The last meal I had at Ambria was stunning. From the crisp, goat-cheese-and-almond-studded raw carrot salad to roasted beets pooled with celery root pesto to a well-cooked ribeye, it was one of the few meals I had all year that was truly close to perfect. By the time I'd scraped my dessert plate clean, Ambria had moved to the very short list of contenders for Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2012, which was then just over a month away.
A week later, though, founding chef Jeremy Kittelson was fired, and Gabe Balenzuela, formerly of Oceanaire Seafood Room, came on board to take over the kitchen at the restaurant at 1201 16th Street, which had opened in November 2011. I scrapped the review I'd been working on (we always wait at least two months before we review a new restaurant, and try to do the same when a new chef takes over a kitchen), and started reassessing our Best New Restaurant candidates.
According to managing partner Rich Manzo, Ambria's theme remains the same -- "We're still contemporary American cuisine with Mediterranean inspirations," he says -- but some things have definitely changed. "We're working with a lot more local ingredients," he notes, name-checking Munson Farms, Isabel Farms and Red Wagon Farms, which will provide produce for the restaurant as the seasons change.
And given Balenzuela's background, the kitchen will also be bringing in more seafood. "We're sourcing seafood from all over the globe," explains Manzo. "We're dealing with several different purveyors." That re-focus has already led to some new dishes. "There's a wild striped bass dish that really stands out," he says. "And the salmon tartare and ceviche are really outstanding."
Above all, Ambria's owners are just eager to get back to business. "The changes are going really well," says Manzo. "We have a positive outlook, and we're really looking forward to a great spring and summer season on the patio outside. The team is really in synch and firing on all cylinders."
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And we're looking forward to seeing what Balenzuela can do with the kitchen.
As for the Best New Restaurant, that award went to Pinche Taqueria -- my hands down favorite of the hundreds of places that opened in 2011. You can read why in the Best of Denver issue that's being delivered around town right now -- and I'll be talking more about it on Café Society tomorrow.
A version of this story originally appeared in Cafe Bites, our weekly newsletter devoted to Denver's food and drink scene, which arrives in e-mail boxes every Wednesday afternoon. Find out how to subscribe here.