Baltimore has more than its share of good Indian restaurants, but only one that's competing directly with the city's high-end places for its customers. It does so with a refined setting, waiters in black tie and a respectable wine list. (And, of course, by being one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, Indian restaurant in the area.)
Five years ago Keir Singh, owner of Banjara in South Baltimore, took over the staid Ambassador, an apartment-house dining room, and with just a few changes transformed the restaurant into a clubby setting worthy of the British Empire.
The pleasantly dim dining room stopped looking stuffy and suddenly had a patina.
The dining room opens onto a terrace that overlooks a fountain and the Ambassador's gardens. Weather permitting, it's the place to eat; but the night we were there it was too hot. We had the best of both worlds: The doors were open so we had the idyllic view, but our table was near an air conditioning vent so we were also comfortable.
In general the dining room is comfortable, with thick carpeting to absorb sound and wing chairs at some of the formally set tables. You don't have to dress up, but you won't feel out of place if you do.
One way the Ambassador adds a certain formality to dinner is by "plating" the food, rather than serving dishes family-style for everyone at the table to share. So, for instance, if you order bhindi pyaaz, an appealing, subtly spiced vegetarian dish of okra and onions, the bright-green, tender-crisp vegetable will be arranged on a handsome white plate with basmati rice and an Indian version of nutmeg-scented creamed spinach.
However, several of the appetizers are meant for more than one. Of those, an eggplant dish with tomatoes, yogurt and fresh mint is the star, to be scooped up with the soft, flat Indian bread called naan. Vegetable cuddy, an "ancient ceremonial dish" that turns out to be crisp onion fritters in yogurt sauce, is worth ordering as well. These are more intriguing than the usual fried tidbits, soups and pastries, which the Ambassador also has.
Expect to pay a couple of dollars more for entrees as compared with other Indian restaurants in the area; if you venture into the chef's specialties, they are quite a bit more. But these are where you can test the kitchen's range. Some are well worth the cost, like three mammoth shrimp grilled with lime juice and spices and given high-voltage power with a tamarind dipping sauce. Swordfish was slightly overcooked, but it was good and fresh, and an Indian version of mango salsa was an unusual twist.
But try as I might, I couldn't quite love the chicken breast coated in lentils with its fruity sauce; it just wasn't a combination that did it for me. Tender, finger-shaped pieces of rosy lamb tenderloin fared better in their creamy fennel and chive sauce.
On the whole, these specialties are more imaginative than the rest of the menu; but if money is an issue, you'll be just as happy getting some of the vegetarian dishes and some of the breads at about half the cost.
Because the Ambassador is an Indian restaurant that caters to American tastes, there's a decent Key lime pie on the dessert menu as well as the traditional, very sweet gulab jamen.
An intense mango sherbet with slices of fresh mango also hits the spot. But the dessert that got the most praise from our table was the Indian rice pudding -- light and sweet and a perfect foil to the spicy food that had gone before.
Where: 3811 Canterbury Road
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $2.25-$9.50; main courses, $11.95-$21.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*