It was Friday night, and though we had reservations, it was obvious we didn't need them. Just a few of Ambra's tables were filled, mostly with couples chatting quietly in the fading summer light. A group of thirtysomethings and their young children occupied a long table, having a leisurely (and remarkably civilized) dinner. The atmosphere was friendly and unhurried. I noticed that the servers knew many patrons by name, stopping at tables to chat casually as they made the rounds. I find that charming. It's rare these days to stumble across a restaurant that actually feels like a mom-and-pop operation.
That old-fashioned vibe stands in marked contrast to Ambra's urban pioneering environs: a funky loft complex in a still-undeveloped patch of West Midtown. The slick Lumberyard Lofts blend seamlessly with their no-man's-land surroundings, but Ambra's sign, with its eye-catching blocks of color, lets you know you're in the right place.
The Southwestern theme, though obvious on the menu, is pleasantly understated in the decor. Ghostly desert landscapes and paintings of Indians in colorful costumes decorate the golden-yellow walls. Natural light pours through oversized windows, lending a sense of lightness to the small space.
The menu, once a clash of Southwestern and Mediterranean influences, has been pared down. Though Chef Kelly Goggin's trademark pizzas are still present -- along with the occasional Med-inspired special -- the rest of the menu has found its focus. Dishes that do venture into fusion territory, like an earthy spinach and wild mushroom quesadilla, are executed with precision.
A tuna tostada featured a hunk of red chile-glazed tuna perched on a crispy tortilla. Above the tuna, crispy slivers of red pepper and jicama; below, a dollop of black bean mashed potatoes. The spicy chile glaze is just potent enough to perk up the luscious rare fish, but it doesn't sear the sinuses. Whoever thought up this combo gets points for creativity. Every bite is a jumble of crispy and soft, crunchy and gooey. Marvelous.
Several appetizers, enticing as they sounded, missed the mark. Shrimp and corn fritters were the first item I pounced on, but a couple of leaden bites was all I could manage. There was nary a kernel of corn to be seen, and not much shrimp, either. I think a more apt name for these guys is hush puppies. Luckily, a whopping basket of fried onion rings, crispy and indulgent, lifted my spirits.
Steak fajitas, though a bit predictable, were satisfying. Shreds of steak and grilled onion stuffed into a steaming flour tortilla and smothered in sour cream and chunky guacamole? Bring it on. And with a margarita with salt on the rim, while you're at it.
Not everything about Ambra is perfect, but somehow that seems to add to the place's charm. They're marching to their own drummer, and I don't mind marching along with them.
Well, hello there
Here to Serve Restaurants may have struck gold with Shout, but the group's other Colony Square endeavor, Peri Peri, hasn't been such a raging success. After a few short months, the restaurant has been revamped and renamed Ola. The menu is a mix of Spanish-influenced small plates and a few lunch items (salads, wraps) from Peri Peri's original menu. As for the decor, other than some swanky red drapes hanging in the windows, not much has changed. Diners still place their orders at the counter and seat themselves. 1175 Peachtree St., 404-892-9292. www.heretoserverestaurants.com.
Learn from a Pro
The Cook's Warehouse Brookhaven hosts "An Evening with Eno" on Thurs., July 28. Eno's chef, M.G. Farris, will teach students to prepare some of the restaurant's specialties, including smoked oysters with lemon garlic butter and jumbo poached prawns with snow pea and pumpkin seed broth. Cost is $45 per person. Class begins at 7 p.m. 4062 Peachtree Road, 404-949-9945. www.cookswarehouse.com.
Hop on the Fur Bus Wed., Aug. 10, for a far-out progressive dinner. The evening starts at Murphy's in the Highlands, then moves to One Midtown Kitchen, and ends at Two Urban Licks with dessert and live music. The cost of $125 per person includes a five-course dinner with wine pairings and transportation for the night on the outrageous Fur Bus. Call One Midtown Kitchen at 404-892-4111 to make reservations. www.onemidtownkitchen.com.
This is one to mark your calendars for. In celebration of its third birthday on Tues., Aug. 16, Woodfire Grill will host a star-studded prix-fixe dinner. Chef Tuohy has recruited fellow chefs Hugh Acheson (Five and Ten in Athens), Scott Peacock (Watershed), Chris Hastings (Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham), Mark Miller (Coyote Café in Santa Fe), and Woodfire pastry chef Jonathan St. Hilaire to assist him in creating a special five-course dinner for the evening. The cost of the dinner is $150 per person (all inclusive). Guests will also be treated to a champagne reception and goodies from Natural Body Day Spa. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.
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