Is it wrong that I want to eat Indian food surrounded by Indians? I don’t want this to come off sounding bad, but there’s something that just feels right about eating in an ethnic restaurant that’s actually filled with people of that ethnicity. I view it as a sort of tip of the hat to the place’s street cred and I’ve often found that it’s a pretty consistent indicator to determine if the place is going to be authentic and good. Just think about it, if Indians don’t want to eat this food when they’re dining out, why would I?
Multiple times over the past few months, Amy and I have driven south from SF to her family in Old Monterey. They’ve always got great recommendations for delicious places to eat in area and on this particular evening, as a party of eight Indian food lovers, we decided to indulge at their go-to neighborhood spot – Ambrosia.
On the way in, we were welcomed by two statues of Ganesh before passing through their beautiful, intimate, heated, outdoor courtyard garden patio to reach the main seating area. Our group showed up to an already full and bustling restaurant (filled almost entirely with large, Indian families – a good sign), but since our hosts dine there so frequently, our table was seated immediately and we were all greeted by the staff practically as family. The restaurant space was nicely decorated with all of the usual Indian stylistic motifs as well as a green, jungle-like, nature-focused aesthetic than I’ve not often seen at other Indian places.
The restaurant self-identifies as Indian Frontier Cuisine – a blending of authentic, regional flavors and techniques inspired by a variety of influences and culinary traditions of India. Frontier dishes incorporate both curry and tandoori cooking methods, are made incredibly flavorful by the use of whole spices, and frequently involve slow-cooking to intensify flavors and tenderize the meats. And in true Californian fashion, at Ambrosia, they use only the freshest ingredients available with no transfats, msg, preservatives, artificial flavors or artificial colors.
In my opinion, Indian food is best eaten family style. So, Amy’s aunt and I took the lead on ordering for the entire table, because the whole group trusted our selection skills. We ended up ordering a variety of fried starters, meaty and vegetarian curries, rice dishes, and of course various breads to soak and swipe up all of the wonderfully thick and flavorful curries.
And upon ordering, our waiter asked for our preferred level of spiciness. Although we had some table-members that usually order Mild and others that wanted to feel the pain, we asked for ever dish to be prepared Medium as a happy middle ground. It only seemed fair, especially because I had never eaten at this restaurant before and had no idea what kind of heat they’d be throwing at us. I figured my chili-head friend could always doctor his plates up with the spicy table condiments, if they didn’t bring enough heat. I, on the other hand, prepared to cool off potentially intense heat with an imported Indian Kingfisher lager. Medium actually ended up working out perfectly for all of us with some dishes able to appease my chili-head friend’s needs and plenty of more balanced dishes that didn’t blow everyone else’s heads off.
We actually loved everything we ordered, so I’ll keep the part brief. There was such a wide range of flavors and textures with plenty of veg and non-veg options to keep every member of the table happy. I really do think it would be hard to go wrong ordering anything on the menu.
The Vegetable Pakora served as a dense, crispy, and very filling satisfying starter. These mixed vegetable fritters were dredged in chickpea flour and actually had a very nice, nutty flavor and texture. At $4.95, these were a great way to kick off the meal.
With the rest of your meal, you’ll definitely want to get some Garlic Naan ($3.25) and Onion Kulcha ($3.25). Both flatbreads are made loaded plenty of herbs and aromatics and are baked in their earthen oven. They pair really well with all of the liquidy curries.
Also, go for a side order of Saffron Rice ($2.25), which is long-grain basmati rice flavored with saffron. It’s another great move to soak up the rest of the curries.
The Palak Paneer ($10.95) was made with stewed spinach and farmer’s cheese and was cooked in a traditional north Indian style. The dish was rich, thick, and creamy and combined soothing spiced spinach flavor in a really interesting way with the squeaky texture of the paneer cheese.
The Kabuli Chana ($9.95) curry was full of garbanzo beans that had been cooked with a variety of Indian spices and ginger. The chickpeas were actually cooked really well and had an excellently firm texture. This also ended up being one of the most extraordinarily spicy dishes of the meal. My Kingfisher beer came in handy with this one.
The Baigan Bharta ($10.95) though, is not to be missed. It was probably my favorite dish of the meal. It involved eggplant baked in a Tandoori oven with onions, tomatoes, and plenty of homemade spices. This process imparted such an incredibly, intense smokey flavor. That smoke was ridiculous! The texture of this dish was a bit chunky, but still rich and creamy, but that flavor was truly outstanding.
The Butter Chicken ($14.45) used the Tandoori to roast chicken which was then shredded and tossed in spicy, creamy tomato sauce. This meaty dish was also really delicious and packed a substantial punch of heat in every bite. This was the only dish to even come close to intense Chana-level heat.
The Rogan Josh ($15.95) was based on a pretty classic, traditional, lamb curry recipe that comes from the Valley of Kashmir. This dish had interesting and complex flavors, but the slow-cooked lamb was a little firm for me. Still, this was an excellent dish.
The Murgh Korma ($13.95) was made with tender pieces of chicken that had been cooked in a creamy sauce loaded with cardamom, nuts, and other soothing wintery flavors. This was nice, creamy, counter-point to some of the other dishes’ heat. It was also flat out delicious.
And finally, to round out this feast, we had an order of Veggie Biryani ($9.95), which involved saffron basmati rice cooked with seasonal vegetables and served with thick, white, nutty, yogurt sauce – a soothing style of raita. This dish was also delicious and served as an excellent reprieve from many of the other dishes’ heat.
So, while you may be surprised to learn that you can actually get really delicious and authentically spiced Indian in Monterey, believe me – this stuff is the real deal. I’ve found that it’s hard to go wrong with any of their excellent offerings, just make sure your don’t miss that utterly incredible Baigan Bharta eggplant dish. And remember, family style sharing gets you a lot of food for not a lot of money – we were truly amazed by how little this meal actually ended up costing each of us.
Got another great eatery in Monterey that I should check out? Let me know in the comments below.
565 Abrego St. Monterey, CA 93940