Review: Ambar India

I know. You’d think I’d have written about this place years ago, right?  I went to UC, and in the battle of the Indian Restaurants in Clifton, Ambar has always won for me.  You know the whole feud between Amol and Ambar, right?  Don’t park your car in Amol’s lot and walk into Ambar– it’ll be towed.  I have no idea how the restaurant across the street– or down the street– or a few blocks down play into this, but Ambar has always been my choice.

There are a few givens about Clifton Indian:  you’re not going for ambiance, you get large portions, and the prices are generally quite reasonable.  You’ll also deal with the same sorts of menus, a mix of Northern and Southern Indian cuisine.  You will have people argue up and down that one is better than the other– I find them all to be equally good, but some places do some things better than others.  When my ex had coworkers from Hydrabad in town, who were tired of American cuisine, we took them to Ambar and they said it was just like home.  Whether it was a ringing endorsement or they were just trying to be  nice, I’m not sure, but many of my American friends who have spent time in India have said it’s pretty authentic.

Now, we have to throw a wrench into this whole Indian food thing, and it’s a pretty simple one.  I love it.  I could eat it once a week, easily.  Terry?  Well, he had a run-in with some bad curry on an Air India flight when he was in high school, and I’m pretty certain he’s allergic to a component of some curries (though I haven’t put my finger on exactly what: I know it’s not turmeric).  So, in our entire relationship, we’ve never gone out for Indian.  I’ve cooked with some yellow madras curry powder before and he liked it, so I had some hope.  We originally planned on going to Habanero, but I went, “Oooh.  Indian.” and Terry said, “Oh, fine, let’s go.”

So we did.

Terry, good guy that he is, battled a headache as we ate, which he didn’t mention until we were halfway through the meal.  Any future Julie and Terry Indian Adventures will probably be takeout.  Oh, well.

He had me order, and I ordered a bunch of my favorites:

Onion Naan, which has changed since the last time I got it here– less bubbly, a bit flatter, but still quite delicious.  I love the effect of the tandoori oven on the flavor of the bread.
Ambar

Raita, which, in this version, is cucumbers, peppers, onions and other vegetables in yogurt. It’s creamy and delicious, and a good contrast to the spicy food. I’ll eat it with rice, or with naan, or on the side of the dishes with a little bit of tamarind sauce on top. It’s the best way to cool your mouth when you’ve gotten a bit too much heat– did you know that water only dilutes it, while dairy actually cools?

Ambar

Speaking of spicy, here’s the relish caddy: a tamarind chutney that I just love: it’s tangy and sweet. The green chutney is a hot, with a lot of cilantro, and the red is mostly chopped onions, and just a bit of heat compared to the green one. I prefer the red, as it starts out cool and then leads to a slow burn.

Ambar

Saag paneer is up next.  Saag= spinach, paneer = cheese, so this ends up being chunks of a fresh, semi-soft cheese (you used to be able to buy paneer at Trader Joe’s, but it’s pretty easy to make your own) in a creamy, spicy spinach sauce.  This turned out to be Terry’s favorite, and was one of the first ways I really enjoyed cooked spinach as an adult.

Ambar

And last, but not least–  my favorite, chicken Tikka, which is esssentially the chicken Tandoori, but all boneless, skinless breast. The chicken was a bit dry this time, but my favorite part, by far, are the caramelized onions on the sizzling-hot tray.  The saffron-based sauce for the chicken makes up for any dryness, but if it is dry the next time, I’ll switch to the regular Tandoori chicken.

Ambar

So, this is my favorite Indian spot– what’s yours?  Let the debate begin in the comments.

Ambar India on Urbanspoon

  • http://www.brittenyhowell.com Britteny

    I’ve always chosen Ambar over any others in all of Cincinnati. My reason is embarrassing, they are the only place that will actually cook a level “0″ on the spiciness scale. I cannot have any spicy food and Ambar is so accomodating! (Now, I know that Indian food is supposed to be spicy and I am taking the essence out of the dish when I order a zero, you don’t need to lecture me.)

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      I won’t lecture you! I’m just now ordering anything above a 2. I’m growing into my spiciness, but I still don’t like tear-inducing spice just for the sake of it.

    • http://mascolino.org Mark Mascolino

      Actually, just like Mexican, not all types of Indian cuisine are meant to be spicy….Just like not all regional variation of North American food are spicy….so don’t feel any guilt about going light on the spice.

      • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

        Very good point, Mark!

  • http://www.foodstuffsnati.blogspot.com/ Sara Ryan

    I like Ambar quite a lot too. I think the food is very high quality – second only to Dusmesh in my opinion. Though Ambar is actually where my husband and I went on our first date, and we went again the night before our wedding, so it holds high sentimental value with me as well as being a place to get some very tasty Indian.

