Old Restaurant, New Pizazz

DINING OUT

November 08, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Ambassador Dining Room, 3811 Canterbury Road, (410) 467-4799. Open for lunch Tuesdays to Fridays, dinner Tuesdays to Sundays, closed Mondays. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no.

Other apartment house restaurants have come and gone in Baltimore, but the Ambassador Dining Room has survived -- remarkably unchanged, by all accounts, in both culinary tradition and atmosphere since it opened in 1931.

That is, until about four months ago.

Last November, John Bottcher, owner of the restaurant for nearly 30 years, sold it to John Feldbush and Jeffrey Crise. Mr. Crise, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, had worked at private clubs in Florida and here in Baltimore, including L'Hirondelle and Elkridge. Mr. Feldbush had been a manager at various hotels in the area.

The two young men laid low at first, smart enough to know that the Ambassador's loyal clientele, most of them retired or near retiring, wouldn't stand for too much change too fast. The new owners' challenge was how to keep their regulars while making their restaurant more appealing to younger people.

One thing they were determined not to do was change the look of the place in any significant way. "People young and old say they love its old English inn look," says Mr. Feldbush. "We changed the linen colors and folded the napkins differently. That's about all."

It's a genteel room, there's no other word for it, with dark paneling, soft colors, Tudor windows and dim, gilt-framed paintings. People tend to talk in hushed voices, or maybe the thick carpeting just absorbs noise well.

But back to what has changed -- changed most astonishingly if you consider how long things had stayed the same.

The menu now features, as of four months ago, what Mr. Feldbush calls "finer American cuisine." That means dishes like calf's liver with hazelnut butter. Sauteed chicken and wild mushrooms with fontina cheese and Madeira. Scallops in phyllo pastry with garlic butter. And the Ambassador now offers a variety of starters rather than just soup, salad or juice -- plus some innovative salads.

At the same time, much has been retained of the old. You stilget homemade muffins, biscuits and yeasty rolls with dinner. Some of the vegetables, such as the "Ambassador tomatoes" -- fried tomatoes flavored with molasses and honey -- are very much in the spirit of what the food used to be like. Gelatin with fruit is still on the menu. (I believe it used to be called Jell-O salad.)

The daily specials are homier than the rest of the menu -- roast pork and applesauce Tuesday nights, for instance. They cost less, too: around $11 for soup or salad, main course and vegetable.

I liked the new cuisine very much, was less impressed with what the kitchen does with more standard fare. Those tomatoes, for instance, or the thick, hearty green pea soup ($1.75). It was OK, but clearly this kitchen is capable of much more interesting soups.

Start instead with the salad ($4.95) made of baby greens, including dandelion and radicchio; bits of fresh citrus fruit, pineapple, raspberries and melons; Stilton cheese; walnuts and sun-dried cranberries. Dressed with a vinaigrette slightly sweetened by port, it was fresh-tasting and lighter than it sounds.

Our other first course, hot crab fondue ($7.95), is something whole table should share. The dip is a seductive mixture of lump crab meat, cream cheese, Swiss and Parmesan. But it's served with six pieces of French bread topped with Swiss cheese and broiled -- not bad, but a real appetite killer.

Our main courses were a cut above everything else. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine that these handsome platters came out of the same kitchen that produced the ordinary soup or our overcooked vegetables (broccoli in a thick cheese sauce and brussels sprouts with squash and red peppers).

Medallions of beef au poivre ($14.95) were artistically arranged with grilled baby artichoke hearts and slivers of red pepper. The beef was tender and full of flavor, the tarragon butter sauce a pleasant foil to its peppery crust.

Just as good was a thick fillet of salmon ($13.95) with a garnish of red onion marmalade and a delicate beurre blanc. A tiny bouquet of fresh herbs made this as pretty a plate as you can imagine.

The kitchen does well with classic Maryland fare, too. A special, the seafood combo ($14.95), featured a fine lump crab cake and two superb fried oysters.

We ended by sampling desserts made in-house, each $2.95. The custard was disappointing -- if you feel like an old-fashioned dessert, the bread pudding is a better bet. But best of all was the homemade eclair: huge, lumpy and rather ugly, but with a tender pastry, lots of custard cream and a wonderful bittersweet chocolate topping.

& Next: Champagne Tony's

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