Ambling into Ambria

Independent restaurant takes root on 16th Street Mall

Ambria, a contemporary “Mediterramerican” restaurant, hosted its VIP opening on November 14. Not that I’m espcially important, but I was invited. I couldn’t attend because I was in New Zealand. It took me a month to get there, and yesterday, I finally ambled in — not for a large sampling of their food, but for a glass of wine and a small plate. The community table near the bar was a perfect spot. The restaurant’s space was once Ling & Louie’s, and I want to lead the cheering for another chef-driven independent restaurant replacing a marketing-driven chain “concept.”

The chef/owner is Jeremy Kittelson, whom I met at the opening of the Restaurant Avondale at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon a few years ago. Avondale has now given way to Cima, a Latin restaurant, but that’s another story. Kittleson’s creds are sterling: Scottsdale Culinary Institute followed by stints in such acclaimed eateries as Vincent’s on Camelback in Arizona, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong in Chicago, Blackbird also in Chicago and Tapawingo in Michigan. Then, lucky for us, Kittleson headed west and into Vail Valley orbit of Thomas Salamunovich, first at Larkspur and then at Avondale. In the broadest georgraphic sense, he circled Denver and now has opened his own place on the Mall. Independent restaurants dominate Larimer Square, and it’s a good thing that they are now rounding the corner onto 16th Street itself.

Ambria's open kitchen spans the back of the restaurant.

Ambria is a place that feels comfortable, as if it has been there for a long time. Maybe it’s all the wood. Maybe it’s the warm tones of brick red walls, maybe it’s the ceiling fixtures that look like translucent fabric flowers, maybe it’s the diaphonous ceiling-to-floor curtains here and there in the dining room and maybe it’s the welcoming vibe. A Wednesday evening in winter was relatively a quiet time to sit and relax over a good glass of wine. I only wanted one thing to eat but had a hard time making a selection from the enticing items on the menu. I ordered a Torres, Viña Esmerelda Muscadet/Gewürztraminer blend, which I’d never heard of, let alone tasted. Ambria’s wines by the glass are all available in 3-ounce or 6-ounce glasses and the half or full bottle –a  commendable and customer-friendly option.

The evening menu is divided into sections for “Vegetables,” “Fish/Seafood” and “Meats/Poultry,” with appetizers, small plates and entrées under each. Logical and again, customer-friendly. Making food decision was difficult because so much looked good, but curiosity won out, so I ordered the chicken bouillabaisse. Zoe, the waitress, suggested that I have some bread while I was waiting. She enthused that it was the “best bread ever,” and when she told me she was from the San Francsico area rather from say, the San Luis, Colorado, she had cred. The bread was good — softer than I usually like but with a fine texture, a chewy-enough crust and softened butter sprinkled with a few grains of sea salt.

The bread “basket” is a bowl, but nothing at all like a break bowl in which soup is sometimes served. Soft butter sprinkled with a few grains of sea salt is alongside.
Chicken bouillabaisse has all those herby, allium-y, tomato-y flavors associated with the treasured seafood soup from the South of France but without the fishiness. Toasted bread with a very flavorful rouille comes along side, rather than floating, where the bread stays crisp.

Price check: At dinnertime, appetizers, $6-$13; small plates, $5-$9; entrées.

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