    I agree, though, that it’s really hard to say this place is the “best” — I think Ambar does some dishes really, really well; their Chicken Tikka is the best, I think, and I really like their saag dishes as well as their lamb dishes. Whereas I think Dusmesh’s vegetarian dishes are their strong suit, but my husband thinks their Kadai Ginger Chicken is about the best thing he’s eaten at any Indian restaurant at all. We also like Dusmesh’s naan best. We’ve sampled around many of this area’s Indian and haven’t found many we didn’t like at all – but Dusmesh and Ambar definitely top our list.

    And I order level 5, but I’m scared to go any higher. :)
    .-= Sara Ryan´s last blog ..Tonic Happy Hour =-.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      That ginger chicken sounds divine– maybe I’ll try Dusmesh, next.

  • classicgrrl

    Dusmesh has fast become my fav Indian in Cincinnati. I think they have better service and are friendlier than Ambar.

    and I also crave Indian about once a week.

    classicgrrl

  • Heidi

    I agree with you that the quality of the food in most of the Indian places is very similar (and also that I could eat Indian once a week….or more….). I do think that Ambar/Baba (owned by the same people) has better food, but, I have a really hard time tolerating Ambar’s close tables and honestly, their staff can be very rude. Apna, across the street, usually wins out with me and my boyfriend in Clifton because it has a dinner buffet, and the food has really improved in taste in the past 2 years. Also, the people who work there are very kind, remember us, and there are more booth options. If I am craving the Ambar cuisine, I’ll head to Baba in Oakley. Amol is good, too, but tends to get overlooked because of Apna’s buffet. You should really try it next time you have a craving! Also, if you want to go north of town, Tandor in Montgomery is good, too, and my boyfriend who is a vegetarian loves, loves, loves Amma’s Kitchen in Bond Hill (I think) which is all Southern Indian and vegetarian.

    • http://mascolino.org Mark Mascolino

      Definitely check out Amma’s Kitchen (Amma means “Mama” in Tamil…one of the prominent languages in the south of India) if you want to try something different than what you see in Indian restaurants. For the most part, the food served in Indian places here is Northern Indian/Kashmiry/Afghan/British-Indian based. For my southern Indian colleagues and friends, they like Amma’s when they go out to eat for food from home.

  • LessIsMore

    The food at Ambar is good, but I live close to Baba and used to go there. While the food was decent, the attitude at Baba–we’re doing you a favor by letting you be our customer; we couldn’t care less if you ever come here again–was a BIG turn-off. I’ve discovered Shaan in Hyde Park Plaza. The food is good, the price is less than Baba’s, and they’re genuinely glad to see you when you come in the door. I won’t be going back to Baba as long as Shaan is open.

    • http://mascolino.org Mark Mascolino

      Well for Baba, I wouldn’t say it the whole staff that acts that way. It is just the manager who is infamous in this part of town. I think everyone I’ve met has a story about him.

  • Rhonda D

    I’m in the Ambar/Baba camp. I get carryout from Baba since it’s close and parking is easy. :) Some staff could be more friendly, though the younger members seem to be more so. At least that’s been my experience. I could certainly eat Indian once a week. My usual is paneer makhani and garlic naan.

  • dc

    Agree Julie, et al – Ambar’s Tikka dishes are their best.
    I like Amma, and it’s one of several Kosher Indian restaurants in the country (and the only one I’m aware of in the region). Writer Mimi Sheraton (author and former food critic for the New York Times) mentioned it in a short article about Kosher Indian (link below).
    But for some rockin’ Punjabi soul food, the best restaurant in the city is Brij Mohan Indian Sweets and Restaurant 11277 Reading Rd. Sharonville. (513) 769-4549. Tiny dive (7 or 8 tables), featuring all vegetarian menu & a bakery case filled with house-made Indian sweets. Wow. wow. wow.

    Amma:
    http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/8804/passage-to-india/
    Brijmohan: featured in both July and December 2007 issues of Cincinnati Magazine.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • phlempickens

    Amol has a lunch buffet (or did the last time I ate there) I got tired of the flys cutting in line. Flys are just plain rude.

    My favorite at Ambar is the chicken curry and naan. I like being entertained from my window seat by watching the old man from Amol police the parking lot .

  • vudutu

    I am pretty much a two. Years ago I was at Teak in Mt Adams and a pair of Indian gentleman were ordering, they ordered 10, when the waiter cautioned one gentleman replied “challenge me!” they ate with relish and never even broke a sweat.

  • http://www.midwestdarling.com Paige

    How is Krishna not even a contender?

