The Colorado Restaurant Association recently announced the winners of its annual Industry Spotlight Awards, which are given to chefs, restaurateurs and others in the Colorado food-service industry for excellence in a variety of categories. In addition to recognizing superstars in the restaurant world at an awards dinner on May 10, the CRA is also giving out two Exceptional Newcomer Signature Dish awards (which aren't given for a specific signature dish; the trophy itself is called the Signature Dish). One recipient is that small but sparking-hot East Colfax Avenue charmer, To the Wind Bistro, owned by Leanne Adamson and Royce Oliveira. The other is an under-the-radar surprise: the unassuming strip-mall eatery called Ambli, run by Kelly Morrison and Pariza Mehta.
We took a quick peek into Ambli, at 600 South Holly Street, when it opened in January 2014, but since then changes have propelled the restaurant to popularity with residents in surrounding neighborhoods, even if the rest of Denver has yet to catch on. Although Morrison and Mehta opened with Belgian chef Michel Wahaltere at the helm, within six months he was replaced by Ricardo Morffin, who has helped tighten up the menu and moved away from a concept heavy on pre-made, grab-and-go items. The result is a sexy, sophisticated space with an international menu that picks and chooses its flavors carefully rather than rushing from one continent to the next.
"I don't like to call it fusion," Morffin says of the menu. "It's traditional, but with new flavors."
Mehta reiterates that her chef has a deft hand with traditional cooking, adding that Morffin has an eye on "what's going on in Denver, and what's going on in the world of cuisine."
Mehta explains that the name Ambli comes from the Gujarati word for tamarind, a major component in East African Indian cuisine. She notes that Indian settlers in East Africa developed their own style of cooking over generations, one that relies on tamarind, coriander and cumin but is more subtle than the kind of Indian cuisine known to most Americans. Examples on the Ambli menu include beef samosas served with two kinds of chutney and kuku paka, marinated chicken cooked in a creamy and mildly spiced coconut sauce.
Other dishes have their roots in Mexican, Thai and Mediterranean traditions, some of which are given modern interpretations. Shrimp scampi start with a familiar lemon and white-wine sauce, but are served on a bed of zucchini and squash "noodles" dressed in lime and coconut; seared mahi mahi is bathed in a Thai green curry sauce. But Mehta notes that any culinary collisions are created with the final flavor profile in mind, not just for the novelty of it. "It's very difficult to build credibility on a menu like this, but one thing that chef is great at is understanding flavors," she says.
Most of the dishes, though, are true to their roots. Morffin's Mexico City brisket is a faithful rendering of the ropa vieja of his youth, which he serves with scallion-potato croquettes and fresh corn tortillas. But he also pulls out all the stops on one of Ambli's best sellers, a flatbread topped with a tamarind-fig-mango spread, pickled fennel, almonds and three kinds of cheese. The focal point that holds the dish together is the tamarind, he explains, "because it's a beautiful fruit."
Morrison and Mehta agree that teamwork was what got them through the changes last year. "The best part of my job is the team here — the complete passion and hard work and dedication," Mehta states.
Most of Ambli's customers arrive from nearby the Hilltop, Crestmoor Park, Lowry and Virginia Vale neighborhoods, but with a boost from the Colorado Restaurant Association, that could soon change.
Ambli is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday and for dinner only on Saturday and Sunday.