Friday, August 07, 2009

Baltimore Restaurant Week: Ambassador Dining Room

Two things always pop up in my mind when I hear the phrase "Ambassador Dining Room" - "Indian" and "expensive". I did not realize just how (as our British friends might say) "posh" it is as well when I stopped by to kick off my own personal Restaurant Week. And "posh" it is. Inside that regal stone exterior that makes the phrase "A Separate Peace" pop up in my head, is an almost castle-like interior that leads out onto a lush garden with a direct view of the big Masonic center next door. On a beautiful August day such as this, it is a lovely place to eat.

I've heard great stuff about the Ambassador's food, too, but again, that's always coupled with "expensive" - as in "It's good but I don't get why Indian food is so expensive here." Yes, I am in that camp, but I am used to eating most of my Indian food at all-you-can-eat buffets. Yes I have eaten Indian for dinner, with no buffet to be found, but you gotta admit: the fabled Indian buffet is a wonderful dining experience. The Ambassador serves up some luscious Indian food (and, ironically enough, a buffet). As I would progress through lunch, I would find out what I usually miss outside the buffet box. I would also find out that the food and the view are pretty good reasons to go, despite some minor annoyances throughout the meal.

For $20 I got three courses and bread: the first course was an appetizer (such as soup, raita or a samosa); the second course was a main dish (and there was a dizzying array of both traditional and not-so-traditional ones) plus choice of one bread (various selections of naan and paratha); and the third course was dessert (sorbets, cake or kheer). I perused the menu, chose my lunch selections, and ordered an utterly forgettable Diet Coke, which had that wonderful dishwater-y flavor that fountain sodas usually have (NB: If you want to drink cheap at the Ambassador, don't order the damn soda. Just go with the free water and leave it at that).

Lamb samosa

My first course was a lamb and pea samosa. Usually the samosas I get are beef and pea or potato and pea, inside a heavy, greasy deep-fried pastry crust. But I love 'em anyway, so I keep ordering them. The samosa I got here was not greasy, and had a thin and very buttery crust, filled with soft ground lamb. It was perhaps the best samosa I've ever eaten, and that's before mentioning the tamarind chutney that came with it. I could eat these all day, and my waistline would not be happy.

Shahi korma with garlic naan

As good as the samosa was, the main course actually was the best part of the meal. I ordered the shahi korma, the "famous dish brought to India by the Mughals" as the Ambassador puts it. I had never eaten it, but since this place is one of the nicest Indian restaurants in Maryland I figured I'd get one of the classics and see how they do it up. My plate - which came out about 10 or 15 minutes after I finished the samosa (I think my waiter was a trainee or something) - was brought out with a lid on it! And under that lid was a plate bursting with basmati rice, a spinach dish and about ten hunks of tender lamb smothered in an almond cream sauce. The rice was standard and cooked nicely. That's important: clumpy rice can ruin the meal, as I've found with some buffets. The little hair's-width of a fried onion was decorative, nothing more. As for the saag: buttery and smooth, and I was so disappointed to see it go. Tasted lovely on the garlic naan that I ordered for my bread choice. The shahi korma was the best thing about lunch today: a sweet and savory cream sauce with raisins and almonds covering chunks of lamb that were more tender than I usually find when I eat out. Regrettably I could not finish it. I was that full by the time I got down to my last piece of lamb.

Rice pudding

My final course was dessert, a kheer sprinkled with minced pistachios, served in a martini glass. It was standard rice pudding, nothing terribly special.

I can't stress enough that the food and the view are two things that are really special about the Ambassador. This is despite some minor annoyances, such as, oh, the price? But I didn't get hit as hard by that since I was paying Restaurant Week prices. I've already mentioned the soda - again, just stick with water. The major problem I had was the choppiness of the service. I have never seen anything like it! It was, literally, equal parts doting, clueless and "Who really gives a fuck?" While it was a nice touch to open my napkin for me, it was a less nice touch to have the waiter stand there watching me wait for him to get my plate when he wasn't helping anyone else (another waiter finally directed him to grab it). The mildly rude - or moreover, socially inept - end to my dinner was when I turned away from the not terribly busy dining area to discretely wipe my nose. By the time I had turned around, the waiter plunked my check on the table and thanked me for coming. Odd enough as it is. Even odder since I was only about a third of the way through my dessert. Dude! Don't drop the damn check in front of me while I'm still eating! That's, like, rude! Don't act rude when a customer isn't being rude to you (if he is rude, then all bets are off). And since the place was about empty, it's not like they had to hurry me out (though they were hustling tables by mine to set up for the dinner rush, so maybe they just wanted me gone so they could move my table). While that didn't exactly ruin my dining experience, it was an unpleasant way to end it, basically sending that fond, special message of "Leave, bitch" that just makes you want to come back for more.

Okay, come back for this.

Despite that "Don't let the door hit you in the ass" sendoff, I still have to say I loved both the food and the view. I would go back if: 1) I had the money, and 2) I liked mildly rude service. Really the service isn't bad (I've definitely seen worse). But for a place that pricey and "posh" the service needs to be better than it is. Don't let it deter you: the Ambassador had some absolutely wonderful Indian food.

Ambassador Dining Room on Urbanspoon


Nakiya said...

Great review!! What a shame about the service, but luckily the food sounds super delicious. I wish I had a plate of that Shahi Korma right now!!!!!

strawberriesinparis said...

The ambassador is totally reminiscent of a separate peace! right on John! And I love the ambassador, the garden and outdoor seating is just heavenly.