Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dinner @ Amber India

Sigh.  Not all dining adventures are successes.  At least now you can know my reviews aren't always positive, I've just had a high percentage of great meals lately.  Tonight's dinner, unfortunately, does not fall into that category.

I've done a lot of fine dining lately.  Lots of "progressive american" or French, lots of Michelin stars, lots of foie gras, and lots of long, drawn out meals.  Tonight was I looking for a fairly simple dinner, something relatively fast (not fast food, but not a 3 hour tasting menu), and I wanted some seafood.  I haven't had indian food in ages, and it seemed like a good fit.  So we headed to Amber India, where I thought I could get both indian food and quality seafood.

I've been to the San Francisco Amber a number of times.  While it has never blown my mind, it has always been pretty reliable and decent, albeit overpriced (but, given its SOMA location and swanky, slightly fushiony menu, does seem fitting).  So while I wasn't expecting an awesome meal, I was expecting something decent.  Sigh.

The night started with our group of four being told the wait would be 20 - 30 minutes.  Not too bad, so we put our names down and went to check how long waits would be at neighboring restaurants as fallback options.  They told us an hour, so we went back to Amber, thinking 30 minutes wasn't so bad, and we'd already burned through 10 minutes of it.  Unfortunately, there was a private party in the bar area, so there was absolutely nowhere to wait.  The small entryway was packed full of people, so we waited outside for a while.  Unfortunately, San Francisco decided to turn back into winter a few days ago and it was pretty much freezing.  After a while, we checked on our status:  15 more minutes (Note: it had been more than 30 minutes at this point).  We ask them to take our phone number and call us when our table is ready, and head next door to Bluestem for drinks at the bar.  25 minutes (and some bad cocktails) later, the phone has not rung, so we go back to check on our status.  Another 20 minutes they say.  So we head back to the restaurant that had quoted us an hour to see what their waits were now like.  Still an hour.  So we start calling around to other nearby restaurants to see if they have availability.  No where does.  At this point we conclude there must be a conference in town or something, as these places are never busy like this on Tuesday nights!  Anyway.  Back at Amber, still waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Eventually (almost 2 hours after being quoted 20 - 30 minutes), we are seated.

We place our order immediately, as we had decided far in advance what we wanted to order.  Our waitress tells us that the appetizer we order is too small for four people and really strongly talks us into ordering more.  It turns out that the appetizer was not small at all and would have been completely sufficient.  Service strike #1.

Three people order drinks.  Two drinks show up a few minutes later.  I was actually a little surprised at how quickly they came.  But then a few minutes after that, the waitress arrives with the three drinks.  She looks confused that there are two drinks on the table already, puts down the third one, and still has the two duplicate drinks.  We offer to take them anyway, but her response makes it clear that she'd charge us for them.  Hmm, ok, nevermind.  She leaves with the drinks.  Service strike #2.

Appetizers come relatively quickly.  The food isn't good (more on that later), but no big disasters here.  But then ... we wait.  And we wait.  And we wait.  45 minutes go by.  At this point, I finally say something to the waitress, asking her if she can check on our food.  She does so, and comes back saying it will be out shortly.  I express my displeasure at this entire situation.  Her offered solution: we can just cancel our order if we want.  Service strike #3.

I was so put off by this response, that I ask if I can talk to a manager.  I'm really not one to do this sort of thing, but this was getting fairly ridiculous, as we were approaching the 3 hour mark.  The manager doesn't even act sympathetic.  He just says he'll check on the kitchen for us.

Anyway, eventually our food comes.  It isn't good (you can read the details below if interested).  The manager comes over at some point and offers to comp the appetizers (which, we tried to just order one of in the first place).  While I appreciated that, it was far, far too little, too late at that point.

