When the weather is fine, the wooden fold-away doors of this converted fire hall are folded away. Tables spill onto the front deck, protected with a red canopy, and over a side patio. At most of my evening visits to Bistro Ambrosia most of those tables, inside and sometimes out, have been filled. Mid-week lunches have been lonelier.
White tablecloths provide some relief from what is an otherwise dark restaurant. A navy blue ceiling may be part of the reason, that red canopy that blocks the light another. A collection of local art hangs on the tall walls. The high traffic circuit of the restaurant’s white ceramic floor is covered with industrial black runners. The carpeting that runs up the stairs and covers the upper dining room – the small room that overlooks the floor below – has seen better days.
This Italian-ish restaurant is a busy, boisterous, and apparently very popular place in a part of town where good dining options do not seem to flourish. Aylmer friends have been pressing me to check this one out. It’s a gem, they tell me. The name works.
Well, I’ve obliged, a few times over, and I don’t share their enthusiasm.
Beats me how you can manage a dreary gazpacho in late September, but Ambrosia’s is devoid of tomato or any other character. The cream of carrot soup is similarly bland. The deep fried calamari is greasy. The house antipasto is generous, but heaped with ho hum cheeses and cold cuts, some greens and peppers, supermarket olives, pickled eggplant. Sausages are rich but not particularly tasty. The “poached” shrimp with mango salsa have no discernible flavour. The escargots taste of jarred garlic.
On top of the slices of smoked salmon, spread carpaccio-style around the plate, they’ve plunked a sour mound of too-thick fennel slaw that sucks out the delicate flavour of the fish, leaving an unhappy puckered mouth.
I’ve taken two stabs at the mussels in this house, and they are not good. They smell so strongly of fish that even as the plate wends its way to my table I can tell I’m not going to be happy. The first sad encounter arrived in a winey broth, over-steamed and overripe. A week later, a pasta dish featured mussels ringing a plate of fettuccine. None of the seafood – the mussels, the bay scallops, the shrimp – measure up. But the mussels were sorriest. They should never have been served. And the noodles, though fresh, are gummy.
Pasta puttanesca is a good test dish for an Italian restaurant, and good ones are rare. The salty elements – anchovies, olives, capers – must be balanced out. This one was a salt lick that I couldn’t begin to eat. (And no Italian restaurant worth its salt offers pre-grated, chalky-tasting parmesan.)
Better pasta dishes – though hardly ambrosial – are the linguine with sausages, fennel, red peppers and olives, or the Spaghetti Ambrosia, with spinach, proscuitto and goat cheese.
The chocolate mousse tastes of commercial whipped cream and inferior chocolate. The tiramisu is similarly too-sweet.
My best meal here was a solo October lunch. A decent cream of vegetable soup, rich and filling, followed by linguine with smoked salmon and capers in a cream sauce – salty, but otherwise edible. But my last meal, upstairs in the loft, looking down at my plate of stinky mussels, and down on all that buzz in the dining room below, we wait in a Siberia of service, until we can’t bear it any longer and send out a search party. Our server, it turns out, is “running an errand.”
We pay the bill and run.