The post-opening buzz surrounding Ambria was still echoing across town when news of its star chef’s ouster broke. With everybody feeling bad for everybody, I headed there accompanied by pals Mo & A in hopes of a Cinderella story starring the ex-Oceanaire sous chef who’s picking up where Jeremy Kittelson left off; after all, I’m rather a fan of the franchise seafooder, & a born rooter for underdogs.

Long fairy tale short: given the big glass slippers the new guy’s got to fill, it’s simply too early to tell how well (or if) they’re going to fit. Of several dishes on the new, decidedly simpler menu, a few showed real promise; others fell flat.

Then again, maybe the kitchen’s well aware of its shortcomings; for instance, the online description of the calamari a la plancha already differs from the version we tried a week ago, which was topped with a warm, herbed lentil salad & now appears to be served with preserved lemon, arugula & polenta. Then again again, the lentil salad wasn’t the problem—the squid was; though properly tender, it was completely bland, under- if not unseasoned.

By contrast, short-rib ravioli (which have also mysteriously disappeared from the website menu) were beautifully presented & wonderfully delicate—light, with a slight bite—but salty as hell, & that’s coming from someone who drinks pickle juice. The theme so far: texture’s important, but flavor’s key.

I’m nearly over meatballs, but not to the point where if they’re sitting in front of me I won’t budge. Nothing wrong with these parmesan-sprinkled minis over polenta, assuming you’re easy about polenta; there’s them that insist it should be creamy & smooth, them who like it a bit fluffier (as this was), & them who prefer stiffer, almost cornbready stuff. As with mashed potatoes, I like it all so long as it’s not grainy.

Damn, I don’t see the ceviche (pictured below left) on the menu anymore either! Fair enough, as it was neither here nor there—fresh & bright, but hardly a standout from the pack of marinated seafood plates currently roaming the city. The sherry-glazed duck breast over turnip sauerkraut & pear mostarda (below center) is still listed, though, & with good reason—rich & tangy in all the right places. As for the fried brussels sprouts (below right), impatient as I’m growing with their ubiquity (to point to another theme arising from Ambria’s somewhat-safe-playing repertoire), these were quite good: plenty crispy & punchy with a balsamic drizzle & a hit of parmesan.

I’m sorry to end on a sour note: the bread pudding flat-out blew, as dry as it was muddled in flavor. So I won’t; an excellent bourbon-based cocktail (whose name I sadly can’t recall) saved the day. That the bar would deliver the highlight of the whole meal came as a surprise twist to this little chapter in our saga.

It also suggests a moral thereto: do be so kind as to consider this less a review than a candid snapshot of a crew in flux, who for all I can fairly conclude from the above may well be killing it a month from now.

Ambria on Urbanspoon