Dress for comfort
A suburban restaurant scores on quantity but quality needs addressing
Everything you need to know about this new suburban restaurant can be summarised in a single observation: the middle-aged man at the table next to me wore Barkers’ trackpants. Post-dinner, I fell down a Google image search hole. Did he own the company? Was he a former famous sports star rocking a PR freebie? Had he recently been to a 1995 Lincoln University reunion?
Eventually, I concluded that nothing says neighbourhood restaurant like a stretchy waistband. Locals tell me Ambler is consistently packed. On the night of our visit, customers were being directed to share the larger tables and many groups greeted each other like the old acquaintances I suspect they were.
We had started our evening in a corner seat that awkwardly forced two of our party to face directly on to a business meeting at the next table. Get an office, I wanted to yell at the people who were struggling to confine a laptop, wine glasses and basic dining etiquette to their allocated space. Everytime I laughed, I feared I was interrupting their workflow. The last thing I wanted to think about was work. Except, of course, I was there for work.
“Could we sit somewhere more discreet?” I asked. Be careful what you wish for. At our new table, we were so discreet nobody noticed we might have wanted dessert or another drink.
To be fair, we did not go home hungry. Our first course was a generous bowl of warmed, fennelseed infused olives ($8) and we followed up with a sizeable bowl of crispy buttermilk chicken and hot sauce ($14). Plaudits for avoiding a bog-standard aioli dip but this dish didn’t work for me — the chicken was too sweet, the chilli thudded like a headache and I craved an acidic bridge. We also shared a chicken liver parfait ($16). It came with six slices of brioche toast, an Everest of gherkins and a really delicious apple-based chutney. There was, literally, quite a bit to love, though if a parfait should be cloud-like, this was cumulus at its coarsest. I liked the flavour, but the menu set up a textural expectation that wasn’t realised.
Ambler (in keeping with its portion sizes) has an enormous brunch menu — 22 different options, not counting sides. At dinner, there are a dozen standalone dishes, plus six more specifically designed to share. There’s a kale Caesar (which I’ve only just now realised is very funny — go on, say it out loud) and a quinoa bowl, otherwise it’s bistro classics built on the flavours you’d find in your own kitchen.
Clearly, this approach is working. Families devoured chicken burgers, couples toasted each other over charcuterie and cheese plates. I didn’t see what the man in the trackpants had ordered but by now his sartorial choice was making perfect sense. Slow-cooked lamb ragu ($28)? Lovely, but there was enough pappardelle to swaddle a small child twice.
We ordered the chicken escalope ($29) in anticipation of a schnitzel-like serve, but it felt like the entree all over again. This time the chunks of chicken were adorned with a chewy ribbon of Parma ham and a truly staggering amount of broccoli. A good waitperson would have mentioned this when I ordered a side of broccoli ($9).
The market fish was crispy-skinned pan-fried snapper on mushroom risotto ($34). It was not good. Flabby fish, undercooked rice and way too much salt. On occasion, the salt was actually as crunchy as the rice. The “sauce” was genuinely tasty but the way it pooled under the rice should have been a clue to someone that more absorption might be needed.
Ambler is a much-anticipated addition to Pt Chevalier’s dining scene. This is a suburb where, in recent years, house prices and school decile ratings have risen and a coffee machine is a licence to print money. Sigh.