As human beings, we're all pretty much assured that whatever happens to us has, at some point, happened to somebody else. An experience can be wonderful or horrifying, but it's almost certainly not unique. Simply by virtue of being able to use our thumbs, walk upright, and talk, we belong to the largest support group in the world. (Which undoubtedly makes Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Oprah very happy indeed.)
As a restaurant critic, though, my network isn't so wide. The occasional reader might write to tell me about a similar culinary (mis)adventure, but that's about as far as it goes. I suppose that's what makes me read the work of other restaurant reviewers so religiously. Sure, there's always that competitive instinct (balanced by a feeling of admiration for certain writers' styles), but mostly I seek out the work of my colleagues because I take comfort in being part of the restaurant critics' collective unconscious, the sense that we're all engaged in the same search -- for great food and service at fair prices -- together.
Perhaps that's why I felt a stirring of empathy when I read a recent piece about a reviewer's disappointing visit to a French bistro. Or perhaps it was the fact that right after I read the column, some of the same exact frustrations began happening to me here in Miami.
No sooner had I made a reservation for four at Amber, a new, self-proclaimed bistro on Biscayne Boulevard near 163rd Street, when one of my guests called to cancel because of the flu. The same thing had happened to the reviewer of the piece I'd just read. Three for dinner is a reviewer's bane; a trio of diners can't discreetly order (or eat) enough to make one visit a sufficient basis for an article. To make matters worse, my fellow reviewer (and I) ran into trouble at the restaurant, owing to the discrepancy between number of seats reserved and guests who showed up. In my counterpart's case the host attempted to squeeze them in at a table for two. At Amber my party was sentenced to a half-hour wait at the bar, which was crowded with walk-ins and others brooding over delays. (We would have imbibed longer had not the people ahead of us refused a table they thought was too close to the open kitchen.)
My counterpart loved the looks of her bistro. Me too: Amber is a sleek space, reminiscent of Embers, the failed Lincoln Road eatery, not only by alliteration but in decor: walls set at odd angles; high, contoured ceilings; woods stained the color of dark honey; postmodern lamps. A gorgeous glass-shelf bar gives the restaurant simple urbanity, while stunning flower arrangements lend country refreshment. All told, the place is a beautifully conceived surprise, especially given that seen from outside, the venetian-blinded windows, neon sign, and strip-mall surroundings make it look like a pool hall.
As we took our seats in a comfortable booth for four, the similarities between my experience and the one I'd read about came to an abrupt end. For my unfortunate colleague, the evening continued to mine that same unpleasant vein. At Amber, on the other hand, I struck the mother lode -- one of the nicest dining experiences I've had in this town this year.
That's not to say there weren't a few kinks. We'd forgotten to settle our bar tab before sitting; rather than transfer the bill to our dinner check, the bartender walked it over to the table and waited for us to produce a credit card. Also, the restaurant was out of some intriguing-sounding starters, such as a free-form escargot lasagna with basil cream (which I was subsequently told is off the menu for good), as well as a portobello and goat cheese beggar's purse with roasted red pepper coulis. Later the kitchen substituted red snapper for a sea bass special we'd ordered; while the waitress was kind enough to ask us for approval, the dish appeared so quickly after we'd agreed that we knew it had already been prepared. Still, these beefs are minor indeed for a restaurant that had been open less than two months, and they were lessened by service that was as polite and professional as the fare was carefully prepared.
Amber treats meats and fish with a wealth of New American vegetables -- roasted red peppers, smoked corn, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic -- and accents them with upscale ingredients like balsamic syrup, herb-spiked mayonnaise, and Maytag blue cheese. An inspirational mozzarella appetizer, four rectangles of the soft mild cheese wrapped in prosciutto and then grilled, seemed emblematic. Crisped, the ham tasted more like pancetta than prosciutto, just salty and crumbly, guarding the interior cheese. The bundles were doused with a vibrant sun-dried tomato vinaigrette and placed around a center salad of fresh field greens and long carrot curls.
Salads rank high: A good half of the appetizers are described as such or come with a generous garnish of lettuces, while another separate category comprises five different entree salads. And to judge by the caesar salad with smoked salmon crisp, visitors to Amber should believe the menu when it comes to those entree salads -- they're downright monstrous. Though eggless, the caesar dressing was sharp with garlic and shaved Asiago cheese (Parmesan's more potent cousin). But the smoked salmon crisp wasn't exactly what we expected -- this was actually a deliciously blackened fillet of not particularly smoky salmon "crisped" from searing, which wilted the romaine beautifully just a touch where it had been laid on top. I'd certainly order this salad again -- as dinner.
Amber has a brick oven, put to excellent use for the preparation of pizzas. Some examples: fresh tomato and basil, and roasted pepper and Italian sausage, both made with the traditional mozzarella topping; prosciutto and portobello mushroom, smeared with Boursin cheese; and grilled eggplant and olive tapenade, made with no dairy at all. We ordered the barbecued duck and scallion pie, another cheeseless choice. The meaty chunks of duck were a pleasure, accented with snipped scallions, sesame seeds, and a visible touch of roasted garlic, with a gingery plum sauce underlying all the ingredients. Plum tomatoes with Parmesan sprinkled over the top added an odd but successful Italian tinge to the Asian palette.
As with the pizzas, pasta dishes fuse influences. For a plate of tortelloni, mellow ground veal was stuffed inside wide, lazily joined sheets of pasta -- more like ravioli -- abetted by sauteed oyster and shiitake mushrooms and chunks of artichoke hearts in a barely creamy brown sauce that looked and tasted like a demiglace. Fried chips of parsnips garnished the top, sugaring the tortelloni as they melted into the sauce. An outstanding pasta.
I have little doubt that sea bass encrusted with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) would have been a winner. Red snapper, the substitution mentioned above, was probably a little less flavorful than the sea bass, but there was no real cause for complaint about this dish, which was delicately handled, laid gently over a bed of cavatelli drenched in a buttery sauce. The range of mild ingredients all complemented one another here, with red bell peppers contributing real appeal.
The evening's only true letdown was a foray into genuine bistro fare -- grilled skirt steak. Though thick, juicy, and generous, the beef was tough and chewy; ordered medium rare, the steak had crossed the line from char-grilled to just plain charred on the outside, and a coalish flavor reminiscent of a dirty grill overwhelmed a horseradish bordelaise that tasted more of red wine than horseradish. Fortunately a huge tangle of skin-on, shoestring pommes frites was an ideal side dish. Crystalline with salt and grease-free, these fries were exceptional. The skirt steak has since been replaced on the menu by a New York strip; perhaps that cut will fare better.
Despite overordering, we pushed on to dessert. That persistence was rewarded with a double slab of chocolate mousse cake, a flourless molded mousse (nothing cakey about it, except maybe its shape) dusted with cocoa, napped by a tart raspberry sauce, and garnished with fresh raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries.
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Even as I extend my sympathy to my colleague, who felt compelled to return twice to her bistro in order to confirm her initial opinion (as I too often have had to do myself), I rejoice in my own good fortune. I don't have to go back to Amber. I will, though -- because I want to.
Amber is a beautifully conceived surprise, especially given that seen from outside it looks like a pool hall.
16145 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; 949-4964. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to midnight; and Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.
Barbecued duck pizza
Chocolate mousse cake