Geez, it's hard to enjoy dinner out these days without the country's economic woes nipping at your heels. Even if the bills are paid and the job feels stable, there's often a hesitant moment of guilt when you yank out the plastic at the end of the evening and think, "Did we really

just spend $100 for two people?" Everyone's looking for perfection on their plate, and they want it on the cheap.

All of which makes me wring my hands about Ambra. It's the kind of spunky mom-and-pop place for which you want to cheer, what with its pioneering location, its local owner/chef duo making their way in a new, ambitious venture and its sensibly priced menu that looks to offer something for all tastes. Problem is, I never leave this restaurant quite feeling like I've eaten the meal I'd hoped to.

I like getting there, though. It's become a citywide pastime to scout out fresh new spots in funky industrial redos. Ambra is in the Lumberyard Lofts on the Westside off Chattahoochee (you know, the street that leads to Nuevo Laredo). The development looks rather deserted as you wind your way around the complex, but there's a reassuring klatch of cars gathered near the restaurant's entrance.

Owner Kelly Goggin, who ran Highland Wraps and Pizza Kitchen, teamed with chef John McGarry, a five-year veteran of Prime, and opened the restaurant at the end of 2002. It seemed to take a while for the cavernous restaurant space to settle into itself. Typical of the warehouse look, the ceiling is so high the dining room could double as a rehearsal space for Cirque de Soleil. Yet the place does have some warmth, much of which emanates from the gorgeous, swirling red and blue mosaic that encircles the kitchen window center stage. Diverse art is scattered about, including an O'Keefe-esque cow skull mounted on the wall in deference presumably to the largely Southwestern menu.

Southwestern, that is, with hints of Italy, Greece, France and down-home U.S. of A. sprinkled into the mix. It's this sweeping culinary scope that leads the kitchen into trouble. There's so much to tackle that few of the dishes seem truly honed, but I sense a stubborn, almost rebellious resolve in the chefs' belief in what they're doing. The physical menu is a huge, laminated sheet that hasn't changed in the eight months I've been dining here. And some of it, by now, should have changed.

Salads tend to be snoozers. You've got your house salad with the ever-present rubbery baby lettuces ($4.95); a typical Caesar salad ($4.50); the comfort food wedge of iceberg with bacon, blue cheese and shrug-inducing jalape<\#150>o in the creamy dressing ($4.95); and the mozzarella, tomato and basil number that we all know and love ($6.95). They are competent, but none of them have any individual personality.

Lobster burrito ($17.95), filled with VIP '80s ingredients like roasted peppers, artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes, becomes a bland, creamy mess once you cut into it. Grilled New York strip ($18.95) is executed about as well as dads across America do it in the back yard, and it's served with a discouraging pile of greasy, stringy onion rings.

And let me jump atop my seasonal soapbox to ask who decided to serve butternut squash soup ($4.95) on a balmy night in June? I took a spoonful of a tablemate's and my body went, "Huh? Wha? Who? Is it fall already?" Where the heck is winter squash coming from this time of year? Australia? Stash this recipe for autumn, gang. Ditto for the special that night as well -- lobster tail tempura with (no they didn't) butternut squash ravioli ($22.95).

Not everything pushes my bashing buttons. I'd gladly make a meal of appetizers and pizzas here. Steamed mussels ($9.95) come in a zingy tomatillo-cilantro broth that jumpstarts the palate. The hot, crispy Navajo fry bread with hummus, mild ancho cheese spread and puckery vegetable escabeche ($7.95) has exactly the simple, tasty focus that keeps my faith in the chefs here alive. A playful smoky-sweetness had me gnawing away on the tamarind-glazed quail with fig-mango chutney ($8.95).

The pizza crust is one thing I can point to and say, "Aha!" Somebody's been tinkering, with promising results. Somewhat soft and sproingy at the restaurant's inception, there's now an appealing crispness to it that holds the ingredients nicely. Go for the Sonoma pizza with house-made sausage and jack cheese ($9.50) or the splendorous prosciutto, fig and blue cheese variation ($10.95).

Ambra's wine list is wonderfully budget conscious: When was the last time you had a decent red for five bucks a glass? Try the Kelly's Promise Cab.

Service, like the food, can be all over the place. One evening, we have a spot-on professional server who knows just how to interact and time our food; another day at lunch, we have a guy with glazed eyes who seems to be anywhere but waiting tables.

On the whole, so much has fallen into place at Ambra that I can't help but root for the place. I'm going to cross my fingers that Goggin and McGarry take a deep, thoughtful look at the menu, pare it down to what they love best and give those dishes some shrewd fine tuning. Then we'll happily pay up.


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