It’s an auspicious 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 the bar rooms of New York and Chicago for the better part of a decade. Earlier this year, two separate books on the subject collected top honors; The Way of The Cocktail at the James Beard Awards, followed by The Japanese Art of the Cocktail at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards. Now the approach has arrived at a high end 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 led by Osaka native Kentaro Ikuta who spent the last 13 years at various Michelin-recognized outposts, including Okane and Kinjo in San Francisco. With his latest project, the executive chef is focusing largely on Edomae-zushi traditions; nigiri and sashimi shaped by hand, and coursed out during an hour-long presentation at his 13-seat bar. The seafood is flown in daily from Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo’s Kōtō Ward.
Sensational sushi is obviously nothing new to Southern California. The region has long existed as the cuisine’s unofficial stateside epicenter. And enjoying it adjacent to the Pacific Ocean is something already familiar to anyone who has dined at Nobu Malibu (which, incidentally, is where AMA sushi chef Wendy Ramos was previously employed). Yet this newcomer stands apart as truly unique—and its commitment to cocktails is a big reason why.
The program was conceived by Nils Schabert, director of bars at the Rosewood property, which houses no fewer than five other drink venues. Anchoring the success here is a thoughtfully curated collection of sake and spirits—including more than 30 varieties of Japanese whisky—and an eagerness to administer them into inventive tipples. Multiply that by a thoughtful garnish game set atop sterling ice service and you have something quite special, indeed.
The menu doesn’t overwhelm imbibers with a crowd of options. Instead it streamlines half a dozen entries, each named after a Japanese custom or mood, and executes each with laser-like precision. Standout examples include Hinode (“the feeling you have when you watch the sunrise”), made with sparkling sake, mezcal, pineapple liqueur and acidified dry vermouth. It is served in the “Kaikan” style, wherein a drink expected up, in graceful stemware, is instead presented on ice. Here that ice is an oversized crystal clear cube balanced below a single sprig of kinome leaf.
Ikagai (“a concept that describes your reason for being”) is another winner, built of Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, combined with locally-sourced honey, and traditional Japanese plum liqueur under pickled ume. And while there are widely approachable crowdpleasers such as the Tsumiki—a coconut infused sake-based cocktail served in a traditional ceramic vessel with roasted nori—there are also more advanced arrangements such as the Kosame, which plays sesame salt and rice wine vinegar against Haku Japanese Vodka for tart and sour results.
There’s even a thoughtful zero-proof section, highlighted by Kaizen. It uses a cold brewed genmaicha tea, which is carbonated and painted with pandan lime reduction for a soothing elixir that flexes on the palate with roasted brown rice.
Because most of these selections lean towards clean-yet-complex, they sit surprisingly well with the omakase fare. For some of the raw fish standouts such as the chūtoro and Hokkaido uni, you’ll just want to let the protein linger for a few beats before washing it away with any liquid. The restaurant also offers plenty of a la carte options including a wide array of yakimono, grilled over Binchotan charcoal. For that you’ll want to steer towards the heartier whisky cocktails. Although at AMA you could always opt to simply wash it down with the sound of surf hitting the shore in the distance.