    Google on Krishna

    I know it’s primarily take out, but it is seriously my favorite out of all the restaurants here. They make a killer mushroom matar, the portions border on huge, food is cooked right in front of you super fast, and it has that hole in the wall appeal. It’s the best.
    .-= Paige´s last blog ..Spring starters! =-.

  • Rock_with_a_B

    In the past year, my fiancee and I (who live just up the block from the Ludlow Indian cuisine triangle) decided to compare the three: Ambar, Amol and Apna. Our typical meal includes a sampler platter of appetizers with chutneys, chicken tikka masala, lamb saag and naan. As has been previously mentioned, Ambar’s cuisine is wonderful – I’ve never been disappointed in the flavor. They do tend to rush you out the door there, but I think they have the best chutneys of the three. Amol was quite disappointing – everything we tried seemed like it was missing something. Maybe I’m just biased because I don’t care for the food, but I felt like Amol was the least clean of the three. Now, for many reasons Apna (just across the street) is the big winner! The food has all the flavors I crave from eating at Ambar through the years. The prices might be the same or but I think they’re slightly less than Ambar. It’s never crowded – although I wish it were so they survive! And, for the frugal diner, they accept coupons any day for any meal (from CityBeat, Bearcat dining, and maybe MetroMix). Ambar puts weekend restrictions on their coupons. The dinner coupon at Apna can be used any day including weekend and is for $7 off a 2nd entree (dine-in or carry out). Ambar’s coupon is only $6 dine-in and $5 carry-out. If you haven’t visited Apna, I encourage you to try it! Great taste, service and value. Let’s help keep them in business! (and no, I wasn’t paid to say that)

  • Kristen

    Amma’s is my default Indian restaurant. Their service is pretty good. They’ll even point out some vegan dishes on the menu if you ask. If you’re a carnivore, don’t let the fact it’s entirely vegetarian stop you from trying Amma’s! I’m neither vegetarian nor vegan, but if I could eat their food every day I would never miss meat.

    I like Ambar, but I also hate dealing with their indifferent/inconsistent service, so it’s not a place I go often. The really tall server is great though.

  • DGK

    The owners of Ambar have another restaurant on Montgomery road a bit further from Kenwood area called Kanak. Same essential menu, fantastic service. I always go for the Kingfisher beer too.

    Amma’s Kitchen is probably the only authentic South Indian place around Cincinnati. Their mini-idlis are just fantastic.

    Brijmohan is by far the best tasting Indian food in town; its in a very unassuming location and have just a hand full of tables. Always got for the take out.

  • R. N. Dominick

    I just recently went to Shaan for the first time. (I know this is silly, but I avoided going there for quite some time because of a really bad experience I had when the place was Hyde Park India.) Large portions, good flavor, and friendly service; definitely a good place. I still like Baba, and think some things (chicken tikka, for example) are better there, but I’ll never complain about Shaan. (Sadly, the friend I ate with said afterward, “I think I like Mexican food better”, so I think most of our Hyde Park Plaza trips will be to El Toro or our old standby First Wok.)

    I’ve never eaten at any of the Clifton places enough to form a preference, but I have eaten at all three, and like them. We just had the lunch buffet at Akash, downtown, and it was pretty good, especially the tikka masala.

  • Megan

    If you’re in No.Ky. you should try Taj India in Florence. They have a Northern Indian menu, much like many others in the area, but the food is delicious. My husband who has traveled to India finds it authentic and we’ve had attentive service there.

  • CincyCapell

    The place that I miss is Mayura. It was always a cut above the competitors. Mayura used more spices and less cream, making for a more sophisticated flavour. Unfortunately Mayura was at the worng end of the road and Swamy closed the place.

  • Tim

    Mark Mascolino already cast a vote for my favorite…Amma’s Kitchen. I ate there just before my first 3-week trip to India. I imprinted that experience on my taste buds and then went back after I returned. Amma’s Kitchen as compared to southern Indian as served in southern India is like lasagna the first day as compared to leftover lasagna. Very clearly similar, the ‘authentic’ southern Indian was a little more sophisticated and/or mature in its taste.

    Julie, I keep saying we should double date sometime. Their Palak Paneer (the spinach dish as its named at Amma’s Kitchen) is on our short list every time we go.

  • Teresa

    You have to try Dusmesh the food and people are wonderful plus the seating area is warm, inviting and nobody is trying to rush you out the door. I like to go at night when the lights are going inside. They have never questioned my 2 1/2 spice rating (perfect for me).

  • Lisa

    My favorite Indian restaurant would have to be Dushmesh India. The service is nice and the food is good! The waiters had a smile on there face all the time, as well as the staff. They have a wide variety of food on the buffet and for the dining options. You should really check it out! :)