The Gentrifying Gourmet

Even the devil deserves some sympathy,as Mick Jagger once famously sang, and that's why I patronize Ambrosia in Santa Ana. It's the shining jewel in the dented crown of Mike Harrah, the burly developer (and the Weekly'sformer landlord) who wants to build Orange County's tallest building, at 37 stories, across the street from the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts. Harrah is the bane of Santa Ana Latino activists, who fear his development plans will gentrify the city, hated by homeowners who don't want more traffic clogging up city streets, and a favorite Weekly target for his undue influence over Santa Ana politicians.

But I'd dine with bin Laden himself if the fucker cooked a mean rice pilaf. And Ambrosia shockingly serves rather good cuisine.

I say “shockingly” for a couple of reasons. For one, Harrah's other restaurant is Original Mike's, a multiroomed watering hole about which the best thing that can be said is the MILFs are very MILF-y. Ambrosia is located inside the Orange County Pavilion, a former bank that Harrah converted into a performing-arts venue some years back but exists mostly to host lame tribute acts (The Neil Deal, a Neil Young tribute, this Saturday!) and corporate mixers. And the restaurant itself strains to bask in the past of Rat Pack cool, with its large leather booths, fake greenery, live jazz combos and low lighting.

Ambrosia is pompous, overblown, out of place—just like Harrah. Modern-day diners just aren't into this type of atmosphere anymore, as evidenced by the half-empty dining you'll invariably encounter when you visit Ambrosia. But then you sip a spoonful of the five-onion soup, a boiling bowl gooey with Gruyere cheese. The soup is a spot-on re-creation of the French classic: musty, pungent, comforting like your bed. Then you enjoy a flat-iron steak surrounded by bits of crispy bacon and fleshy mushrooms, everything bathed in a sumptuous bordelaise sauce. Calmed, you order more.

Ambrosia offers the meals that men ate years ago, back when fedoras weren't hip because they were ubiquitous and the ladies joined you only for dinner. The salads are unremarkable, but only because mankind has yet to improve on the subtle genius of a straightforward Cobb or caesar salad, both of which Ambrosia nails.

There are a couple of burgers and sandwiches, but thankfully the focus is on big meals. And so come the meat: duck paired with lentils; an ocean of seafood (salmon, John Dory, scallops and crab legs) filleted, buttered and served with many tasty vegetables. Harrah apparently doesn't mind killing baby animals, as evidenced by the inclusion of two veal entrées, sweetbreads and loin (“milk-fed,” Ambrosia's online menu boasts). In fairness, the meals sound fabulous—the veal loin comes with nectarines and mushrooms, while the sweetbreads are served ragout-style with fava beans. But I'm not a veal fan—they're cute cows!

Ambrosia changes its menu every season—always a risky proposition. I wish the chefs kept the steaks that dominated their winter menu and ditched all the pastas. They're good, but eaters would rather enjoy their Italian food in Italian restaurants. But these are minor complaints: Ambrosia will grow on you after a while. Strong martinis help the heavy meals to go down easier; the talented house singer's take on Dino, Sinatra and Bobby Darin will inspire you to request the night away. Tableside service for the caesar salad and shrimp scampi impress—ask for the waiter with the handlebar mustache, brilliantined hair and suits stolen from Cab Calloway's estate. You can grow to like this. But then the bill comes, and you want to curse Harrah anew. Hey, cut the guy some slack, if only for a night.


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