new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Ambience Restaurant: Carmichal Fancy Schmancy?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ambience Restaurant: Carmichal Fancy Schmancy?

6440 Fair Oaks Boulevard
Carmichael, CA 95608-4019
(916) 489-8464

Prix Fixe Only: $45.00

Fine dining and the Sacramento suburbs don't seem immediately synonymous. But into the Jim Boys, thrift-store, and loitering punk-rock kid void steps executive chef and owner Morgan Song, whose original success in Redding led him to open a high end restaurant right here in Sacto. The restaurant took over what was once a cops-and-robbers themed doughnut place (really) and began as Maritime Seafood. The restaurant was not as successful as Song had hoped, and Maritime was recently re-hauled as the prix-fixe only Ambience. The five course, 45$ menu indisputably looks like a heck of a deal for high end dining: but how's the food measure up?

The dinner began with a complimentary amuse bouche. The menu listed it as a "Salmon Scallop Mousse Brioche with Tomato Casino de Paris and Smoked Mozzarella," but all I tasted was buttery pastry and a vague sort of hint of something seafoody. This wasn't much above a zap n' serve Pepperidge Farm hors d' oeuvre for me.

Second courses. I, being a member of a decadent and debauched society, chose the lobster for a $3 supplement. (And Jesus Christ, how often in life does three dollars bring you lobster?) The dish was somewhat bizarrely served in two separate segments: a lobster creme brulee came first.

This was followed by a dish of seared lobster on cucumber with Wasabi coulis, green caviar, and fondue sauce (whatever that means). The lobster creme brulee was tasty enough, if innocuous, but the seared lobster was delightfully fresh and flavorful, avoiding the perennial trap of overdoing the wasabi.

My dad chose the eggplant stuffed with albacore and served with whole grain Dijon mustard. This was a inventive and rather tasty dish, giving a heavy, meaty weightiness to the old standby of albacore tuna.

My mom selected the Ahi tuna sampler with tomato-ginger coulis, cilantro oil, pine nuts, and spicy green tobiko fish eggs. The combination of flavors was really quite spot-on, and the super fresh fish worked in elegant concert with the other ingredients. It also looked lovely - Ambience is definitely the Sacramento region's hands-down champ when it comes to drop-dead gorgeous plating techniques.

The fourth course was Dungeness crabmeat and vegetable ragouut on a polenta crouton. This was rather underwhelming: seemed to me more like a pretty good fried crabcake with some mildly interesting accompainments. Not that there is anything WRONG with a crabcake, but...

I picked the special, which was rabbit cooked three ways - braised leg, seared tenderloin, mousse, accompanied by white corn, pearl onion confit, and whole grain mustard cream. This was a very interesting dish from an intellectual standpoint, engaging three different preparations, but it also tasted excellent. The tender meat had a delightfully earthy flavor, and the mustard sauce had enough kick to keep things interesting. The reduction sauce on the seared tenderloin seemed to be an ultra intense combination of meat stock and balsamic: a real winner.

My mom went with the braised white veal shank on a bed of parsnip potato puree, accompanied by creamy tomato vegetable ragout and fried golden beets. The dish is somewhat offputtingly pale but had an excellent long-cooked flavor, and the accompaniments worked very nicely. This was very much akin to similar dishes I've had in Italy.

My dad chose the seared elk flank steak with sauteed chard and arugula, black wild rice, and a herb balsamic glaze. The photo came out so awful that I would be run out of town on a rail if I posted it, but he assured me that the steak was delicious. Ambience seems to be doing very nice things with game meats.

My dad picked the apricot creme brulee with apricot brandy and fresh berries. Another two part dish - I am still assessing how, exactly, I feel about that. Regardless, the creme brulee had a pleasingly spring-like apricot flavor, and the plated presentation was, of course, gorgeous.

I picked the raspberry and mango mousse cake with ladyfingers, as I am occasionally partial to a good tiramisu when the mood is exactly right. This was a pleasantly light and ethereal dessert, with plenty of concentrated fruit flavor and a nice bit of chewiness provided by the ladyfingers.

My mom picked the chocolate sabyon cream parfait with candied almond and coffee chocolate truffles. This was an interesting chocolate dessert with a good concentration of intense cocoa flavor, but holy god, check out those....tendrils...emitting from the center. They were edible and made of sugar. Awesome.

The interior of the restaurant is serene, quiet, and intensely private - almost to a creepy extent on a slow night. Make sure you actually like your dinner date or things could swiftly get awkward.

On the whole, Ambience is a great addition to the Sacramento dining scene - and at 45$ a prixe fixe meal, an incredible deal to boot. I wasn't as enraptured with the food as some other critics have been, but the kitchen is masterful when it comes to its specialties. Keep an eye on the wild game and Japanese-accented seafood preparations. It's a pleasure to have a restaurant turning out ambitious and interesting cuisine in Carmichael's strip-mall hell, and I wish them all the success in the world.