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The service team was still operating at a frenzied pace as we paid our check. If this was "firing on all cylinders," it looked like Ambria would soon blow a gasket.
But the restaurant had yet to explode when I returned a week later. Our seating went much more smoothly: Rob and I were led to an intimate booth on an interior wall amid groups of prom-goers and Saturday-night diners; a soundtrack of elevator-like jazz played over the speakers. This time our server was almost too attentive. He lingered after each visit to the table, his spiels about the menu turning into anecdotes about what was going on in the kitchen or behind the scenes.
Remembering Balenzuela's good work with the romaine, we started with another vegetable-focused dish: the fava-bean hummus. I didn't love the plating — the way the carrots, red peppers, cucumbers, radishes and celery were splayed across a bowl full of ice reminded me of a grocery-store relish tray — but the hummus was excellent. Thick, slightly chunky, but lighter than a garbanzo-bean hummus, it was packed with garlic, which played off the sweet earth of the favas.
1201 16th St., 104
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
I'd matched that appetizer to a Provençal rosé, and since Ambria has a fairly well-rounded by-the-glass list, I asked to see it again before my entree arrived. Our server obliged, adding a long-winded push for a California pinot noir to match my lamb before I'd even opened the wine list. I appreciated his eagerness, but I would have rather he'd waited until I solicited his advice. That would have saved us the awkward fumbling when I told him I prefer old-world wines — as well as something more robust — with lamb, to which he didn't have an immediate response. When the lamb arrived, I was glad I'd gone with a bigger wine. The meat was tender, juicy, falling away from the bone, glistening from ample strips of fat and imbued with the tang of a little smoke; it needed no more augmentation than maybe a little salt and pepper. Unfortunately, the chop was encrusted with a sweet-spicy, cookie-like ginger granola, and while I liked the flavor, the sweetness didn't work well with the rest of the dish: a bed of sautéed greens glazed with olive oil and speckled with garlic; lightly roasted parsnips; fluffy gnudi (similar to gnocchi, but made with goat cheese); and tiny bits of crispy lamb bacon.
But the seafood ravioli, a relatively recent addition to the menu, was flawless. Four thin pasta pockets had been stuffed with sweet lobster meat, then covered with pickled cabbage, minced red onion and pea sprouts, and bathed in a lobster beurre blanc. It was a brilliant match of flavors, and would have been awesome with a crisp, round white wine like chardonnay.
As I paid my check that evening, I realized that while I still had fond memories of that February dinner, I wasn't wistful for Kittelson's cooking. With Balenzuela, Ambria's kitchen seems to be in very good hands — even if the front of the house still needs to get in gear.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Ambria