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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Singh Praises : Chef/owner Bhupender Singh prepared (left to right) the assorted veggie sampler, scallop bhuna and lobster masala at Ambrosia.

Praise Ganesha, Pass the Chutney!

Ambrosia India Bistro brings the vivacious cooking of India to Aptos.

By Christina Waters

One of the great cuisines of the world, Indian cooking in all its glory is once again available without driving over the hill. The entrepreneurs at Ambrosia India Bistro (sister to the popular Monterey restaurant) have given us all an early Christmas gift (just to mix my multicultural metaphors).

The sounds of Hindu raga and the perfume of garlic, cumin and cardamom greeted us the minute we stepped inside the recently transformed dining landmark at the edge of Seacliff State Park. Ambrosia brings a hefty legacy of expertise to our area, with chef and founder having spent long years at the sensational kitchens of Gaylord India and Mountain View's Amber restaurant. Now we have our own palace of the fabled and spicy cuisine of northern and central India, ranging from curries and tandoori specialties to endless naan and biryani variations.

From Ambrosia's substantial listings, we chose a St. Pauli Girl beer ($4.45) plus a glass of David Bruce Petite Sirah ($8.95) to go with our dinner. Munching on the crisp papadams, we faced a mouth-watering menu of classic dishes. Scooping up chutneys, the sweet/spicy tamarind, as well as the incendiary jalapeņo and tomato condiment (terrifically hot!), we decided on an order of garlic naan ($2.95), a sizzling tandoori sampler appetizer ($10.95) and the complex Kashmiri lamb curry, rogan josh ($14.95). I asked our waiter--part of a very well-trained staff--if my favorite vegetable entree, aloo gobhi ($9.95), could be prepared medium spicy, and he smiled in agreement. We added an order of long grain brown basmati rice flecked with mint ($2.95) and sat back to take in the beautifully decorated room.

Here's some artwork worth looking at, said my dining companion, checking out some of the opulent gilded statues of the playful Hindu god of new beginnings, Ganesha. The smiling elephant god looked down on us from various polychromed bas reliefs, accompanied by dancing gods and goddesses. Handsome textile tapestries, marble counters and brass appointments make the room shimmer. Lighting is also notable--in addition to pin spots, each white linened table has its own votive candle. A handsome wine bar lined one long wall of the back dining room, and the entire effect is casually sophisticated and a relief from the all-too-frequent "theme" interiors of chain Asian restaurants.

I was becoming happily addicted to the fiery pickled cauliflower in jalapeņo chutney when our sizzling platter of tandoori items arrived, after a substantial wait. On a bed of aromatic onions sat a generous portion of two types of roast lamb kebab, each spiced differently in various proportions of chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cayenne and cumin. Doused with fresh lemon, these were delicious--as was a square of roast salmon that went especially well with the tamarind chutney. We were glad we'd saved room for our next courses when our wooden basket of warm naan arrived. Plump with ghee--clarified butter--and infused with shreds of cilantro and garlic, this oven-toasted bread makes remarkable alchemy with the spiced entrees brought to our table in pretty brass bowls.

Dark basmati rice in one, mahogany-toned lamb curry--incredible fusion of cardamom and spices in a tomato and ginger base-- and a very feisty creation of cauliflower, potatoes and carrots in the others. Together, with squeezes of fresh lemon, and the occasional dot of chutney, they made a sensuous and memorable meal. The naan, as always, did its part in creating another platform for the foods, dipping into this and then that curried creation. But make no mistake, naan this good can easily stand alone. The deeply flavored lamb dish was the big hit, its huge depths highlighted by a topping of matchstick-thin fresh, hot ginger. Partnered by the excellent red wine, I was unable to show much restraint and enjoyed the meal so much that there was no question of being able to sample any desserts. Indian food is worth its weight in spices, and our region now showcases a really first-rate venue for its complex cooking. Ambrosia lives up to its name. The prices are right, the menu is dreamy, the food is amazing--treat yourself to a visit soon!

Ambrosia India Bistro

Address: 207 Sea Ridge Road, Aptos

Phone: 831.685.0610

Hours: Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-10pm

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