Ambrosia is back in Costa Mesa and its tale, always one of the strangest, has taken a strange new turn.
It opened in 1973, just when the first mild zephyrs of nouvelle cuisine were wafting through the land, as a resolutely old-fashioned Continental restaurant. Just when feminists started suing to have restaurants treat women identically to men, Ambrosia was providing velvet foot cushions and complimentary roses for ladies. And of all things, it decided to present this sumptuous vision in a grimy Newport Beach side street, almost an alley.
It was a smash success. Then about 10 years later it moved to an ostensibly more logical spot around South Coast Plaza, reduced its seating from 125 to 90, and it quickly went out of business.
Now Ambrosia is back, but without the original owners, and not quite as a restaurant; it is the Ambrosia Room in the Grand Teton Chalet/Antique & Classic Club. This Grand Teton complex, cater-corner from the Performing Arts Center, includes a relatively casual Continental/eclectic sort of restaurant with a Rocky Mountain motif (walls hung with antique rifles and huge moose and deer heads) and a lounge bar ornamented by a rotating display of classic cars, currently a gorgeous old Duesenberg that looks as big as a tank.
It is a strange, and strangely splendid, location, though it must seem more than strange to old Ambrosia hands. To them I can say: Fear not, you do not sense antique cars and moose heads once you are well and truly inside the Ambrosia Room. There you have the old feeling of being in a jewel box--perhaps a slightly smaller one; it seats only 78--with an immense crystal and gold chandelier hanging from a small ceiling dome painted trompe l'oeil fashion with birds and clouds. There in your swiveling wing chair you are insulated from the world, serenaded by a mellow saxophone and piano duo playing quiet jazz. (The piano is arresting. It's made out of transparent lucite, which creates an odd effect when the pianist takes a break and sticks in some kind of computer cassette that turns it into a ghostly player piano.)
In a word, Ambrosia is still pretty darn fancy. There are lots of guys in black suits standing over carts, working away at tableside preparation (at least they do it right, with a minimum of showboating), and the roses still come out at the end of the meal, although not the foot cushions (to the relief, I'm sure, of some long-legged women).
The food is still old-time Continental with all its attractions and vices, which both largely boil down to a tendency to turn every course into dessert with masses of cream and frequent doses of fruit and sweet liqueur. The result can be overwhelming, as with the amazing cream of sorrel soup. The cream is almost impossibly rich, and with the chaste hint of tartness from the sorrel it's impossible to resist.
This sort of thing can get a bit much, though. A cold soup of chicken broth, cream and chives thoughtlessly followed by grenadines of beef in sauce choron (steak with cream sauce!), or angel hair pasta with smoked salmon in cream sauce followed by veal tenderloin with lobster medallions in Calvados cream sauce can make you positively slosh as you walk out the door.
And unfortunately, not all this lushness works as well as the cream of sorrel soup. A shrimp appetizer comes with soggy toasted almond slices in an insipid cream and amaretto sauce that makes no particular sense. Nor does the just-mentioned combination of veal, lobster and Calvados, for that matter--does anybody really long for lobster with apple flavoring?
Mostly, though, this is nice, flashy, big-night-out food. There's a good duck pate with pistachios that comes with proper toast points and slightly improper lingonberry preserves. The spinach and lamb's lettuce salad, which the menu describes as flamed (the dressing is all that is flamed--at tableside, naturally), turns out to be a remarkably good spinach salad with a generous helping of bacon.
And not all the entrees are swimming in cream. Good breast of pheasant comes in a tiny bit of sauce grand veneur with slices of bland foie gras mousse, and lamb loin with understated raspberry sauce, though the meat sauces have a tendency to vagueness. The vegetables, unfortunately, are often overdone and even (a lot are baby vegetables) bitter.
Dessert ought to be the center of the meal at a place like this, and I've had a wonderful chocolate souffle served with a staggering sauce that was nothing but whipped cream and creme de cacao. But I've also had a bizarre creme caramel without caramel--nothing but thin vanilla sauce on it, and the custard itself seemed to have been made without egg yolks--and a strange white chocolate dessert resting on top of a dark chocolate sauce with a thin, faintly minty chocolate flavor reminiscent of a chocolate-flavored instant coffee mix.
Ambrosia is still a place for a fancy time; both jacket and tie are required for gentlemen. The prices are actually a little more reasonable than in its previous incarnation, though you should figure on $75 a person. Appetizers are $8.50 to $12.50 (not counting the caviar, which runs up to $60), salads and soups $6 to $12, and entrees $18-$28.
Ambrosia Room at Grand Teton Chalet/Classic and Antique Club, 625 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Telephone (714) 432-7559. Open for dinner daily. All major credit cards accepted.