The elegant Ambience in downtown Los Altos may have opened more than four years ago, yet it still flies relatively under the radar.
But thankfully, more people are finding out about this fine-dining gem on the Peninsula, as evidenced a few weeks ago when I was invited in for a repeat visit as a guest of the restaurant. The first time I dined there in 2015 on a weeknight, I have to admit I wondered how it managed to stay in business. I think my party of two was only one of three tables filled that night in what albeit is a small restaurant. But on the return visit, I was happy to see that about two-thirds of the restaurant was filled on a weeknight.
A tasting menu-only restaurant can be a gamble, especially in too-impatient-to-wait-for-anything Silicon Valley. It’s one thing to devote 2 hours or more to a meal on a weekend or special occasion. But on a Wednesday night after work? For a lot of people, that’s a big ask.
Chef-Owner Morgan Song makes it worth your while, though. Song, who cooked for years in Sacramento and San Francisco, most notably at Kiss restaurant, and his wife, who manages the front of house and greets guests warmly when they arrive, have created a subdued restaurant, cloistered from the stresses and vagaries of the day with a candlelit dining room with smoky glass windows that seems to make the outside world disappear.
One $165 tasting menu is offered each day with a choice of wine pairings, the regular one at $125 and the premium at $175.
Although a few of the dishes and preparations were similar from my previous visit, the food has matured more. There’s a delicate refinement to them.
The evening began with an amuse of warm herbal almond tea with edible gold leaf and a “diamond” of gelatin at the bottom. It’s a subtle sip, with natural almond sweetness and a slight tang.
Then the show really gets underway when an Asian vessel is carried to the table, spewing a foggy cloud of liquid nitrogen. Inside are a sliver of buttery monkfish liver, and a lightly pickled oyster colored vivid fuchsia from red wine and red beet juice. The oyster’s inherent brininess heightened was heightened by the tang of the pickling liquid.
Bluefin belly arrived like a tiny present wrapped up in soy paper and tied with a leek string. It was finished with yuzu juice and roe. All of one bite, it was buttery, full in flavor from its fattiness yet also somehow refreshing.
Scallops done three ways were aligned on a long rectangular plate: cured with red wine and apple; cured with Meyer lemon; and uncured but accented with red pepper and chile flakes. The middle one with the Meyer lemon was my favorite for its depth of brightness.
Then it was on to sea urchin two ways: first incorporated with creme fraiche and jasmine rice that was like eating uni whipped cream; and sea urchin in a golden tomato aspic that had a nice dose of acidity to counterbalance the richness of the creme fraiche preparation.
That was followed by two different fish preparations: cured black cod that was so silky in texture atop rice porridge that was pure comfort; and Mt. Lassen smoked trout in a lovely heirloom tomato consomme.
Song loves to do butter-poached lobster, which is a bonus for diners, because he does it very well. This time, it’s finished with a classic hollandaise and lobster bisque, and atop an on-trend mixed grain cake with the chew of sticky rice.
For the fowl course, it was Australian ostrich, served rare in the center, with black truffle, pistachios, kumquat and peaches. The dark meat, rich and succulent, ate almost like duck. Served on the side was one of my most favorite bites of the night — a curl of ostrich mousse balancing a slice of black truffle on a seaweed cracker. The mousse was like butter, so smooth, so utterly creamy, with a big umami, and ever so slight rich gaminess. I wanted to ask for seconds.
But it was on to Durham Ranch elk tenderloin, which was dressed with a bone marrow reduction to give added richness to the lean meat that was quite tender. If you order the premium wine option, it is paired with a glass of 2000 Andre Brunel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which smells heavenly of figs and honey.
To prime the palate for dessert, a tiny flan-like pre-dessert arrives. For my husband, it’s a raspberry Chambord; for me, a vanilla caramel. Both are topped with crunchy puffed rice.
Dessert arrives with a study in chocolate for me: flourless chocolate cake that’s like a big crescent of ganache that melts in the mouth, alongside a chocolate truffle, raspberry coulis and a green tea-lattice of white chocolate. For my husband, it’s a tangy-sweet passion fruit charlotte with green tea coulis. To share, there is a goblet of passion fruit sorbet.
Not a bad way to spend a weeknight on the Peninsula, wouldn’t you say?