I will not be returning.  And as much as I like the other locations, I'm bitter enough with this experience that I'm pretty seriously considering not returning to any of their locations, which is too bad, as the Mountain View location really does have quite tasty traditional indian food, and the new Amber Dhara in Palo Alto was really innovative and good as well.  I'd been looking forward to checking out the new Amber Dhara soon to be opening in the Mission.
Pepper Crab: Dungeness crab meat, ginger, black pepper and curry leaves
Pepper is the key word here.  The amount of pepper in this dish was overwhelming and not balanced out by anything.  My palette was blown after a single bite of this dish.  I can't comment on the quality nor taste of the crab, as this really could have been anything, the only flavor was the pepper.  I wish I'd been able to taste ginger or crab, as those are the ingredients I was looking forward to.  There were also large chunks of onion in the mix.
Tawa Seared Scallops: Couscous Pulao, tomato & fenugreek sauce
This was the best dish of the night. A generous portion of scallops (6).  They were cooked ok, but could have used a little more time (or perhaps hotter temperature) as the sear wasn't that great.  They were nicely spiced.  No real flavor in the scallops themselves however.  Also on the plate were some forgettable fried plantain chips.  The cous cous was decent, and the sauce on the plate was actually pretty tasty.  Probably my only enjoyable bites of the night were the cous cous with the sauce.  The asparagus was bad.  Really bad.  I have no idea what was wrong with it, but it tasted horrible.  I even took a second spear to try it out, thinking there must have just been something wrong with my first spear.  Horrible.
Sea Bass Kokum Curry: Sea bass, Maharashrian style kokum and coconut milk sauce.
The sea bass was overcooked.  Since it was in a curry sauce however, this wasn't too big of a deal, but it was not very tender nor flaky.  The sauce was ok, but I've had this dish in the past when the sauce was fantastic.  Anyone who has eaten indian food with me before knows how much I love coconut curry sauces, and I usually soak up all of the sauce with my rice/naan (or even just eat it by the spoonful!).  That did not happen this time.  The sauce wasn't bad, it just wasn't very good.  The only nice thing about it was the coconut flavor.
Arbi ke Kofte: Taro dumplings, almonds, raisins, cashew nut sauce.
These were awful.  I think they were fried, but the outside layer was just a kinda greasy mush.  The inside was an even nastier mush.  I didn't taste taro at all.  I don't really know what I tasted.  Just ... mush.  And again, I've loved some of Amber's cashew nut sauces in the past, and this one just did nothing for me.
Chili Cheese Kulcha: Leavened bread stuffed with “Amul Cheese” and Serrano chilies 
This was perhaps the biggest disappointment.  A few weeks ago we went to the new Amber Dhara in Palo Alto and got hooked on their "cheesy bread".  That one was a Manchengo Cheese, Onion & Piquillo Pepper Kulcha, and I figured this would be similar.  It was not.  There was very little cheese in the bread and it wasn't melty or gooey or delicious like the Amber Dhara one.  The chiles were perceptible, but barely.  And the bread itself was just kinda meh.
Mango brulee: Classic Crème Brulee infused with mango.
I love creme brulee.  I love mango.  But I don't even know why we were trying at this point.  This was fairly horrible.  Intensely sweet with a fake mango flavor.  It reminded me of really bad sugar free frozen yogurt.  The brulee layer was very thin and didn't add anything to the dish, in fact, the sweetness of the caramel was cloying with the ridiculously sweet pudding.  And the fruit was totally out of season and not good.  Seriously, leave off the fruit when it isn't seasonal!
Lemon grass panna cotta: Lemon Grass & Kafir Lime Leaves set Custard.
More out of season fruit.  Cute presentation, minus the fingerprints all over the glass.  I wouldn't really call this a panna cotta, but it was a thick pudding.  It had a "skin" on top, like what happens when you make pudding and don't cover it with plastic wrap as it sets, which seems like a really, really basic misstep in execution.  That all said, the lemongrass was a nice flavor and this wasn't too sweet at all, the dessert lover in me somewhat enjoyed this.  It was the only dish of the evening that we (ok, I) finished.



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