Saturday, May 21, 2011


Makes it tough when the staff and ownership of a place is so friendly and generous that you really want to like it... but just don't, really, that much. I unfortunately felt this way about Sant Ambroeus, another restaurant that has been around for ages and established a very solid reputation, but might just be resting a bit too much upon it. The interior is dimly lit and a bit pallid, but in contrast to the atmosphere, the smiling staff, clad in well-fitting, blossom-pink shirts circulate convivially, giving the room an energy that alone it would have not. The actual service, however, was a bit European when you get right down to it. They will fulfill a request expeditiously and water glasses were never long unfilled, but if you don't signal your desires, they'll leave you be. Thus, we were sitting for quite too long, chatting and enjoying our company, until we realized we had never even placed our order. Same too with dessert and the check. The assertion needs to come on your part, or that relaxed Italian version of laissez-faire will leave you starving, restless and unattended.

In appetizers, though, we started off strong: a seasonal Insalata Arcobalena arrived living up to its name (Italian for rainbow). A colorful array
of emerald haricots verts, bright red tomatoes, delicate pink pickled onions, sunny baby corns and multi-colored legumes was a bright foil to the subdued room. Lightly tossed in an tart herbal dressing, it is a perfectly lovely springtime starter, and the beans fortified it enough to stand up to any residual winter chill. A special salad dubbed Esotica was less to my taste, although the tender seared tuna atop was excellent and the dressing vibrant. A motley hodgepodge of juicy watermelon,
papaya and cucumber cubes joined the dish but made for strange bedfellows with fish. Not much tied the two together aside from proximity; a smattering of parsley or even a true bed of lettuce might have finished up the dish more nicely. It could make a decent luncheon, though, on a warm summer's day, like an updated, piscine Waldorf. I'm not so much for that fruit and fish thing, though. As good (or better) than even the Arcobalena was the Carciofi, a simple amalgamation of shaved
artichokes amidst a sizeable tangle of bitey arugula and some chunks of flavorful tomato, with square panes of thinly sliced grana and a brilliantly tangy lemony dressing. The artichoke gave just enough resistance to the bite and the tender lettuces didn't- a winning pair. A plentiful, gratis bread basket offered nutty, moist-crumbed multi-grain and buttery foccacia: both excellent.

Mains were less successful, of the two we tried. Both specials of the day, but in execution, fairly unspecial. The better of the two was a seafood spaghetti, perfect in proportion but lacking
pizzazz, even with the (impalpable) addition of jalapeno to a sparse tomato sauce anointing a nice array of fresh maritime proteins. Not bad, just lackluster. Similarly, grilled striper with seasonal vegetables was just food. The fish was fresh, well-cooked if uninspired, and the "seasonal" vegetables not particularly demonstrative of any particular season (not considering the vernal abundance gracing most restaurants right now: ramps and asparagus in the least). Instead they were buttery planks of steamed carrot and truncated green beans, and (oddly enough)
more baby corns, which while tasty, conjured up more the idea of Del Monte Mixed Vegetables than a springtime cornocopia of farm-fresh produce. Fluffy potato puree was piped into small florets orbiting the dish: perhaps as a nod to the restaurant's opening year, 1936. Oh, and I almost forgot!- (as, coincidentally, did our waitress) an order of Brussels sprouts, on the side. I was wildly anticipating these as a sort of last hurrah, since I thought the crucifer had pretty much gone out with the groundhog. But my exceptional dining companion was duly venerated for having found what I imagine was one of the last NYC restaurant with them on offer. Until they didn't arrive... and then again, when they did. Our server forgot to place the order, then ran back order up a serving. But brussels sprouts take a good little while to cook, and these behemoth specimens achieved a bright green coat but a raw, bitter white center, raw on the palate as well as my nerves. Some veggies are perfectly all right lightly steamed: brussels sprouts are not one of them. The retained the bitter earthiness of dirt inside, but even the one tiny one that managed to get cooked all the way through wasn't seasoned to any remarkable effect. In the least, though, it would've been easy enough to cut them all that small and achieve some tenderness in taste and texture. So sad when the little cabbages debase their potential.

A little sweet is in order at a place like Ambroeus, which boasts "gelateria/espresso bar/paninoteca/pasticceria" somewhat more prominently than "ristorante". The caffe is a strong point, too, Danesi Caffe imported from Italy and brewed strong accordingly. A tray of all the nightly dessert options is presented and artfully described: a fairly traditional array of cannolis, tiramisu and millefoglie, etc. We opted for a passion fruit
torrone, a semi-freddo layered with thin, dense pistachio sponge and apricot jam beneath a marshmallowy pillow of tangy, tropical mousse studded with candied fruits. Perched atop was a tiny little chocolate placard, with "Sant Ambroeus, dal 1936" inscribed in gold, as if to convince you once again of the staying power of this historic Milanese transplant. And paired with the ambient charm, the glimmers of satisfaction, and the somewhat transporting atmosphere of the place, it sort of does achieve just that.

259 West 4th Street

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