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The culinary equivalent of a Paris runway show Ambrosia on Huntington

by Charlotte Bruce Harvey

Ambrosia on Huntington, which chef Anthony Ambrose and his wife, Dorene, opened a year ago, is the culinary equivalent of a Paris runway show – Comme des Garçons, say, or Issey Miyake. Ambrose describes his cooking as Provençal, and although a certain earthiness underlies his style, it draws heavily on the techniques and ingredients of Asian cuisines. His is high-concept food, not for overly traditional or timid palates; it takes eating into the realm of high drama.

It’s an effect that’s clearly deliberate, and it’s intensified by the soaring ceilings of the post-postmodern dining room and a long, curved staircase that swoops down from the second-floor kitchen. Like silent-screen beauties, Ambrosia’s waiters slowly descend the stairs, bearing armloads of edible masterpieces. Tables hush as the food proceeds past, with diners ogling each passing dish and flipping open menus to double-check.

The food warrants ogling. Ambrosia’s plates look as though they required the collective genius of an architect, a florist, and a graphic designer. And although it might be tempting to dismiss the food as merely decorative, it tastes as striking as it looks.

Chef Ambrose has a talent for melding and juxtaposing unusual flavors. One of the most surprising successes on a recent menu, for instance, was an appetizer that teamed seared foie gras ($15) with fava beans and mango in a coconut-and-sesame-based sauce. It was like five-part harmony, with each element taking the unctuous, earthy theme and playing it slightly differently. The coconut gave the sauce a faint sweet undertone, like a Thai curry. Envision a savory pâté laced with apricot preserves, and the mango makes sense.

Less formidable-sounding was seared lobster on a dinner-plate-sized buckwheat Breton crepe ($16), drenched in a creamy vinaigrette flavored with grilled shitake mushrooms. A little lobster head waved his antennae above a nest of frisée. Butternut-squash shortcake ($9) was an oversized savory biscuit, made with puréed squash and flying-fish roe. It was paired with plump, fresh mussels and a chanterelle mushroom sauce. The dish tasted like the smell of fall woods after rain: sweet and smoky.

For a Thai shrimp appetizer ($12), Ambrose paired wide homemade rice noodles – the soft, glutinous kind the Chinese call chow fun – with an intensely salty and, to my taste, overly pungent sweet-sour onion sauce flavored with vanilla. An enormous braised shrimp topped the noodles, and on top of that was a lacy web of fried noodles, which was in turn topped with uni (sea urchin) and flying-fish roe, both sushi delicacies.

For those overwhelmed by the appetizers, Ambrosia offers a short list of salads. Arugula and frisée ($9) came tossed in a honey-lime-soy vinaigrette with prosciutto. The salt of the ham complemented the bitter greens and the honey and tang of the citrus dressing nicely.

Entrees are on the whole less wildly exotic than the appetizers. What looked like a rustic, freeform lasagna turned out to be slices of veal leg ($25) loosely layered with spicy sautéed tomatoes and eggplant. The dish was lightened with a lemon-leek sauce and yellow polenta. Pan-seared rack of lamb ($32) came with polenta laced with chives and Stilton cheese, sautéed artichokes, and silky cubes of eggplant in a sauce of leeks and olives. (My one serious criticism is that this and a couple of other sauces tasted overly salty to me, a confirmed salt lover.)

A Japanese presentation that was as beautiful as it was amusing was bright pink duck breast, blackened and rolled around chive-flavored sushi rice, then sliced to look like maki ($26). Accompanying it was a confit of duck leg and a complex sauce that hinted of cocoa and soy and sent the imagination reeling to name its components (an exercise in frustration; Ambrose defies too many rules and crosses too many culinary boundaries.) A filet of Atlantic salmon ($24), for instance, came encrusted in a mahogany glaze of chartreuse, lavender, and lemon (very salty). The fish was translucent and impeccably fresh and was served on an irresistible pancake of fried grated potatoes.

The most successful of Ambrose’s plates manage to tie their components, however odd, in a vibrant balance. A scallop entree never came together; although the scallops were delicate, the sesame seeds that encrusted them tasted dry and unappealing. While a ginger, corn, and carrot sauce and creamed-corn-like dolce flake polenta were interesting, the plate never got off the ground.

Portions at Ambrosia are so large that you risk a serious food hangover if you don’t exercise restraint. That said, desserts are worth the pain. They are futuristic, whimsical wonders, prepared in full view of the dining room in front of a mint-green sparkly stove façade that’s right out of Candyland. A chocolate-pudding cake assemblage looked like George Jetson’s landing pad. Next to a sickle-shaped arch of a chocolate cookie was a little cake (warm dark chocolate cake, exploding with melted buttery insides), with a few scoops of ice cream (homemade chocolate and mint) and spun-sugar antennae, supporting another cookie. It was the ultimate chocolate fix. Lighter was a cold vanilla soufflé, molded in a cone shape and suspended on more spun-sugar antennae above a mound of sweetened fresh berries. Banana fritters were nuggets of banana rolled in barely sweet sesame nougat and deep-fried; they came with a cocoa-dusted disk of frozen banana-mascarpone mousse. For those wanting unmitigated comfort, the crème brülée, infused with star anise and vanilla bean, was topped with banana slices and caramelized sugar. It was impossible to leave unfinished.

Ambrosia’s wine list is both extensive and expensive, offering very few wines under $40. The dining room is elegant, with heavy linens and attentive service, but it’s also informal, more celebratory than refined. Dining room staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and their suggestions were uniformly apt. Reservations are a near necessity, especially on weekends; but even still, one 8:30 p.m. weeknight reservation resulted in a half-hour wait for a table.

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