Ambience – Carmichael’s Culinary Delight
One of the things I love about the food industry in general is that you can get great food and an outstanding dining experience anywhere and from unexpected sources. This is the very reason for TV shows like Diner’s, Drive-Ins and Dives (a popular TV show on Food Network) and why we all have memories of little spots that we never forget. Typically, however, the meals at these spots are very casual and homey. Ambience sits in a very unassuming locale on Fair Oaks Blvd near Marconi Avenue and used to be a Rax Roast Beef (similar to an Arby’s) and oddly enough the site of my first job in the mid 80’s; and since those days many different types of restaurants and businesses have held that location.
In contrast to the various businesses that have opened their doors at this location over the years, Ambience provides a true fine dining experience that is among some of the best on the Sacramento scene. They have an excellent wait staff that is very attentive and knowledgeable but I know that you really want to hear about the type of food they serve. Morgan Song is the Owner and Executive Chef of Ambience and he says that his style falls in line with how he was trained at similar dining establishments in San Francisco. The restaurants where he worked featured a culinary style known as Nouvelle Cuisine. If you would like more information about Nouvelle Cuisine you can read the Concierge Corner at the end of this article. Today, with such a blend of cultures and the Internet giving us instant exposure around the world, more of us are open to the ideas of each Chef and interested to get their spin on a particular dish. Let’s talk about the food…
Ambience offered both a 5 course and a 7 course tasting menu with wine pairing. Reasonably priced, the 7 course is $75 and an additional $45 for the wine pairing. The plates change at least weekly, sometimes daily based on what is fresh and available, but my hope is that there are a few items like the tartar which will always be on the menu. For course number one during my last visit I tasted 2 different dishes, one was fig that was topped with a balsamic glaze and the other was a scallop and salmon mousse that was baked on a puff pastry ‘pillow’. It was paired with a sparkling wine from Mumm in Napa Valley. I think the fig was as you might expect soft and a nice canvas for the balsamic glaze. I will say that the mousse on the puff pastry was a special bite. So often, when you have any type of pastry you expect something sweet, but this was a savory bite with a lot of flavor and the mousse was creamy and nicely balanced. The second course was lobster medallions. This course successfully built on the first because of the richness of the bite. The surprise of the lobster dish was the Wasabi infused roe (fish eggs) that somehow really carried the flavor of the wasabi. The sauces on the plate will take you by surprise as you’ll get a touch of heat from the Sriracha/Ponzu Sauce and a cool clean flavor from the Wasabi coulis (a sauce made from blended fruit or vegetables). The second course was served with a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa and it was light and crisp with a hint of peaches. The third course was a beet salad that was served with Arugula which is a sort of peppery lettuce that was a nice balance with the beets. This dish was very nice and necessary for the progression of the meal, but I found that it struggled to hold it’s own against the other dishes. The salad was paired with a white wine from Austria known as Gruner Veltliner (Velt-LEEN-er). For a white wine I thought it had a slight assertiveness that one would associate with red wines and although the finish was clean, it did give a bit of spice that really held up to the Arugula. The fourth course was a Chilean Seabass served with a sweet corn risotto and braised leeks. The fish rivaled fish that I’ve tasted in Michelin rated restaurants and was arguably the highlight of the entire evening. When my fork hit the fish it just opened with a beautiful flake like you hope to see from a white flesh fish. The Seabass was paired with a French, white wine, called Domaine Des Nembrets. To cut through all of the fancy stuff though, this was a Chardonnay and a pretty good one. The flavor of wine gave a bit of vanilla and pear that fit very nicely with the Seabass.
