Having perused the website, and read an acceptable review or two, we decided to "treat" ourselves to a nice night out at Ambiente on Friday. It is now Sunday, and I am still irritated.
In the interest of fair and objective reporting, I will attempt to point out all of the good, along with the bad. However, the reality is, the bad and the so-so far outweighed the good.
Firstly, when we called for a reservation, there was a lot of hemming and hawing, and then we were told we were "lucky" because we snagged the very last open table for the night. When we arrived, the restaurant was about 1/3 full, maybe less, and remained that way for the rest of the night. Perhaps there were cancellations, perhaps the reservations were all earlier, I don't know. But this foreshadowed what would be a night of empty boasting by all we came in contact with, backed up by a few good, and a few quite bad, items.
I must say, the space is really attractive. A nice atmosphere, cozy lighting, attractive furnishings, and the tables are well-spaced apart. The menu sounded fabulous, however, before I could even get to the third item, a waiter approached to give us the spiel. The chef cooked for the Canadian ambassador in Rome. The menu is Canadian with an Italian influence, yadda yadda. Not really a value-added commentary, but moderately interesting nonetheless -- the first time around. He left us to ponder the menu a bit, and a second waiter appeared, with an amuse of potato leek soup in shot glasses. This was very tasty, and a nice touch. However, while enjoying the amuse, we had to hear once again how the chef cooked for the Ambassador, the Italian influence, etc. Then, a third waiter appeared to offer us bread. He began to launch into the ambassador speech yet again, and I politely cut him off. We heard the table next to us get the same spiel twice, as well. While its interesting to know the chef's background, you are usually not repeatedly beaten over the head with it. Onwards...
The bread offering was sourdough or honey wheat, with plain butter. Passable, but nothing interesting. Similar to sandwich bread. I don't usually remark on the freebies such as the bread; however, a really good offering can be a nice touch. This was standard.
After perusing the wine list, we summoned waiter #1 to order. Before I could open my mouth, he started talking about how the wine list is, again, Canadian and Italian. He then said "We offer excellent value in the mid- to high-priced bottles, so I strongly recommend you start there". Given that the "low-end" bottles were $39 (a few) to $50+, we weren't in a position to go higher. We settled on a $40-something bottle of chianti, only to be told it wasn't available. We then ordered a $45 primitivo. The waiter returned with the bottle, and did not open it. Instead, he set it down and said "You know, this wine is okay, but the other primitivo on the list is much better". Of course. The other primitivo was much more expensive. The wind sucked out of our sails before even trying the wine, we said no thank you, and stuck with our original choice. It was fine. Nothing special, but fine.
We were then asked if we had dined with them before. We said no, and I said "Haven't you just opened?" and the server replied "Well, yes, but we already have a solid customer base that dines with us 3-4 times a week. People are really catching on". I hate to say it, but i really doubt this, given the prices.
We ordered the lamb shank raviolo and the gnocchi to start, only to be told they were out of the raviolo. So, we switched to the carpaccio. The gnocchi was fabulous. Delicious cheese sauce, perfectly made gnocchi. I didn't find that the apple pieces complemented the dish, but overall, the 3 bites we had were great. $14, I believe. Very tasty, but extremely modestly portioned. I counted 6 grape-sized gnocchi.
The carpaccio consisted of 8 loonie-sized pieces of carpaccio on a bed of a sort of asian-influenced slaw (miso was listed as an ingredient). Tasty, but the carpaccio was overwhelmed by the dressing, and quite frankly, was an astoundingly small portion for the price, again $14. I would expect a little more meat, as the rounds altogether probably equalled one standard slice of carpaccio elsewhere.
My SO ordered the filet, medium rare. It came blood rare. At this point we were quite hungry, and he is okay with a rare steak (although later commented that it was "too rare" and did not finish it) so we did not send it back. For $32, I would expect it to be properly cooked. His potato fondant were likely the most bland potatoes I have ever tasted. He LOVES potatoes, in any form, and did not finish them. The were almost pasty or gluey tasting, I would say.
I ordered the herb-crusted halibut. It sounded great. In reality, the herbs were very bland and the worst part was, the bottom part of the fish was overcooked. To the point where each forkful resulted in little dry shreddy pieces. It came with fried balls of something, I don't recall, perhaps potato but regardless they were, again, bland. Hence the fact that I don't remember what they were. When rolled in the sauce on my plate, they were fine, but genuinely mediocre.
We had wine to finish, so we ordered dessert, perhaps foolishly. We were told that they served "The best chocolate cake in the city". Again, we were told that "Some customers come in twice a week just to have the chocolate cake". Given the previous comment, seemed like an awful lot of self-promotion.
The chocolate cake was tasty. It was a standard Valhrona molten chocolate lava cake, however, and something similar could be found at many restaurants in the city, though perhaps with a lesser grade of chocolate. I ordered the Migneron de Charlevoix cheese, which was yummy, but was served with 3 toasted, ultra-thin baguette pieces, which was not enough for the cheese. Essentially, 3 crackers.
Grand Total -- $170, before tip. Over $200 with tip (though annoying, the waiter did genuinely try to serve us well and for the most part, did so).
We both agreed that this was a wholly mediocre experience, and not worth the money. Some things were very good; however, they did not make up for what was not so good, and for stingy portions. We dine out often, frequently in "upscale" establishments, and we don't expect giant portions, nor do we expect a bargain. We do expect well-executed dishes, no over- or under- cooking, and we do expect more interesting flavours. We don't expect overwhelming braggadocio. The food should speak for itself.
We won't be back. There are far better places to spend $200 for two. Moreover, it doesn't sound like they need us as customers, since according to our server, a great many people are dining there 3-4x a week and several more twice a week just for the cake.
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