(Published by South Bay Accent in December, 2014.)
Artists can be a bit fussier than the patrons who admire their work. Consider Korea-born chef Morgan Song, who is strict about reservations, dress and expectations at Ambience, his little jewel of a restaurant in Los Altos. Rather than the ear-splitting noise levels, laid-back cuisine and t-shirt attire so popular in the South Bay, Ambience is for those who worship at the temple of food.
Song only offers a multi-course, fixed-price California-French tasting menu but it is customized to suit each guest — even down to different gorgeous plates for the same courses. His cuisine is beautiful, modern, complex and pricey: $145 without beverages, tax or tip per person. This is the quintessential special-occasion spot, containing only a few tables that won’t necessarily be filled, since Song eschews packing the place in favor of turning a meal into a quiet, multi-hour experience where what goes in your mouth is the focus.
Owner-chef Morgan Song has worked at many restaurants including at least six of his own.
And does his cuisine ever dazzle. “Better than the French Laundry,” say some of the ecstatic visitors who have nibbled through the multiple tiny, exquisite courses presented to them respectfully by reserved servers. This is like dining from another century but likely with better food.
While Song’s menu changes frequently, certain dishes seem to pop up a lot in the official nine courses — which can be accompanied by several little extras. He purposely serves no bread or other filler-type items so guests can better appreciate his art on the plate.
Consider his beet salad, a gorgeously composed dish in which the colorful root vegetable might be yuzu- or wasabi-infused with a pile of foamy dressing and edible flowers as garnish. He’s been famous for his seabass for years and it’s meltingly tender here, with ever-changing accompaniments.
Meanwhile, lobster shows up frequently and might be butter poached or seared but is always unctuously rich, sometimes paired with risotto or used as a foil against assertive flavors like ginger and horseradish, with the meat crowned by caviar.
As the meal marches forward — the limited seating enables servers to perfectly time the arrival of each course — diners get a little break in the form of a tart-sweet palate cleanser, which is often a scrumptious grapefruit consommé. Recently, it combined chilled spheres of fruit and a refreshing juice made more intriguing with sweet violet powder.
Moving into the meat courses, Song is partial to more luxurious poultry like poussin and squab. So deeply flavorful is his treatment of the latter that it can stand up to powerful accompanying ingredients and a big red wine. An alternative choice on a recent menu was Wagyu beef tartare escorted by a bit too much truffle oil, pear essence and a shimmering quail egg.
Instead of ubiquitous beef for the main meat course, Song prefers game such as venison and wild boar, which he masterfully prepares so that the lean meat delivers tenderness and flavor. He also does a superlative job with another low-fat protein, buffalo, which he might embellish with an intense red wine reduction.
The home stretch starts with a warm-up dessert such as a lovely strawberry gratin paired with strawberry sorbet. The final dessert is often a choice between a dense, intense chocolate mousse cake or a slightly less-sweet crême brulée. While these are good, something a bit less pedestrian would be preferable for a meal of this cost and caliber.
The pricey wines ($95 additional per person) to accompany the tasting menu seem like a needed profit center in a restaurant that is so small and limited in seating. In fact, both the dinner and wine costs have been increased since Ambience opened, so it seems Song and his wife — who handles the dining room — are still fiddling to establish an adequate revenue stream that will still enable the Songs to run the kind of intimate, low-volume restaurant they clearly prefer.
While it’s easy to quibble over these moderately priced (wholesale prices on the tasting-menu wines are around $10 to $28), youngish wines that are marked up so extravagantly, this might be the cost of doing business. Alas, those hoping to bring some rarer, higher-end vintages from home must pay $50 corkage per bottle with a limit of two.
Located in a former Chinese restaurant and opened in 2013, Ambience has a classy but simple interior featuring art, fanciful flower arrangements and fine linens. As befits the serious style of the food, the lighting is lower and the environment quiet.
Not surprisingly, Song isn’t some tattooed newcomer fresh from a stint on Top Chef, which shows in the old-world style of dining at Ambience. During his several decades of cheffing in this country, he’s worked at many restaurants and owned at least six, located in cities around the Bay Area and in other California locales.
His previous place — also called Ambience and located near Sacramento — was considered one of the best in that area but was eventually a casualty of the economic downturn. It also boasted just a tasting menu, high prices, limited seating and a focus on food.
Song is hoping the upscale South Bay might be a better venue for his restaurant formula and local gourmands starved for this elegant, attentive style of dining might prove him right.
Ambience, 132 State Street, Los Altos; (650) 917-9030; http://www.ambiencefinedininglosaltos.com
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Reservations required 48 hours in advance.
PRICES: Nine+ course tasting menu, $145. Accompanying wines: $95.