Are you tired yet? We’re not done, the Chef gave us a surprise course that was called a Lobster brulee. The taste was very nice but there was no brulee (you know, the caramelized crust on the top of a crème brulee, so perhaps it would more properly be called lobster cream or panna cotta. The 5th course arrived and we were met by a beautifully seared piece of duck that featured the crispy skin you crave with duck breast and it was seasoned nicely. The duck was cooked a little bit past medium which for me is a bit too much as I prefer medium, but most chefs would probably want the duck cooked to a medium-rare temperature. There was a second element to the fifth course that I was able to try and that was the beef tartar which was topped with a quail egg yolk. The beef tartar was cool and the texture of the beef was almost creamy and, when combined with the yolk, gave a beautiful richness that made you wish for one more bite. If you are curious about raw beef, don’t be scared…just know that you need a high quality grade of beef ( very similar to using high quality fish for sushi) and the beef gets chopped up into small bits and then you are ready for a great bite. To make it even more indulgent, the beef tartar was plated with a bit of white truffle oil on the side. The fifth course was paired with a mild and smooth wine close to home, the Robert Stemmler, Pinot Noir (Carneros). The hint of cherries and mild smoky oak created a nice pairing for both the tartar and the duck. The final intermezzo was the traditional palate cleanser. We were presented with 2 flavors of sorbet, a Meyer Lemon Sorbet and a Blood Orange Sorbet. A small scoop, maybe 2 bites but it is still amazing how so much fruit flavor can be packed into a little bite. However, our palate was successfully ready for the 6th course where Chef Morgan works his magic with game proteins. I was able to taste 2 of his offerings, the Venison and the Rabbit. The Venison was not gamy and was remarkably tender and was served with a Port reduction that brought a bit of sweetness that was unforgettable. The rabbit was served with whole grain mustard cream and yukon gold potatoes and was perfectly tender. Wine pairing on the sixth course featured a wine from the Napa Valley, a Stag’s Leap red wine Meritage (a blend of specific grapes). Once again, the wine was nicely paired and helped to create a nice balance on the palate.
The final course was dessert and once again, I tasted two of the chef’s offerings. First was the Raspberry-Mango mousse cake. It was very light and not overly sweet, a very nice ending to a great meal…as was the Apricot Crème Brulee. His desserts feature beautiful sugar work and a deft hand to balance both texture and flavor. The 7th course was paired with a 10 year Tawny Porto, a classic dessert wine from Portugal.
Overall, the dinner went from 6:30 – 9:30 and the pace was very good. Every step of the way it seemed that there was a tremendous amount of thought to the meal. I hope that you can see the slide-show photos with this article because the plates are presented beautifully. Many chefs are able to work either the savory side of cuisine OR the pastry side, but all of the menu creations at Ambience are by Chef Morgan Song and from both pastry to savory, his cooks implement his vision. The menu is not revolutionary and whereas some elements may seem traditional, other elements are extremely thoughtful and all of it is well executed. Although I do not believe the Michelin Guide is on it’s way to Sacramento any time soon, you should try it for yourself and see, I think that you’ll agree that Ambience is a nice a surprise that you’ll want to share with your friends.
Concierge Corner: Nouvelle was the breakaway from the heavy, overly strict and conservative approach to classic traditions in France that they felt hampered creativity. As a true foodie, I would like to acquaint my readers with this type of cuisine. Great European chefs like Paul Bocuse, Andre Gayot and Christian Millau sparked a new view of the dining experience. They wanted the meal to be more creative and lighter and they were, to a degree, shunned by many food authorities as a result. This movement didn’t happen as long ago as you might think, it became official in 1969 and the influence was already hitting the United States in the mid to late 70’s. A huge determining factor that motivated them is the same ‘brass ring’ that motivates chefs today…a Michelin rating. The Michelin Guide has only been in the US for a few years but it goes back for decades in Europe. To achieve a Michelin rating the restaurant MUST have exemplary standards for both their food and their service. Well, back in those days the Michelin Guide did not give even 1 star (the premium rating from Michelin would be 3 stars) for any chef that broke from the traditional standards that in today’s world we simply take for granted. Well the chefs I mentioned thumbed their nose at the Michelin Guide and started their own prized guide that they published as Le Nouveau Guide in 1969. Fortunately, things continue to evolve and oddly enough, chefs that demonstrate creativity and execute their menu with precision are highly regarded by the Michelin Guide today. The thoughtful approach of those revolutionary chefs has truly paved the way to acceptance of creativity and art in cuisine. Today, chefs like Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Christopher Kostow all have achieved the highest rating from the Michelin Guide…3 stars, and the influence of Nouvelle Cuisine can be seen across the plates of each of these chefs as well as across the plates of chefs in all parts of the Western world and beyond.
Restaurant Review by Torrence Crable
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