Published May 2010
Last fall, when Ambrosia lost executive chef Michael Rossi to a new gig in Beverly Hills, I wondered how the kitchen would fare. Ambrosia’s brand of highfalutin feasts is not exactly fashionable these days. Would his departure upset an already delicate formula designed to lure seasoned diners craving a fancy night on the town?
The answer: Not that I can tell. Ryan Carson, a longtime protégé of Rossi, is now top toque, and he wears it well. His menus are clearly rooted in the French classics, yet many dishes sparkle with modern techniques. He skillfully uses today’s
molecular gastronomy to transform textures and intensify flavors, but in measured ways that don’t steal the cuisine’s Gallic thunder.
As before, the large menu list items by their French names, though just below is a detailed description of ingredients in English. When Carson includes flourishes of molecular gastronomy such as mint tea gel, 62 degrees Celsius egg, horchata air, or parsley bubbles, waiters are ready with explanations. But dishes such as Idaho trout with Marcona almond brittle, or braised short rib with dill gnocchi need no translation. This cooking convinces skeptics while exciting new-school foodies.
The core of Ambrosia’s cuisine is solidly French. Where else can you get a flawlessly roasted fine chateaubriand these days, dressed out with béarnaise and bordelaise sauces? Or huge shrimp flambéed tableside with baby leeks and cognac-garlic butter. Potpie with Burgundy snails, button mushrooms, and chicken oysters is richly satisfying farmhouse cooking with or without engineered pearls of parsley. Rustic or refined, Ambrosia is still rocking the cuisine française. Molecular flourishes are just an amusing sideshow to the main event.
Roast Petaluma quail on a bed of butternut squash, dark chard, and pancetta is an exemplary starter, balancing the small bird’s natural lushness with the chard’s bitter bite, the squash’s creamy sweetness, and the pancetta’s salty tones. Silky dill mousse and tender fennel pollen spaetzle are pure flattery for fresh river sturgeon. Colorado lamb loin carries a light whiff of coriander, meshing pleasantly with a side of root vegetables roasted to the verge of caramelization.
Dessert is a little showy, in keeping with the tradition of opulence. It can be an admirable flaming bananas Foster, assembled with theatrical flair by a veteran waiter. Or a thoroughly modern, deconstructed take on s’mores by pastry chef David Rossi, who braids glossy ribbons of dark chocolate ganache, studding the twist with dollops of scorched house-made marshmallow and crumbles of graham cracker.
It doesn’t hurt that service is tiptop, in that clairvoyant yet deferential way that makes every course feel like royal treatment. Plus, the setting is pure old-school glam, from the elevator ride to the lobby, to those huge half-circle black leather booths, to the grand piano often played by a talented musician. Mirrored walls multiply rows of arching palms into a forest. One night, as happy hour partiers at the bar cackle on loudly, a hostess offers us a private room, which we decline. But it’s a generous gesture since all the rooms are exquisitely decorated and some are ideal for parties as large as eight.
Next time one of my friends or family is looking for just the right place to host an intimate fancy dinner, I’ll probably direct them here. Especially after Carson shares ideas he has for his summer menu—albacore tuna with quail eggs, duck-fat potatoes and white anchovy romesco sauce, or Jidori chicken roulade with truffle butter, morels, and marjoram dumplings.
It’s rare to sight Carson on the dining room floor, but it’s clear from what’s on the plate that he’s in the kitchen. And it’s nice to see a streak of creative innovation on a menu that easily could fall into a rut in less energetic hands. Ambrosia’s soul may be linked to bygone times, but the exceptional cooking reveals that the luxury venue also knows how to keep an eye on the future.
Quail, lamb loin, sturgeon, bananas Foster, house sorbets.
Any dining booth. Private rooms: Dame of the Sea or The Lodge.
Appetizers and starters, $8 to $17; entrées, $27 to $80 (chateaubriand for two).
Closed Sunday and Monday.
801 N. Main St.
Gretchen Kurz / Photograph by Jessica Booneis an Orange Coast contributing editor and the local editor of Orange County’s Zagat Survey.