By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Since the word ambrosia not only means "food for the gods" but also "anything that tastes or smells delicious," it's an appropriate name for Ambrosia Bistro. This four-month old eatery serves up many morsels for mortals that taste or smell delicious -- often at the same time.
But not often enough. Unfortunately, Ambrosia frequently fails to live up to its name.
Too bad, because this very austere but trendy spot sits in a neighborhood that's been desperate for decent food. Ambrosia occupies what used to be the Firefly Cafe, a longtime Denver favorite that had very much fallen out of favor over the past few years, and its concept, conceived by owners Mark Gordon and John Barocas and executed by Gordon, is a sound one. Their plan is to serve upscale, Asian-influenced fare prepared with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of flavor. But one obstacle stands in the way of Ambrosia's becoming a success: the kitchen.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday
The chef in that kitchen has proved himself capable of good, and sometimes great, things. In the decade since he discovered that he liked to cook more than anything else, Gordon -- who went to school in Illinois to study economics and then did a three-year stint on the volatile board of trade -- worked his way up through the ranks, starting as a deli owner with his brother in Scottsdale, then as third man down the totem pole at the highly regarded Phoenician outside Phoenix, and later in Denver as the corporate chef for the short-lived Stan's Metro Deli (don't hold that against him; the owners were weird). After that, he earned his stripes as one of the few people in town who got along in the kitchen with Santino "Sonny" Rando, first at Carmine's on Penn and then at Santino's. Most recently, Gordon opened the Italian-themed Modena in Boulder and then a second outlet in Cherry Creek North; not long after, he sold his interest in both and set out to start over with a fresher concept.
But Gordon hit a few bumps along the way. The first location he chose for Ambrosia was in the Crestmoor neighborhood, an area that opposed his application for a liquor license -- and won. (Inexplicably, the neighbors approved Michael Degenhart's application for a license at Rue Cler, which opened across the street from Gordon's original target.) "It's been an epic journey," he says, laughing about it now. "That was a tough one, and it'll still take a while to recover from it." The costs of the liquor-license fight and prep work at the Crestmoor site took a toll, and so Gordon's had to take it slow in gutting and redecorating the Firefly's old home, his backup location. The new setup may be simple, but it's appealing: The walls are the color of gourmet mustard, and one side of the oddly configured space sports a triptych of vividly colored paintings; purple and beige napkins alternate on the tables, and white lights hung around the windows and a potted plant here and there brighten up the sunken main dining area. (The smoking section of booths is in the bar.) "I have to thank the staff, all of whom are from the Firefly, who worked on the dining room day and night for two weeks," says Gordon.
He should also thank the staff for their current work in the dining room. Aside from a hitch in the table spacing -- we were bashed into repeatedly by servers trying to make their way through the tight spaces, and the table next to us actually reseated themselves in order to avoid getting whacked -- the service was not only cheerful and efficient, but the staff actually had answers to our questions and helpful suggestions about the dishes. Too bad the kitchen wasn't as efficient: The production problems we encountered at not one, not two, but three meals indicated it needs a major kick in the butt.
"I have to take responsibility for that, ultimately," Gordon says, when he hears of the snafus. "I try to keep an eye on everything that goes out, but it's hard. I know that's no excuse, though, and so all I can do is promise to keep working on it."
And the food's worth the effort, since all of the basic components are there -- and then some. The roasted corn and cilantro side that came with the batter-fried soft-shell crab ($10) was an inspired touch, adding a welcome sweetness. But we wanted much more of the corn than the tablespoon on our plate -- it looked more like a garnish than an actual part of the dish. And the batter on the crab was much too thick, which made it hard to get a handle on the crustacean, much less a good taste of its meat. Our other starters worked well, however. An order of beef tenderloin done satay-style ($8) brought three skewers of tender, thinly sliced beef, along with a thick, gooey, sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce; the sweetly seasoned Vietnamese spring rolls ($6) were crunchy-skinned on the outside and filled with good-quality shrimp inside.
Although the menu's description of the buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad ($7) was misleading -- it read "house-made," which implied that Ambrosia makes the cheese, which it doesn't -- there was no mistaking the mozzarella's fabulous flavor. It may not have been "house-made," but it was certainly authentic: In Italy, real mozzarella is made from the milk of a water buffalo; the rubbery stuff we usually get in this country is fior di latte, made from cow's milk. This cheese was stunning: creamy and rich and slightly sweet, especially when layered with fresh, red-ripe tomato slices that had been soaked in a sweetened balsamic vinaigrette. Sadly, there was also no mistaking the brown-edged, soggy iceberg lettuce in a retro salad with blue-cheese dressing ($8); to carry off this minimalist creation, the iceberg must be impeccably crisp. But at least the dressing was rich and tangy, the cheese almost indistinguishable from that current benchmark of domestic blues, the estimable Maytag.