Ambria: Dinner and An Interview

Earlier this month a good friend of mine gave me a wonderful birthday present: he took me to Ambria for dinner. A mutual friend of ours, Fred DeVore, is a waiter there and he took very good care of us. He is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the food, so it made for an especially delightful experience.

Also, though I didn’t realize it at the time, our sommelier was the infamous Bob Bansberg. Bob used to teach the wine class at the Illinois Institute of Art, where I attended culinary school. His knowledge was renowned amongst the students and I was very disappointed that he left just before I took the class.

Ambria is a beautiful restaurant, resplendent with a hush-inspiring atmosphere of mahogany, ambient candlelight, and plush Art Nouveau architecture. It’s reminiscent of a time that may be dying out in our desire for shiny, new and modern. Unfortunately, Ambria will be closing its doors on June 30, 2007 after 27 years of fine dining. You can find out more about the farewell festivities in this article from the Chicago Sun Times: The Long Goodbye. If you make a reservation, be sure to request Fred!

I’m so glad I got to experience this Chicago tradition before it’s gone. The following is an outline of our menu. You can hear more about Ambria, as well as a general discussion of the Chicago culinary scene, in my interview with Fred, available below for now and on iTunes very soon.

Menu from Ambria: April 5, 2007

Wine: Cava Avinyó Brut Reserva NV from Penedes, which was crisp and delicious. If you like sparkling wine but haven't tried Cava, you should definitely check it out. It’s a nice (and generally less expensive) alternative to Champagne that seems to be growing in popularity as people become more aware of it.

Amuse Bouche: Leek Potato Soup

First Course: Tapas, or Pintxos in Basque
There was a variety of tapas, but I found the most memorable to be the crostini with spring pea, creme fraiche, and a sliver of smoked salmon. The spring pea was just so delightfully fresh!

Wine: Joseph Perrier Brut Cuvee Royale Champagne

Second Course: Oysters
This warm oyster dish is a 300 year-old Basque recipe. The oysters are dressed with leeks, three varieties of Pimenton de la Vera (Smoked Chile Powder from La Vera, Spain) and applewood smoked bacon foam. Whereas many oyster dishes smother the oysters in other flavors, this recipe is designed to showcase them. It was rich and buttery but not heavy at all. The oysters were Pemaquid oysters from the Damariscotta River Estuary in northern Maine. This was my favorite savory course, and the wine pairing was lovely.

Third Course: Organic poached egg on a bed Anson Mills grits (from Georgia [correction: South Carolina]) with a sauce of thickened chicken jus and perigot black truffles. Being from the South, I love grits, and one of my favorite breakfast is grits and eggs mixed together. This was like my grits and eggs breakfast on steroids.

Wine: Cristom Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Marjorie Vineyard 2004

Fourth Course: Salmon
Served with quinoa, fried leeks and blue foot mushrooms. This salmon is FedExed fresh to Ambria by a Native American man who fishes them out of the Columbia River. Quinoa is considered a supergrain because of its high protein and amino acid content. I’ve had it before, but this was the first time I’ve really liked it, most likely because it was prepared with stock and then mixed with Manchego cheese. The salmon was amazingly tender—the mushrooms were meatier than the fish.

Fifth course: Chocolate Soufflé
Served with quenelles of ice cream and crème chantille (whipped cream). They tapped a hole into the top at tableside and poured in creme anglais. It was absolutely decadent. In his Tribune review of Ambria, Phil Vettel describes it as “all that you'd ever want in a dessert souffle.” I agree. I love dessert, so I couldn’t have been happier.

Sixth Course: Mignardises
A selection of chocolates. I was so full I only ate one, a raspberry-filled piece of dark chocolate. Divine!

My friend’s menu was a little different since he's a little less adventurous than I am. Instead of the oysters as a second course he had a squab breast with lentils du pays, a wild mushroom ragout and currant compote. His third course was a rouget de roche on a potato base. Rouget de roche is a small schooling fish with sweet flesh and red skin from the Meditteranean sea. It is flown in directly from Barcelona. His fourth course was a prime rib and loin of lamb. The prime rib was like butter.

Listen to my interview with Fred—the very first Bitespot podcast!

Bitespot 01: Ambria