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Pan-Asian temptations 

Pleased at Ambrosia Bistro, bug-eyed at Ru San's

Some locations, no matter how ideal they appear, seem to end up poison for one restaurant after another. The space across from Ansley Mall, originally built for a Southwestern venue later occupied by the long-running Ciboulette, seems to have become such a location. Recent heirs to the comfortable site, Cipollini and Bistro, have crashed and burned quickly.

The latest to take the plunge is Ambrosia Bistro (1529 Piedmont Ave., 404-249-6488). The restaurant has been opened by the same folks who operate the Asian fusion spot, Eurasia, in Decatur. Though pleasantly redecorated in gold with pan-Asian accents, no structural changes have been made to the space. The open kitchen, framed by green tile, and fronted by a bar for eating has been preserved, as has the comfortable, rather small dining room. A bar in the front was not pouring last week, but will be licensed soon.

The menu is, with the addition of a few Vietnamese-style dishes, identical to Eurasia's. What is different is only semantic: There is not the bizarre claim of a Euro-Asian fusion which staff at Eurasia embarrassingly distills as "Asian with French style." Although the French actually did have quite a hand in the development of Vietnamese cuisine, the food of Southeast Asia does quite well on its own in every respect without culinary colonialism whose function, I presume, is to make it a bit less outre.

And, in fact, this restaurant has some very strong authentic roots. Eurasia is an offshoot of Northlake Thai Cuisine and has ties to Tamarind, our city's best Thai venue (where I also dined spectacularly well recently). Happily, I found the food at Ambrosia better than I had a year ago at Eurasia, although it is still rife with little annoyances.

For example, on our server Geoffrey's suggestion, I ordered the rack of lamb with Thai basil sauce. The herb-crusted lamb over Thai-style vegetables was cooked just right and had very nice flavor, but shouldn't I get more than three itty-bitty chops for my $18? That was annoying but the plating, which is as heavily accented here as at Eurasia, looked like something the Mad Hatter and Alice might have been presented. My little chops and their bed of veggies were served in a big yellow box that had to have started life as dish garden. I felt ridiculous trying to eat out of the thing.

Wayne's entree of cod ($17) served over garlicky, sauteed snow pea leaves, touched with lemon, was the only disappointment taste-wise. The delicate cod had been viciously overcooked but, yes, it looked marvelous.

I liked my appetizer of a soft-shell crab, batter-fried and served with a tamarind and butter sauce ($9). The crab had a strong flavor, fishy to Wayne's delicate palate but quite pleasant to mine. Tamarind, a seed that is a bit sweet and bitter at once (like the memory of the first lover you wished to kill), worked well with the crab.

Wayne's appetizer, which he jokingly called "chicken salad" and then found it identified exactly as such on the receipt, was the classic Thai larb -- minced chicken seasoned with ginger, scallions, hot peppers and peanuts in a kaffir lime dressing ($6). Here, though, it is served over a rather large bowl of greens. I prefer the stuff straight up or served with cabbage.

There's plenty else to explore in the menu, such as a $20 Vietnamese "bouillabaisse," classic masaman and panang curries, herb-crusted pork loin with tamarind sauce, roasted duck with mango salad, crab spring rolls, sauteed escargots and calamari fried in a rice batter.



Upstairs
It's been years since I dined at Ru San's (1529 Piedmont Ave., 404-875-7042), directly upstairs from Ambrosia. This wildly popular Japanese restaurant that specializes in sushi opened here in 1992 and has expanded to six locations, including two out of state.

My friend Van is a sushi aficionado and we'd lunched quite well at the new MF Sushi Bar on Ponce last week so I thought he might be a good choice to join me at Ru San's, which he'd never visited. We both found the menu mind-boggling. One might as well try to decipher the organization chart of a government bureaucracy. Everything from tempura and yakitori is available, along with sushi.

The menu mentioned a buffet which intrigued me, since it might provide a wide sampling, but our waiter, a pleasant Bulgarian, explained that there actually is no buffet. "That's at another restaurant. We all have the same menu," he said.

In sheer confusion, we both settled on "powerful house lunch sushi assortments" -- the "protein bomb" ($10.95) for Van and the "super-protein bomb" ($14.95) for me. We were first presented obnoxious lettuce drenched in dressings neither of us could eat. Nor could we dispel the after-taste with miso soup that had all the flavor of the liquid in a package of tofu to which notes of dishwater and salt were added. I'm serious, I've rarely tasted anything quite so ... watery.

Would our experience be redeemed by the sushi? The happy Bulgarian brought enormous platters to the table. I mean, our eyes bugged out at the size of these mothers. And then we began to eat. I'm sorry. I know this restaurant has an enormous following, but never, in my long career of eating for cash, have I tasted such uniformly obnoxious sushi.

All the rolls seemed anointed with grotesque lubricants. Nigiri featured tasteless fish. There was limpid omelette, lividly dyed garlic, old nori wrappers. A salmon skin hand roll was so unpleasant I couldn't swallow the contents of one bite. A hand roll on Van's plate, made with some mysterious tempura grown cold and mushy, was absolutely the most unpleasant thing I have ever found on a plate of sushi.

Maybe someone wants to explain what I'm missing here. As we walked out the door, the staff yelled at us in Japanese. I know it's supposed to be some kind of polite good-bye, but I can't help thinking they were really yelling, "Suckerrrrrrrrr!"



Here and there
I have received a bunch of e-mails informing me that I am all wrong about Willy's. Everyone loves it. This, for example, is from Paul Soluri: "I think you are way off the mark with Willy's ... it is far better than most burrito joints in this city and if you don't believe that, try Moe's on for size! Then you will taste a processed, salty, warmed-over burrito and will appreciate Willy's more."

Hello? I'm going to love Willy's by way of culinary aversion therapy? I don't think so!

I had many e-mails dissing me for my love of Tortillas. Typical was this from Dave McCabe: "I think Willy's needs to develop some consistency (some locations are better than others), but Tortillas? Come on. There's more water than meat in their burritos. Is it the frozen meat or over-steaming the rice that causes this? And, while there's certainly something to be said for loyalty, there's just something unsettling about eating in a place that [looks like it] hasn't been cleaned since it was opened. Tortillas is past its prime, and other places, especially Willy's, have capitalized on their formula to make a better product. Try the Vinings location."

It is true that Tortillas steams their meat. But it is prepared when you order, whereas Willy's is sitting in a steam tray and if you think desiccation makes a better burrito, go for it. In any case, any excess liquid in a Willy's burrito would be sucked out of existence by the overuse of rice. Rice is not standard in the Tortillas burrito. As for its being past its prime and unclean, you are so wrong! Tortillas, like me, will be beautiful forever.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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