Cafe Society

Ambria's kitchen is ahead of its service

On a snowy February night, I ate one of the best meals I'd had in a long time at Ambria.

I'd been excited to try this spot, which Steve Halliday opened last November in the former Ling & Louie's in the Tabor Center; he'd brought in chef Jeremy Kittelson to oversee the kitchen. Kittelson's menu looked interesting, so when I was looking for a place to take my mother for her birthday, Ambria seemed a perfect choice.

With most of Denver hunkered down at home that evening, we had the 16th Street Mall restaurant more or less to ourselves. Ambria occupies a big space, but the team had done a good job of transforming the dining room with smart partitioning, dark furniture and dramatic gold flourishes. An attentive, capable team tended to our every need, and we ate until we were so full that I feared one of us would explode, Monty Python style, if anyone offered us so much as "just one more wafer-thin mint."

The meal was worth the risk. Kittelson's food was close to perfect, a meditation on Mediterranean flavors built with good ingredients and impeccable technique, combined in such surprising and creative ways that his dishes actually incited giddiness. With that dinner, Ambria moved right to the top of my list of contenders for Best New Restaurant in the then-upcoming Best of Denver 2012, and I couldn't wait to return.

But just a week later, Kittelson was fired in the middle of Denver Restaurant Week, and partners Halliday and Rich Manzo moved quickly to install Gabe Balenzuela as his replacement. "We're still contemporary American cuisine with Mediterranean inspirations," Halliday told me not long after. But there had been some changes, he said, because Balenzuela, who'd cooked at Oceanaire Seafood Room before jumping aboard at Ambria, was skilled with seafood.

The last-second switch knocked Ambria from consideration for Best New Restaurant; we generally wait for a restaurant to be open or a chef to be in place for at least two months before visiting for a review or a Best Of meal. But Manzo assured me that "the team is really in synch and firing on all cylinders."

A few weeks ago, I decided to put that team to the test. The patio was near capacity on this perfect spring day, but the cool, dark dining room was almost empty, save for the occasional server sprinting through the space back to the kitchen. "It'll be a 25-minute wait," the hostess told us when we inquired about a table. I waited for a couple of awkward seconds, hoping she'd finish that statement with "for a table on the patio," at which point I would have told her that indoor dining would be just fine, but that finish never came. Apparently it was a 25-minute wait for any table. I appreciated the inherent warning that things would be slow, but I questioned the business sense of a management team that was losing money because it couldn't take steps to properly staff its restaurant. Like, maybe call someone?

The hostess suggested a seat at the bar while we waited. After a few minutes of watching frantic servers act like they were trying to find and dismantle a ticking bomb before it blew up the whole city, Rob and I decided to forgo any wait for a table and just eat at the bar. But the bartender must have been working with the bomb squad, too, because even though we were one of only two parties in his charge, it took a while before he asked for our order. And then we had another long wait for the food, even though short-staffing in the front shouldn't necessarily affect the kitchen.

Slide show: In the kitchen at Ambria

But as our food finally made it out of the kitchen, my worries began to dissipate.

We'd ordered a grilled romaine salad, a dish I love but also one that is easy to botch: Kitchens either cook the leaves until they're slimy or char them so that they just taste like coal. These stalks were still crisp and vegetable-like, but had done enough time on the grill to take on an almost meaty flavor. After being drizzled with a Caesar-like dressing, they'd been topped with both sharp Parmesan cheese shavings and tiny flakes of anchovy, which provided a pleasant hit of salt and fish without becoming overpowering, as anchovies so often can. We followed that promising start with bone marrow — a bargain at $5.95, and an inexpensive way to test an item that can seem off-putting. This was a fairly elementary presentation: You dug the marrow from a hole in a cross-section of bone, spread it on toast and accessorized it with a little parsley, salt and sweet-tart Fresno pepper mango chutney. That way, it was a lot like eating meat butter and jelly — not very intimidating, and definitely delicious.

We split the clams for an entree. A handful of mollusks came over a bed of flat, delicate tagliatelle bathed in tomato broth and mixed with fava beans and spicy Italian sausage. While I'm a proponent of pork in just about anything, the sausage could be edited out here: It overpowered the clams, and the dish had enough vibrancy without it.

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.

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

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk