This past weekend I exited the city and headed down to Pennsylvania for some intense wedding planning. As Will's birthday was this past month, my mother wanted to take us out to dinner at the restaurant we will be having the reception at in November--the Joseph Ambler Inn--partly to let us get the lay of the land and partly because it's a really nice restaurant. Mom had requested outdoor seating, and as we headed over it seemed like we were going to dodge Tropical Storm Danny as blue skies and warm weather moved in. We had a bit of difficulty getting into the parking lot; they were hosting an outdoor wedding so part of the grounds were closed. This also prevented us from immediately being seated outside; we were told the bride arrived late and it was delaying seating. We were offered a table in the bar area and cocktails, which we accepted. In the name of Karma we wanted to extend good energy toward weddings at this location. I had a Dry Windsor Manhattan, which was very well crafted, though I missed my bourbon.
We were seated about ten minutes later and the ceremony was over but we got to watch the pictures being taken, which was especially nice given our purposes there. It was sort of like time traveling into our future to see the events that will unfold. I'm a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge...not because of the time traveling, I'm just very miserly. The Joseph Ambler Inn is a beautiful estate with several historic buildings and rolling fields. It is surrounded by trees. It's one of the few places in that area that you can dine outdoors without being seated on a parking lot or overlooking a highway. It is quite tranquil and beautiful, perfect for a city escape.
Looking at the menu I ascertained one thing, Executive Chef Pedro Lugo was far more adventurous with his appetizers then his entrees. The entree menu read like that of a standard fancy steakhouse; a lot of common cuts of red meat and popular fishes, prepared in high class but generally crowd pleasing ways. This is a safe idea for the area we were in on the cusp of Bucks and Montgomery counties. A good chunk of the dining crowd in this area are not of adventurous or well traveled palates. Thai food is still rare and highly exotic to the area, so asking people to take a gamble on a dish that will run at an average of $25 is highly unlikely. You have to admire the chef for having a handle on his audience. The appetizer menu, however, leaves room for some flights of fancy. These smaller portions running between $10 and $12 are something a diner would be more willing to take a chance on, especially with a more standard entree following it. One can be adventurous, without feeling like they are risking an entire expensive evening.
My mother and I decided that we, being the adventurous types, would forgo the entrees all together and instead split a range of appetizers creating a small plate menu, allowing us to taste a greater range of dishes. We selected the Veal Meatballs with Melted Leeks and White Truffle Parmesan Cream; the Hawaiian Tuna Sashimi with Daikon Radish Salad and Wasabi Vinaigrette, Sweet and Spicy Sauce; and the Grilled Maine Lobster Tail, which was half a tail over Squid Ink Risotto, garnished with Asparagus Tips. Will, being the hungry male he is, decided he wanted his full portion of steak, and chose the Center Cut Filet Mignon with Caramelized Onion Potato Gratin, Baby Vegetables and a Port Wine and Herb Demi Glaze. My mother ordered a glass of white wine, but Will and I decided we would need a bottle of red to complement this assortment of food. Sommelier Tegwen Ostroff has put together a fairly comprehensive wine list with bottles ranging from $35 to $150. The wine list is split into sections that speak to the character of the wines, and Will and I were excited to see the section "Full of Spice and Off the Beaten Trail" We have been a bit mad about Malbecs lately, and of the two they offer they were out of one, but our server assured us the remaining one, which was less expensively priced, was of greater character. This is how we decided on the 2007 Kaiken Malbec from Argentina, attractively priced at $35. We enjoyed it immensely and it delivered the spiciness it had promised, slightly viscus, full on the nose and had plenty of body. Perhaps a little on the unsophisticated side for such a menu but with the steak and grilled lobster tail it was a great selection for summer flavors.
Starting with the veal meatballs I was impressed with the buttery sweetness of the sauce and the leeks gave it a nice crunch. This was probably the least exciting of the three dishes I ate, but was very satisfying though maybe more of a cold weather dish then an August evening dish. The Ahi Tuna was very well prepared--juicy with a very pure flavor. There were tangerines served along with them, which initially made me apprehensive. I'm also a little put off by "Hawaiian" dishes desperately trying to cram sweet tropical fruits as complements to main courses. Ever since I had a disaster with a pork with mango sauce, the sight of tropical fruit on my plate sends my eyes rolling. The tangerines surprised me, however. Maybe it was the spicy sauce being tempered by the fruit or perhaps the intermingling of the fruit's natural juiciness combined with the tuna, but they were well matched in this dish. The lobster had the hope of being the biggest surprise and turned out to be a bit of a let down. Don't get me wrong, the lobster tail was delicious, but it's lobster tail, so unless the chef doesn't know how to cook one, that's a given. The jewel of the dish was supposed to be the squid ink risotto, which in its jet black textured appearance resembled charcoal--very clever on a grilled dish. This was my first experience with squid ink and while it has a mild earthiness to it, it's really nothing mind blowingly impressive. The whole thing was just kind of mild, a mellow backdrop to lobster, a dish that can be so well supported by an admirable sauce. A google search when I got home revealed that squid ink risotto isn't even that creative of a dish, Food Network has a Bobby Flay recipe for it.
Will's dinner was delightful, a generous cut of Filet Mignon and when paired with the Onion Potato Gratin, made one think of a haute Pot Roast. With the current recession trend of dressing up a lower class of food (New York's fancy burger and pizza trends come to mind) I loved this dish and its comfort food feeling with a tasty cut of meat. I felt that the restaurant should own this fact and advertise it, instead of leaving the diner to discover it on the sly. The only critique I would have is again, this would be delightful on a chilly fall day, but perhaps is less appealing in the heat of August. Will, however, left nothing on his plate so I doubt he had such seasonal reservations.
As dinner wound down my mother ordered a decaf and Will and I decided to try the chocolate layered Creme Brulee, highly recommended by our server who, as with the wine, did not lead us astray. A wind blew through the terrace, after a pleasant and warm evening it appeared Danny would not be denied. The rain started softly, barely attracting our attention as we were safe under the covering of the porch. Then the rain grew more insistent, grazing my mother who had the outermost seat. The waiter helped me scoot the table in a foot and we re-situated ourselves, amused at the encroachment of nature as soon as we ventured out of New York. Then the actual storm hit. All other patrons either darted inside or promptly settled up, but we persevered. Laughing and nabbing our drinks and brulee we resettled at an empty table in the direct center of the porch and watched with glee as rain pounded the surrounding area. There are few things more cathartic then a really good rain storm blowing through the trees. Danny had been polite enough not to distract from our food, but now he took full charge of the evening. To us it was a fantastic meal followed by an adventure, which is a great way to celebrate a birthday.
We made it out only slightly damp and no worse for the wear, though the red wine would lead to an impressive headache on my part the next day. Our wedding reception will be a brunch, so while dining there gave me no huge insights on the food, it was nice to see their range. I was told by the waiter that they alter the creme brulee depending on the season, recreating it as they do a good chunk of the menu every few months. This may require further investigation...
Before I sign off I wanted to give everyone a heads up, the conclusion of the Ice Cream Test Kitchen was posted on Friday, but I was in transit from New York so I didn't get a chance to get the word out to all my readers. Please enjoy if you haven't already!