It's a tale of kitchen-swapping that would befuddle the most astute of restaurant gossip hounds. Act one: Bridges chef Mark Dantanavatanawong, who made a name for himself at the high-profile Danville restaurant, left his post in the middle of last year. Meanwhile, Bridges closed down Zensai, its lower-priced small-plates restaurant -- two days before I was set to turn in a mediocre review, by the way -- when interest from the community flagged. Act two: Mark D spent a few months at OnoMazé this summer, filling in after original chef Kelly Degala took off to open Va de Vi Bistro in Walnut Creek, then ceded the kitchen to Kevin Gin, who had worked under him at Bridges. (Meanwhile, Bridges hired Allen Rocco Vitti, late of San Francisco's Fringale, and veered away from Asian fusion toward the Mediterranean.) Then Dantanavatanawong bought Zensai, renamed it Amber, and opened its doors at the end of February. Got all that?
Thankfully, the chef with the prodigious surname didn't change much visually apart from the sign outside. The low, loungy tables and sofas near the bar went away, the number of formal dining tables multiplied, and the art was swapped out. But the effect is the same: Working in ochers, sages, and cherrywood varnishes, the architects have created a lovely blend of Japanese asceticism and metropolitan flair. It's stylish but not unapproachable, and the bar, lit by golden cylinders and rows of backlit bottles, attracts Danvillians who have no interest in eating a full meal.
Amber has enough glamour to make a guy who couldn't claw his way to the lowest ranks of popularity in high school feel bathed in chic. There aren't many restaurants in the East Bay that can achieve the same effect. Never mind that you're surrounded by folks who were serious contenders for homecoming king and queen. They look good surrounded by such style, and unless you're sporting flannel and a mullet, so will you.
But even if the wrapping hasn't changed, the contents have. I'm already a Mark D fan: At Bridges, I ate several marvelous dishes whose details are etched into my memory, and his former chef de cuisine, Vanessa Dang, recently made an impression with her D-influenced food at Berkeley's Bistro La Rose.
At Amber, the Thai-American chef's menu, split evenly between small plates and entrées, continues his inventive exploration of what happens when you combine Southeast Asian and Californian sensibilities. Some of his dishes rocked my world. But just as many suffered from small faults of execution that left the final product teetering over the precipice of mediocrity.
From the simple to the complex, though, they were uniformly attractive. Baby greens, tossed in a sharply fruity satsuma orange vinaigrette, were shaped into a loose tussle punctuated by white dabs of goat cheese and tiny orange segments. A pork chop as thick as a brick anchored one end of an oval platter, a panko-crusted mashed-potato cake the shape of an apple the other end, separated by a green V of roasted asparagus; a long, slightly torqued taro chip poked out of the round cake like an apple leaf. Twists of red beet, yellow beet, and carrot threads ornamented many of the dishes, and fried-noodle whips rose high above the plates.
Dishes whose flavor matched their beauty included "chicken three ways," a crescent dumpling stuffed with an ethereal chicken mousse; a skewer of grill-caramelized, tender chicken satay; and a plump Thai sausage that filled the nose with lemongrass and ginger. Sashimi rolls, the edges covered with a shag of minuscule phyllo strands, crisped in the fryer while leaving the spicy tuna tataki inside completely rare. We dipped the cold-warm, crunchy-buttery rounds in a light, lemony ponzu.
The vegetarian entrée turned heads around us: A mix of summer squash, along with havarti cheese, was stuffed into a giant phyllo purse tied together with a chive. Roasting rendered the purse crisp and the vegetables tender but not mushy. The cheese gave the mixture body and depth of flavor, and melded surprisingly well with the sweet-tart pineapple curry sauce pooled around the edges. And everything we tried on the short dessert list -- an oozy, crumpled molten chocolate cake, a frozen Grand Marnier soufflé with the texture of cotton fluff -- finished the meal with a flourish.
But other good ideas didn't come off so well. That super-thick pork chop? Overcooked, though the molasses-tinged apple-onion compote that came with it helped make up for its dryness. The same error afflicted the ten-spiced grilled Atlantic salmon. A tangerine-blossom-vanilla beurre blanc spooned across it had sounded like something imperial eunuchs would serve to a pascha, and would have made a delectable sauce for fresh berries. No number of spices rubbed into the salmon would turn grilled fish into gingerbread, however, or something else suitable. And while the roasted rack of lamb came out fuchsia-centered and juicy, it was served with a kaffir lime and dried-cherry sauce that had reduced so much that the lime boiled off and the sauce glooped up.
Without the deep pockets of Chef D's old employers, Amber's wine list has shriveled to a short list, but every glass we ordered was a good one. To make up for it, the cocktails list has swelled to include yuzu-juice lemon drops, cosmos, and a bang-up caipirinha (a Brazilian cocktail of lime, sugar, and cachaça, a sugarcane liquor). Hence the nondiners swilling at the bar.
The service at Amber is certainly cheery. Our server twinkled and sparkled, trying to make up in fun what she lacked in finesse -- long waits in an empty restaurant, no attention to silverware, the check arriving before we'd barely started in on the dessert (pet peeve). "It's not her fault, she's just badly trained," observed my friend Cy, who has clocked more years in the biz than I have and spent the night watching the waiters work. Goodwill gets you far in this ego-filled business. But so does a little knowledge. After three tries, our waitress completely gave up on trying to pronounce gewürztraminer ("here's the, um, you know, that one"). And how can anyone have faith that you think the Vouvray will go well with their fish if you keep calling it "Voolay"?
Dantanavatanawong clearly has the talent to headline a major restaurant, and the restaurant he has chosen to helm exudes a sleek hipness well matched to his style. But until he puts a little more polish on the overall experience, this Amber will remain semiprecious.
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