topped with a sunny side up egg and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. Ban fan, as we say in China, and fold the vegetables into the rice with chopsticks after pouring in almost the entire portion of spicy soybean sauce. Let the rice take on a crimson hue. And the best part: it’s so hot that you have to eat it slowly, so that it doesn’t scorch your insides. On the side: crispy iceberg lettuce. Why is it that in American restaurants, iceberg lettuce is a sad attempt to include a “vegetable” on the menu, whereas at Ami it provides a refreshing crunch? I think we owe it to the spicy ginger dressing and the abundance of vegetables already present. Also: a row of fluorescent yellow half moons, or pickled radish. I can feel my sodium levels rising. And miso soup = miso soup. I have yet to become a connoisseur of miso, but as long as there are some silken tofu cubes and kombu pieces in it, I’m happy.
Other dishes tried:
Tempura udon: tempura very lightly coated, not oily at all. Pieces of carrot, sweet potato, zucchini and one shrimp. Broth not too salty. Noodles=okay. Not the best dish of theirs, but udon is usually on the bland side to begin with.
Teriyaki mackerel: aaa, this was so good! I found the sauce a little bit overpowering (too sweet, and too much of it), but at least mackerel is a strong-tasting fish. The fish was a huge portion that I couldn’t finish, and it was served with a bowl of rice and topped with sauteed vegetables, then garnished with kale and fresh fruit. Keep in mind that it was also served with soup and salad. This place is such a hidden gem!
Sashimi rice—considering I ordered it on 50% off day, it was a great deal. They definitely didn’t skimp on the raw fish. I had never tried anything like this before: unlike chirashi, the sashimi is chopped into smaller pieces and tossed with salad and served with the same sauce bibimbap is served with. The fish was fresh and there was a variety of different kinds. However, this wasn’t quite enough food for me. I would have been better off ordering a little appetizer too, considering I only paid 6 bucks for all this food.
Sushi and goma-ae (blanched spinach with a sweet sesame sauce). The sauce is quite sugary, which is great until it spills all over your Russian notebook. The roll I ordered was the “Ultimate Rainbow:” which is another one of those very fried, not so authentic ones. Avocado, different kinds of fish over fried soft shell crab and shrimp. It was good, but I think I’ll just stick to their bibimbap. I will never get sick of it. Never.
And finally, their Korean lunch buffet. Like all buffets, it’s very easy to eat too much by taking some of everything. I scoped out the selection first and decided that the basic cucumber maki wasn’t worth eating. After all, it was supposed to be a Korean buffet. I was happy that they had a huge rice cooker full of freshly steamed rice, as well as giant pots of miso soup and rice cake soup (but they had just run out of that). They also had a salad bar-like arrangement of bibimbap toppings. I made my own mini version of bibimbap. They also had jap-chae (with and without meat), which surprised me because it was hot. It was really flavorful and incredibly addictive (glass noodle dish with vegetables and sesame oil—usually served as a salad). Last but not least, I had a Korean version of one of my favorite Chinese dishes, ji dan geng, which is a steamed egg custard. Japan also has their own version of it, but it usually has a lot of random stuff cooked into it: seafood, gingko nuts, etc. This particular version has chopped vegetables. It was a big bland, but some bibimbap sauce solved that easily. I supposed I’m biased, but Chinese egg custard is the best by far.
I’m going to miss this place. I suppose the only solution is to buy one of those cast iron pots….