Ambassador Dining Room Serves Indian Cuisine Fit for a King
The recent demise of Mount Vernon's venerable Bombay Grill (one of the city's first Indian restaurants) has had me thinking about Indian food, and pondering in particular where to find the best version thereof in Baltimore. Nothing makes me happier than finding great, cheap food in small ethnic restaurants, and the city has its share of good Indian eateries. However, the best Indian food in town--indeed, some of the best I've enjoyed anywhere--is not exactly inexpensive. I'd estimate that the dinner bill at the Ambassador Dining Room is going to run close to double that of other local Indian restaurants but would add, without hesitation, that it's worth every penny.
I love the Ambassador's opulent British Raj-ish décor (overstuffed armchairs, beaded lampshades, gurgling fountain) and air of casual gentility that's spiffy enough for a special occasion while relaxed enough for a just-don't-feel-like-cooking weeknight meal (translation: you can wear a T-shirt but not a ratty one). The comfortably deluxe surroundings provide a marvelous setting for leisurely enjoyment of the menu's promise of "royal Indian cuisine."
This translates into such uncommon dishes as bengan khas ($9.95), a marvelous appetizer of fresh eggplant and tomatoes stewed with spices then drizzled with yogurt and mint leaves. The bright, complex vegetable flavors stand out in counterpoint to the rich yogurt, and complementary wedges of intensely garlicky naan provide an earthy bass note while scooping up every last dollop of sauce. Even good, old reliable vegetable samosas ($2.95) receive noble treatment at the Ambassador: A savory mix of chickpeas, potatoes, green peas, and spices arrives encased in terrifically light, greaseless pastry. They're so good on their own that the accompanying tangy tamarind sauce is an unnecessary, if completely enjoyable, foil.
The Ambassador's menu has many familiar Indian entrées (with an extensive roster of vegetarian specialities). Sprinkled among the jalfrezis, tandoors, and vindaloos, however, are atypical dishes such as crab malabar ($21.95), back-fin meat in a coconut, coriander, and curry sauce; and shimla murch ($12.95), a dish of roasted peppers stuffed with vegetables and spices that seems almost Afghan in origin. The winner's circle of unusual entrées can be found in the "chef's specialties" section, wherein reside choices such as grilled Bengali swordfish with mango salsa ($18.95) and lobster khas ($22.95), steamed lobster tails served with toasted fennel sauce.
Among the chef's special recommendations, I found the murgh khumari ($17.95) the most intriguing prospect. The menu promised chicken breast coated with lentils and served in an apricot-ginger cream sauce, but I found no evidence of the lentils. Not that I cared. The tender marinated chicken had a subtle spice that worked beautifully with the exquisitely flavored sauce, studded with--but not overwhelmed by--apricot halves and shredded fresh ginger root. A fortuitous side order of Kashmiri naan ($2.95), freshly tandoor-baked bread stuffed with almond slivers and golden raisins, was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the murgh khumari; the bread's slightly sweet flavor was well matched with the entrée's fruit-scented sauce.
The Ambassador presents its entrées plated in the Continental style, with accompanying rice and vegetable on the same plate, rather than serving the separate large platters of food typical to most Indian restaurants. Nutty basmati rice and garlicky saag (Indian creamed spinach) seem to come with every dinner, for good or ill. The saag did not work especially well with my entrée but paired strikingly so with my companion's jingha karari ($19.95), shrimp sautéed in a tomato-based sauce spiced with garlic, ginger, and green chiles and garnished with a generous handful of chopped cilantro. A very good dish, though we both preferred the murgh.
The jingha karari was the most fiery dish of the evening, though heatwise it punched in at maybe one and a half alarms (based on the classic five-alarm chili scale). All in all, the Ambassador's kitchen employs a deft use of spices with the more subtle sauces while simultaneously too timid with the heat, one of my favorite aspects of Indian cookery. The restaurant is authentic enough to use fresh green chiles to prepare its food--most local Indian restaurants do not--just not enough of them.
Dessert at the Ambassador is limited, as at most Indian eateries, to a handful of sweet treats. Their version of kheer ($4.95), an almond-strewn liquid-y rice pudding, is enjoyable but not spectacular (I've never had better than that served at Mughal Garden on North Charles Street). However, a sweetly intense mango sorbet ($4.95) was outstanding, a very fitting end to an outstanding meal composed of varied and adroitly composed flavors. Bravo, Ambassador Dining Room.
Bombay the hard way: Dishthis@hotmail.com.