If anyone had asked my opinion about opening a restaurant in the Ambassador Apartments, I would have argued against it. The dining room's track record hasn't been good in recent years. The location is fine, but the parking situation isn't. And you wouldn't know the dining room was there from the street, so it doesn't get walk-in business. Finally, there has always been something about the dining room itself: It was pleasant enough, but not very exciting.
If I had had to guess what kind of restaurant might possibly succeed there, I would not have said Indian. This is a place that has served Maryland-style food from time immemorial. Customers -- and tenants of the building -- have come to expect it. But on a recent weeknight almost every table was filled in the new Ambassador Dining Room, which was taken over this summer by Keir Singh, owner of Banjara in South Baltimore.
With the many fine Indian restaurants in this city and the disadvantages mentioned above, you have to ask: Why is this place doing so well? Well, for one thing, valet parking is now available.
But most important, there are other Indian restaurants with food as good as the new Ambassador's, but nowhere in the city will you find as perfect a setting for it.
Who would have guessed that with a few subtle changes, the dining room's genteel, faux Old English inn look could become a sophisticated setting faintly reminiscent of the British Raj? There's even a waiter with mutton-chops. This is now a handsome, almost formal place to eat. (Yet it's very comfortable. Some of the dining-room seating is upholstered wing chairs, for instance.) The waiters wear black tie; customers are more casually dressed.
The Ambassador's food isn't served family-style, as is usual for Indian restaurants around here. Plates are prepared in the kitchen. My tenderloin of lamb in a fennel and chive sauce, for instance, was arranged with individual helpings of basmati rice, sweet potatoes and sauteed zucchini.
Attention is paid to presentation. A delicate chicken shorba soup was lovely; a lime slice and a sprig of fresh cilantro enlivened the flavorful golden broth and snippets of chicken.
Dinner at the new Ambassador begins happily, with an Indian bread, alu paratha, brought to the table with your drinks. It's something like hot whole-wheat pita with a soft center (actually a thin filling of whipped potatoes).
Dinner at the new Ambassador ends magnificently, with fresh fruit -- mangoes, strawberries and kiwi -- or sensuous homemade almond and mango ice cream or delicate Indian rice pudding.
But it's impossible to categorize our meal in between. One of the "Chef's Recommendations," murgh khumari -- a chicken dish with apricots and a creamy sauce -- was unusual and delicious.
But thumbs down on the tenderloin of lamb. The meat was almost raw when I cut into it, and its fennel and chive sauce was unexpectedly and unpleasantly sweet.
A tandoori mixed grill with shrimp, chicken and minced lamb rolls satisfied the guest who ordered it. But crab Malabar wasn't made with the promised backfin crab and was over-salted to boot. Yet side dishes of raita (yogurt, cucumber and tomatoes) and dal (seasoned yellow lentils) couldn't have been better.
Perhaps the couple of clunkers we ended up with weren't as typical of the Ambassador's menu as the truly excellent dishes we had. That's what I'm hoping, because the people there are so nice and I love the setting. I haven't even mentioned the terrace overlooking the garden -- a wonderful place to eat when the weather isn't too beastly.
Ambassador Dining Room
Where: 3811 Canterbury Road
Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Saturday and Sunday for brunch, every night for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $1.75-$6.95; entrees, $9.95-$18.95; major credit cards
Pub Date: 8/10/97