EDIT: According to Ambeli’s website they are temporarily closed while they look for a new location.
Whenever I have to travel for work, before I go, I research the best restaurant I can possibly dine at. This is to make up for not being able to eat my own tasty, home-cooked meals. It’s a challenge for most places I visit but not on a recent visit to Wellington where I dined at Ambeli, a restaurant situated in a modest bungalow in Wellington CBD.
I was dining alone and forgot to bring something to read so I asked the host if I could read a recipe book while I waited for dinner. I read recipe books like other people read the newspaper, cover-to-cover, so I settled on large Italian hardback. I was having a good time already and the food hadn’t even started rolling out of the kitchen.
Amuse-bouche and entrée:
I often enjoy the amuse-bouche more than the entrée because they can be so thoughtful and I really appreciate the detail. They brought out a little palate teaser of Chilled Pea, Feta and Mint Gazpacho, which was well-balanced with an interesting grainy texture given by ground almonds – nice! Then came (complimentary) home-made sourdough rolls and Olea Estate olive oil from a new, and I bet soon-to-be-famous, olive oil producer in the Waiarapa.
The olive oil was so good I just wanted to drink it. The serving was generous; I needed a second roll to mop up the remainder and dipped enthusiastically between the minted pea soup and olive oil. I managed to keep this going until my entrée of Warmed House Marinated Olives arrived, so could enjoy them all together. The three varieties of olives were so juicy and well-flavoured – again a generous serve, maybe meant for two, and sadly I couldn’t manage them all – this along with a glass of Greystone chardonnay and I was off to a good start.
Service was prompt and attentive and the staff well-informed.
As a cook, I like to stretch out the flavour in food. I like big flavours, contrast in texture, balance with acidity, salt, sweet and freshness – a high ideal and often unattainable in the vegetarian options available. The Chef at Ambeli managed to turn each component of the main dish Summer Garden of Baby Vegetables into a ‘star’ whilst the plate still sang in harmony – genius !
The crunch: beer-battered artichokes using the stem as well as the heart (a quick check in the Italian recipe book reveals that the way you do this is to leave stems attached but peel them before cooking) the overall effect of these flowers on the plate is stunning, not to mention lush earthy goodness and batter – yum! Plus, three plumpish Citrus Arancini balls (moist medium-grained rice balls, seasoned with citrus and deep-fried with a light crumb).
The acid: pickled golden beetroot with maybe a hint of five spice? A selection of lightly steamed baby veggies, including soused beetroot, turnip and baby carrots.
The big flavour came with the smoky home-made baba ghanoush and the whole exquisite stack of vegetables was underpinned by a nest of fresh asparagus peeled into thin strips and combined in a creamy home-made aioli. The final touches to this vegetable symphony were baby snow pea shoots, cherry tomatoes and olive crumble – overall an excellent display of attention-to-detail and perfection in balance.
I didn’t order dessert but the host offered a little home-made salted caramel which was so delicious and home-made tasting – a forgotten flavour that lingers.
Next time the boss says, “You have to go to Wellington,” I will complain heartily like I usually do but I’ll be smiling on the inside and so will my tummy!