Is the Ambassador Even Better When Dining Al Fresco?
This summer has been spent, in part, visiting that handful of Baltimore restaurants whose names come up, with frequency, in conversations of favorite restaurants. When talk turns to the Ambassador Dining Room (3811 Canterbury Road,  366-1484), eyes often glaze, and souls have been known to transmigrate over to the Ambassadorís voluptuous back patio. Itís a sweet spot. Located a few blocks north of Johns Hopkinsí Homewood campus in the quiet Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, the restaurantís ground-floor dining room spills out into the courtyard of a 1930s-era apartment building. Over the years, the outdoor seating has been updated from a serenely useful space to a colonial fever dream. Almost everyone who arrives for dinner at the Ambassador wants to take Indian food in the shimmering candlelight, gathered around a properly set cloth-covered table.
The interior dining room has its own attractions, principally a tufted elegance thatís inevitably described as old-world but which can feel maiden-aunt-oppressive on a summer evening--or, when compared with the outdoor space, just an inferior option, something not worth as much money. So rather than sit inside, most patrons are happy to wait for one outdoors, and they wait in the aromatic garden just beyond the outdoor seating. Still, surely someone knows how to arrive at the Ambassador with full confidence about getting a table outside. Regulars must know how to end their phone calls with something more definitive, or at least more explicit, than "Weíll do our best" from the host.
Because the Ambassador is now an expensive restaurant--not crazily so but about $2 to $4 more per entrťe than the areaís competing restaurants--it stimulates thinking about expectations and value. It makes you place a dollar figure on the patio seating. Maybe, during peak hours on the nicest evenings, when the patio is full and the dining room is not, the Ambassador could experiment with a discount to entice diners inside. It would be interesting to see how much value various diners put on ambiance, and the Ambassador might be able to accommodate patrons whose budgets havenít stretched as far as their prices have.
At these prices, is the Ambassadorís Indian cuisine appreciably better than its competitors? Itís a close call, and one not resolved on a recent visit. All that atmosphere can render the actual appreciation of the food somewhat indistinct. Perhaps in the darkening light, the food feels blurry, and colors and aromas donít pop as much as they could. Perhaps, too, some of the patioís tables are just a smidgen too small for diners to be able to relax fully into the meal.
The components of an appetizer platter ($9.50)--various samosas, vegetable pakoras, and chickpea batter-fried onion bhajia--are decently executed and satisfying but donít make any particular impression. They remain the street-vendor food that they are.
The Ambassador does, though, offer dishes that arenít on those other Indian menus. Chicken badaam pasanda ($15.95) presents a chicken breast pounded into tenderness and lavished with a mellow almond-laced cream sauce. As are other entrťes, this one arrives with a portion of spinach saag and prettily fluffed basmati rice. Crab malabar ($19.95) makes seriously good use of tasty back-fin crabmeat, tossing it lightly with the gentlest Indian spices, tomatoes, and onions.
The Ambassadorís version of lamb saag ($16.95), chunks of lamb cooked with green spinach, impressed most of all with its texture, which occupied that perfect moment before tender becomes mushy. And the Ambassadorís chana masala ($11.95) applied the kitchenís deft touch with spices to perfectly cooked chickpeas.
The Ambassadorís food pleased but didnít compel. Arguably, there are more persuasive arguments among the chefís specialties--the steamed lobster tail ($22.95), the lime-marinated shrimp ($18.95), the swordfish with mango salsa ($18.95). The service at the Ambassador, while highly professional, feels overburdened, and it can feel like thereís scant time to explore the menu with the serverís advice.
The Ambassador is perhaps best at sounding its beautiful grace notes, things such as the little dish of cilantro and mint thatís brought to newly seated diners, the superior quality of its plating. The people who run the Ambassador and its sister Lebanese restaurant, the Carlyle Club, are soon to be opening a new restaurant in the Colonnade--a city waits.