For the fences
Carmichael, CA 95608
It’s not surprising the folks at Zagat have done a fair amount of hyperventilating over Ambience, the decidedly upscale eatery on Fair Oaks Boulevard. Where else in Carmichael can you find a $222 meal for two—without alcohol? Zagat says its raison d’etre is that “the shared opinions of thousands of avid consumers with real experiences are inherently more accurate than the opinions of just one or two critics.”
Not sure about that, but the more the merrier. For those not familiar with Zagat, its “unique approach separately rates the distinct qualities of a restaurant—food, décor, service and cost—based on a signature 30-point scale.”
Certainly, Ambience offers plenty to light up Zagat’s metrics. There is coulis and confit and soufflé and brûlée and reductions and stuff that’s sliced wafer thin and, of course, vast white real estate that surrounds the small portions served on the plates. Ambience swings for the fences every time at bat.
Daughter Katie finds more she likes on the $75-a-throw seven-course tasting menu than the $55 prix fixe. Shocking. As to the ambience of Ambience, its dark tones and somewhat foreboding atmosphere reminds Katie of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The low, curved ceilings suggest a well-appointed wine cellar.
Jon, the hardworking waiter, says that the chef suggests for everyone’s enjoyment, we both have the seven-course epic instead of one just having the prix fixe.
There’s an undertone of finality that suggests that attempting to buck the chef is not an option. And so, the seven-course journey begins. A goodly supply of cutlery is laid in for the voyage: Three forks, two knives and two spoons. As the meal progresses, the presentation of the food by chef and owner Morgan Song gets better and better, as does the complexity of the offerings.
The opening gambit is a 3-inch wide custard pot—about the size of a hot tub for the Borrowers—with a spinach and cheese brûlée. Near this hot tub is a spoon shaped like a slide and, at its base, a thumbnail-sized dollop of jam. More jam is desired.
“That’s the preparation for the dish,” Jon informs, leaving no doubt this is Song’s way or the highway.
The various courses are arranged on their plates with intricate attention. Squiggles are just so. Portions are off center or centered and stacked on a dizzying variety of plates. Supported by remarkably thin slices of Yukon gold potatoes, the venison in the entrée course, which costs extra, sits pretty on a sled of asparagus spears. A pause to appreciate the spectacle can’t be avoided.
Baked Alaska for dessert is as rich and decadent, if not more so, than Jon promises. It is also the largest item to appear on a plate all evening. A razor wire design of lime-green sugar swirling up from one edge of the plate sets off a blaze of curlicues.
Even the palate-cleanser course engenders a mutual, “Whoa.” Here, the Meyer lemon sorbet is served in a mini martini glass, and the sour cherry arrives in a similarly diminutive red-tinted goblet.
The thin slice of pear and the quail egg are a nifty accompaniment to the well-seasoned tartar. Plump Susan B. Anthony dollar-sized lobster medallions are cold—a surprise—but heated up by ponzu, a hint of siracha and wasabi. Not enough heat to suit at least one taste, but the lesson has been learned earlier about the futility of tinkering with Song’s creations.
Despite Katie’s urgent whisper to “Stop that” in response to some pantomiming of an examination of a plate’s contents with a magnifying glass, the tasting menu is plenty filling. Jon reels off without a stumble a veritable Tolstoy of factoids about the love and craftsmanship the chef has infused in each course.
Kudos to him and Morgan and Unni Song for a truly memorable meal.