- Matthew Schniper
- A poblano scallop ceviche plate marries sweet and citrus tastes, and comes with side tostadas for scooping.
Salient details, small elements that say in a glimpse much more about the bigger picture, are often a restaurant critic’s favorite tool for relaying the spirit of something without belaboring every last ingredient. We tend to work in broad brushstrokes, grabbing onto fleeting flavors and contextual observations as tangible witness marks to restaurateurs’ and chefs’ visions. At worst, we overread and add our own interpretations, narratives and biases as we rate food and drink. At best, we glean the true intention and a sacred exchange happens wherein we feel we “get it” with no words actually spoken between the kitchen and table, yet a whole conversation has taken place.
My first impressions at Ambli stem from its modern, palatial decor, involving striking, oversized chandeliers and murals and portraits of jungle animals, expansive curved booths of dark wood and creamy vinyl, ornate stamped metal dividers, gold-colored adornments, and mirrored subway tile around a chef’s table counter facing on open kitchen reveal. It all impresses, but the salient detail I hang up on, as we’re seated on the southwest-facing patio, is how the eatery has bothered to also cover the outdoor area’s floor with cool slate-gray tiles rather than leaving generic concrete, such that you feel you’re lounging outside someone’s lavish home more than simply dining al fresco. Simply put: They spared no expense.
Ambli has just recently opened inside University Village, the latest Denver concept to expand south. Denver’s alt weekly Westword called Ambli “a sexy, sophisticated space with an international menu that picks and chooses its flavors carefully rather than rushing from one continent to the next” in 2016, two years into business. In an early 2018 review of that same original South Holly Street location, a short time after a second location opened at Belleview Station, the paper’s reviewer summed it up as “a good-natured crowd-pleaser” and especially commended its fine service. The original spot has since morphed into Ambli Mexico (because they realized they were cannibalizing their own business, they tell me), and the Tech Center location plans to stay shuttered the rest of this year because, as a note online explains, “A majority of our guests were business clientele... Until the business environment changes, it’s very expensive for independently owned businesses like us, to open and operate.”
Indeed COVID colors everything these days, and Ambli co-owner Pariza Mehta says it certainly factored into how she and co-owner Kelly Morrison and executive chef Ricardo Morffin designed this current menu, updated from Denver’s with some classic dishes intact but different treatment to other staple items. Morffin hails from Mexico City and it’s clear from bite one that he’s a hell of a saucier, incorporating international flavors into divine sauces that ironically he doesn’t like to call “fusion.” Instead, he told Westword his food is “traditional, but with new flavors.” Many of those are courtesy of Mehta, of Persian heritage, who grew up in her parents’ restaurants in Tanzania after they’d moved from India. (Ambli means “tamarind” in India’s Gujarati language.) In all of its outward branding, Ambli prides itself on “the guest experience,” and not in that empty, cloying, chain restaurant way, but authentically as far as we can see.
Like Ambli’s owners, our server Dillon Means moved to the Springs to devote himself to the new location. He’s working on his Level Two sommelier certification and he decides the wine pairings for the multi-course tasting menu we share, along with some happy hour starters. Ambli customizes menus for $85 to $99 per person with wine pairings or $45 to $50 sans vino. Basically it’s like going omakase at a sushi restaurant, and we tell Mehta we’re in her hands as she’s departing for the evening and handing us off to Means. By then, a mutual industry friend who’s a wine rep, also seated on the patio when we arrive, has tipped off Mehta that I’m a critic. (In vino veritas, I suppose...) So, some of our treatment that follows could have been extra, so to speak, but we actually experience some stumbles that humanize the place and expose the skeleton crew navigating the odd COVID situation facing all restaurants.
We start with a summery, nicely undersweet blueberry ginger mojito and Turkish Old Fashioned infused with figs and finished with garam masala, served in beautiful glassware and tasting as good as it sounds. The 101 Bubbles Argentinian Grüner Veltliner arrives with promised green apple notes and high sparkling acidity to match a velvety, vibrant Thai red curry broth poured tableside over puffy fried lobster dumplings placed in sake cups as likable “lobster shooters.” Next we’re into a bowl of crispy Mongolian beef that makes me think of Mexican carne seca, as the thin-cut flank steak pieces are dry in the mouth, tangy with high sodium and mind-tingling umami. By contrast, a poblano scallop ceviche plate leads light with scantly seared and lime-cured baby scallops swimming in a phenomenal poblano-lime broth, topped with sweet corn kernels, Mandarin orange, mango and grapefruit segments (think citrus, acid, sweetness and bitterness layered) plus garnishing green onion and radish slices. Side guacamole-smeared tostadas make for rich scoopers.
- Matthew Schniper
- Ambli boasts modern, sleek decor.
We meet our favorite new-to-us Pinot Noir in the form of 2016 Emeritus from California’s Russian River Valley (a $24 glass or $96 bottle). Means says it’s masculine enough for a softer wine to still stand up to our pairings of Colorado lamb kofta and duck gyoza, and it more than does. The oiliness of the fried dumplings’ duck confit interior gets lightened by fresh cabbage, carrot, fennel and scallion bits and a sweet chile sauce takes it back into the Thai realm from China and Japan. Otherwise fine garlic polenta underlying the ground lamb meatballs needs to be hotter, seeming to have languished in the window awaiting its protein, and the meat leans dry and in need of its topping cucumber-tomato raita (cooling Indian yogurt sauce).
For our final pairing of plates, we receive airy tempura cauliflower florets bathed in a lemon-garlic chile de árbol sauce (read: veggie heaven); notably sweet elote (Mexican street corn on the cob) coated in cotija cheese and tajín seasoning and an aioli made with the pungent medicinal herb epazote (often added to beans); and a larger bowl of Spanish shrimp and house chorizo, actually Portuguese tiger prawns butterflied and served in a bath of garlic-tomato-apple cider vinegar broth with toast points. Again, the sauce stands out, and I’m sure it’s a great dish when the shrimp aren’t overcooked to toughness and not tasting their freshest — the biggest stumble of the evening. Meanwhile we’re sipping on a lovely Merlot-dominant, Bordeaux-style super Tuscan blend entertainingly named Tenuta di Arceno Il Fauno di Arcanum, which carries us into a dessert course of a not-gourmet-sounding ice cream sandwich paired with a pour of Maurin Quina, a dessert white wine fortified with color-gifting cherries and bittering quinine. It leads tart, crisp and refreshing to the palate after the lengthy flavor tour we’ve been on. And that humble-sounding ice cream sandwich is actually heavily browned (perhaps a touch too much so) puff pastry layers divided by espresso ice cream over a puddle of chocolate-hazelnut ganache, complete with raspberry and strawberry garnishes.
I’m always happy to finish with the flavors of chocolate and coffee, here accentuated by the dry cherry wine. And by now we’ve been sitting for almost a few hours, long enough to hear some songs repeat on the overhead patio music. The bill arrives and we survey the damage for carefree tastings decided by our hosts, and no single line item seems unreasonable, except for maybe $20 on the shrimp since it didn’t execute and $18 on the Mongolian beef (which we loved, and beef prices have significantly increased). The wine pours (which we shared, so I could drive) total a well-worth-it $36 and all the little plates add up as they do for a final bill post-tip that breaks $200. Call that average considering the $85 to $99 per person wine-paired tasting menu, although you can easily keep the bill down by going à la carte.
There remains much on the menu I would love to try, so I’ll likely make my own choices next time. But we depart feeling like we got the promised guest experience above just a meal. Ambli has a distinct personality, certainly eclectic but grounded in authenticity.