Now Serving: Ambra
It’s been said before that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. That same thinking applies to restaurants opening their doors to customers for the first time. Now Serving is Foobooz’s series of interviews with the chefs and owners of just-opened restaurants and bars where we ask what has changed between opening night and today.
Without Southwark, Ambra wouldn’t exist. At least not now. Not in the form it has taken. And without Ambra, owners Chris D’Ambro and his wife, Marina De Oliveira would’ve never taken over the Southwark space operated for years by Kip and Sheri Wade.
“We really walked into a unique scenario,” D’Ambro told me when I got him on the phone to talk about how things have come together at his tiny, jewelbox Italian restaurant next door to Southwark. “And it wouldn’t have worked without Southwark.”
Which is absolutely the truth, because when he and his wife picked up the lease for Southwark (which they’ve been running now for about 8 months), the space that would become Ambra (which was abandoned, essentially, and never used by the Wades) was included. What’s more, the liquor license was already in place. It was just sitting there, waiting to be turned into…something.
And Ambra is what it became.
D’Ambro tells me that Ambra was the dream–the restaurant that he and Marina really wanted to open. Their own thing, done their own way. And if they’d opened somewhere else–in some other space, with some other deal–Ambra might’ve been very different. “I think it wouldn’t have been prix fixe only,” he says. “Or so small.” But when Southwark came along, with that little, unused space sitting there right next to it, plans changed. Southwark would pay the bills. Southwark would provide most of the kitchen space. Southwark would have the bar, the a la carte menu, the easy, approachable, casual menu, and Ambra could focus on something different.
“[Southwark gave] us the opportunity to be creative and become kind of a special occasion restaurant. We could take [Ambra] and try to make it luxurious as possible.”
Originally, when D’Ambro was planning the Ambra space, he thought he could squeeze the crowds. “Initially, we thought, we gotta get twenty, twenty-four seats in. We gotta do this or that. We kicked around a lot of ideas.”
But the space dictated the concept, not the other way around. And so Ambra became what it is: 16 seats, intimate but not crowded, prix fixe only, with a wine pairing menu that roughly 90% of the customers go for. It became a place where D’Ambro and his crew can take care of guests from the minute they walk through the door until the minute they leave. Pamper them. “As soon as you’re seated, you’re presented with food. Amuse bouche, canapes, whatever you want to call it. You’re given a half glass of champagne. With the menu the way it is, you’re not going to be asking for more bread or anything. We want people to know, you’re not going to want for anything while you’re here.”
But there were still some surprises–things that needed to be adjusted once real, paying customers started coming through the door. “Timing,” D’Ambro says. “That’s the biggest thing.”
And what he means is those first interactions with diners–the thing that defines service at Ambra. He and his staff have learned that there is no standard pace, no plan they can fall back on. Every guest is different, meaning that the steps of service have to be different with every table. “Once [the servers] have an order from you, it’s just a matter of dropping off the food,” D’Ambro says. But he and his staff (floor and kitchen) have had to learn to read tables in a way that’s different than next door at Southwark. And to adjust their reservation system as well.
“We’re turning tables quicker than expected,” he explained. Originally, they’d figured on a meal taking about three hours–that people would work slowly through the courses, maybe stay late for a drink. But in reality, the experience is taking more like two or two-and-a-half hours. Mostly, D’Ambro thinks, this has to do with the vast majority of customers opting for the wine pairing (no time spent discussing bottles, opening, tasting, etc.), but part of it is also that they’re using Southwark as a pre-dinner or post-dinner stop for cocktails. And while he hasn’t made a final change to the reservation system yet (Ambra has been up and running for about two weeks now), he figures he might be able to get three or four more tables seated in the time saved.
The biggest change, though, has been with the menus. Because Ambra’s menu is cooked largely out of the Southwark kitchen, they’re sharing ingredients and ordering as a matter of efficiency. Which means that while Southwark had a full late-summer season full of produce, Ambra had to write its first menu knowing full well that they’d only catch a couple weeks of those ingredients.
And now that the available produce is changing, Ambra is forced to go through its first menu change just two weeks into service. “It’s not a big deal,” D’Ambro tells me. “I mean, we’re capable of putting together a menu. It’s just, we were still dealing with peaches and heirloom tomatoes [yesterday]. And now we’re changing it all around.”
So yeah, two weeks from opening and Ambra already has a new menu. Starting tonight, this is what will be on the prix fixe board.
Hand pulled burrata with flowering herbs, heirloom beets and pistachio
Venison carpaccio, porcini, nipitella oil, whipped lardo, chestnut
Squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra, guanciale, oyster cream, squash fonduta
Smoked tortellini, taleggio, Concord grapes, egg bottarga
Sicilian style lamb breast, hazelnut caponata, nardello peppers, charred eggplant
Olive oil poached branzino, romanesco cauliflower, fennel and sea urchin sauce
Chocolate budino, morello cherry, meringue, pistachio
Apple and rosemary millefoglie
You’re going to want to get reservations now. Because while D’Ambro says that he’s had the occasional space for walk-ins on Thursdays and Sundays, that’s probably not going to be the case for very long.