Monday, April 11, 2005

Danville Dining #1: Amber

I am usually way behind on keeping up with posting my photos, since I only put up one post a day and I usually spend the weekend doing some sort of food-related activity, generating a lot more material than I can cover in a week. I have a que with topics and photos that I work through, and I am usually about a week or two behind. Periodically, I encounter a topic/theme so wonderful that I bump it up the que. This weekend's meal at Amber in Danville was such a pleasant experience, I am writing about it just a day later. Unfortunately, we were seated in a oddly lit area and my photos are not particularly stellar. Also, I've been exploring some with angles and framing, so please bear with my mediocre photos while I experiment...

I found out about Amber through Open Table's reservation services. I recently opened an account with this 'frequent diners' program, but hadn't accumulated any points. I was determined to find somewhere tasty nearby that would give me some dining points. This proved a little bit difficult, because of the 'nearby' stipulation. I live in a epicurean desert in the Bay Area, where the best restaurants serve boring renditions of dishes that were hip in cooking magazines six months ago. I refuse to eat at a restaurant where I feel like I could've made the dish myself for half the price, which nixes out most dining establishments in my neighborhood. Amber caught my eye, since it was supposed to be 'fusion/eclectic' and 'exotic'. I like eclectic and exotic, so I figured I'd give it a try.

Overall, the food was very good. I don't know about eclectic or exotic, since the dishes we enjoyed were nothing we'd never had before. Almost all of the sauces made me think of another dish I had before, but in Danville - a mere ten minute drive from my house - this was an excellent performance. Each dish actually had a lot of aroma to it and the layering of flavors showed careful thinking and planning. These were dishes constructed to give a certain impression to the diners, each component contributing something different.

I was surprised that a little Danville spot would start the evening off with an amuse-bouche (I've always called them amuse-guele, but people around here appear to prefer amuse-bouche) when they brought out a very nice small salad with satsuma-orange vinaigrette. Very refreshing. Refreshing proved to be the absolute necessity to combat First Course #1: Crispy Calamari with cilantro yogurt sauce. This was the only true disappointment for the entire evening, and it's a good thing it came first and that we had three more savory dishes and a dessert to combat the oily after-taste from this one. This definitely didn't make the cut to have its image presented here. It was a chewy, meat-less rendition, where mostly all we tasted was batter. And the dish was HUGE. I mean, seriously, it could've fed a family of five with three growing boys. I got a little bit worried after the fried batter attack.

amber satay
Luckily, the beef satay that followed eased my pain. Filet mignon was used, although I'm not so sure if the preparation required the cut. The meat had a richness to it that made me hesitate, but the seasoning on the meat had the perfect amount of saltiness to make it work. The satay sauce was excellent. It oddly reminded me of the butter chicken curry at the Indian restaurant next to Trader Joe's in Pleasanton. The combination of the meat and the sauce was well-executed, and both components were better in combination.

amber smiling gyoza
Then, came this adorable pot sticker. If this guy isn't the cutest thing you've ever seen on your dinner plate, you are having too much fun with your food. Or, if you can't 'see' what I mean, then you need a little more imagination in your life! I didn't 'doctor' this picture up. He was really sitting on our plate like this, laughing away with his twinkling eyes and tender pink mouth. Without hesitation, I devoured him. Okay, I better stop referring to these pot stickers as him, because the Papa Bear is going to accuse me of being dirty again with the next set of descriptors.

These pot stickers were JUICY! They reminded me of xiao long pao, the Chinese pork dumplings full of soup stock. I was first introduced the XLP as a child while watching Mr. Ajikko on TV in Japan. Mr. Ajikko was a teenage culinary genius, who was always in some kind Iron-chef-like cooking competition. I think the concept of the Iron Chef comes from Mr. Ajikko - the similarities are uncanny.

Wow, that was a digression. It must be my post-grant proposal haze. My writing is all over the place tonight! Anyway, these pot stickers contained XLP-level stock that poured out as you bit into them. They must have never been frozen, since they did not rip and held its juices well. I enjoyed the burst of flavors and the texture of the shrimp, all well-balanced by the relatively thick pot sticker skin.

amber lamb
The last of our savory dishes was a roast lamb with a cherry reduction sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes and asparagus. I have only one slightly negative comment about this dish: the asparagus was a bit oily, and I would have preferred these simply blanched and salted, but then again, not everyone is as oil-averse as I am or as GI-sensitive to I am. (That's GI for gastrointestinal - you get my point). Besides my asparagus preference, this dish was a knock-out winner. The marinade was super-penetrant, infusing the lamb in its entirety with a depth of flavor I appreciated very much. Each bit of the meat was full of the right saltiness to go with the sweet cherry sauce for a perfect contrast in my mouth. I couldn't make this dish at home, which makes Amber a place I will go back and visit again. Even the mashed potatoes were good, and I RARELY like mashed potatoes. The potatoes had a natural sweetness to it that reminded me of Japanese yaki-imo (never mind the poster's insane yaki-imo 'machine' he proceeds to write about... I just wanted you to see the first potato picture...).

amber creme
Dessert was somewhat disappointing in variety, and we settled for a creme brulee. This creme brulee had a SUPER thick sugar layer, which I liked because that's my favorite part. I would've liked to see a little more creativity in the dessert department, but maybe I'm just too hard to please some time... But don't you think a green tea creme brulee would've been more fun and fitting?

The service was absolutely wonderful. It always makes the meal a much more pleasant experience when the service is good. Our server was soft spoken, gently man who was very attentive and brought out our food with wonderful timing - one plate after another with just enough pause to remember what was good about the dish we finished while building anticipation and excitement for the next one to come.

All of this - three appetizer, one main dish, and one dessert - was perfect for two hungry adults, probably a bit much for two normal-sized, normal-appetite ladies. Although I am trying to work on portion control, I eat an extraordinary amount of food, so much so that my ex-office mate, a ~200 lbs man, told me that we probably eat about the same amount of food - I agreed. Portions varied in size, i.e. the death trap that was the calamari was HUMONGOUS, while the pot stickers were more manageable with four relatively big ones to a plate. The price of this with two bottles of San Perigrino was ~$85 total, tip and tax included. I give it a two thumbs, one toe up. The calamari and the dessert selection are the only things keeping my second toe from going up. There were some misses, but over all, it was an absolutely pleasurable dining experience.

I'll definitely go back.


Mike said...

This meal is absolutely insane. I live for stuff like this. Thanks for all the great photos. That pot sticker picture won my heart.

Alice said...

Thanks, Mike! I'm glad I wasn't the only one seeing the smile on the pot sticker!

Uchipu said...

[quote]I refuse to eat at a restaurant where I feel like I could've made the dish myself for half the price, which nixes out most dining establishments in my neighborhood.[/quote]

My thoughts exactly. Sad to say, with the spread of Whole Foods Market, Fresh Direct, and other means to aquire top notch ingredients, if I put an hour into cooking, I can replicate everything that is ever served by most "American Cuisine" restaurants.

The only thing I can't quite replicate are the "mom's hand made gnocchi" that David always talks about... But then, he has made "Ji-chan's kusha kusah tamago" so I guess we're even.

Alice said...


Yeah, Ji-chan's ozo-ni was quite the feast too. I don't think I've ever encountered a soup as nourishingly good as that...