Friday, 6 December 2013

Ambrai, Udaipur, India (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 12, Part 2, Day 13 & Day 14, Part 2)

When it comes to restaurant location, Ambrai has few competitors in Udaipur. Located right on the lake on the quieter west bank of Lake Pichola, Ambrai is perfectly located for a stunning view of the lake, the City Palace and its surrounding area, and the Taj Lake Palace built on its own private island. For the best view, the table located at the very corner of the restaurant is the most prized, and given that this was our honeymoon I made reservations for the table for three nights in a row. Since we ate at Ambrai repeatedly we were able to try most of their signature dishes by our final night. As such rather than dealing with this meal by meal, we'll give an overview of all the dishes we tried.

The journey to Ambrai was a pleasant walk from our hotel Jaiwana Haveli, as you walk the streets near the city palace, down the laneways to the bridge across the river. Udaipur is really a magical city. Once you're on the western side however, its a walk through a gauntlet of sellers who taut constantly and try to find sneaky ways to get you into their store with such veracity its quite off-putting and (in one case) a little unnerving. Throughout Udaipur you'll get the constant 'yes please' and 'look at my shop' and the classic Udaipur trap of getting you into their store with 'Excuse me sir, where are you from?' but with less foot traffic in this part of town there is a desperation and forcefulness that wore out its welcome. One guy seemed particularly angry that his guilt trip comment of 'Now... finally I have my chance to show you my shop!' was greeted with 'No, please, we're not interested' everyday, and we even took an auto-rickshaw on one of the days just to avoid having to interact with him.

Once you've actually made it to Amet Haveli – the hotel Ambrai is located within – you'll see that the walk was entirely worth it. Amet Haveli's grounds are perfectly tended, with the odd chicken casually strolling through the gardens as you approach the restaurant. Its truly idyllic. As you enter Ambrai, the fairy lights and candlelit tables are as welcoming as the staff. And with the view of the city all lit up accompanied by sarangi and tabla music by live musicians, this is Udaipur at its most romantic.

Ambrai have quite an extensive menu. Not quite as comprehensive as Persian Darbar but nonetheless considerable. Having eaten here before, I knew to focus on the 'Ambrai Specialties' section as their signature dishes are excellent.

Of their curries, I feel that the Chicken Jhangiri is their most significant. A tomato-based creamy gravy, the curry is filled with nuts and is served with cherries and egg. I've not found this dish anywhere else, and its really very delicious – like a much more deluxe butter chicken made all the better due to the additional flavours. We heard a table near us order the Butter Chicken, and I couldn't help but feel that they were missing out.

Their other most significant dish is the beautifully presented Ambrai Special Biryani – or as I like to call it 'Three Colours Biryani'. The rice is layered in the orange, green and white of the Indian flag, each having its own flavour that when mixed together makes for a delicious biryani. I particularly like the paneer and spinach that is in the green layer, and the cashew nuts that give it a nice crunch and nuttiness. Its not quite as amazing as the biryani at Dum Pukht, but this is definitely a must order at Ambrai.

As much as we really like the Jhangiri, we wanted to sample a few different dishes from their menu. Almost as good is their Chicken Angoori. Instead of the tomato base of the Jhangiri, this one is a lot creamier and even more nutty and uses chicken meatballs instead of the boneless chicken. This is extraordinarily rich and opulent – definitely one of the dishes we can point at as contributing to our massive weight gain during the trip.

Since we were saving our fish curry eating for the south, we decided to skip trying Ambrai's fish curry and instead give their Mutton Rana a go. This mutton curry gravy is sort of halfway between the Angoori and Jhangiri curry, insofar as creaminess and overall flavour is concerned. The mutton was cooked perfectly, with a great melt in your mouth quality that complemented the richness of the curry. Its not as refined as the lamb curry at Dum Pukht and I personally rate the Jhangiri higher, but if making multiple visits is good to break up the endless chicken eating.

When I was last at Ambrai two years ago, I remember their being an excellent eggplant dish, and on one of our nights we ordered the eggplant curry even though it was not on their Ambrai Specialties list. Either their standard had dropped or I had ordered the wrong dish, but it did not taste as I recalled. The eggplant was very vinegary and almost tasted like bottled eggplant, lacking the nice soft texture I was expecting. Definitely not an item I would order again.

To accompany the curries we ordered the garlic naan. The garlic naan was good, though its not on the level of Trishna.

For dessert, we repeatedly ordered the Gulab Jamun with Ice Cream. This was about what I would expect for the dish, being neither bad or exceptional examples.

The Verdict: Excellent
As you'd except from the north, Ambrai's food is decadently rich. But it so delicious you've just gotta try it if you're in town, plus their cocktails are very good too. And while I would probably would eat at a few different restaurants next time I'm in Udaipur, I would certainly go back again. To sit there at the corner table, with the music wafting through the cool evening air as we overlooked the city... for me, it wouldn't be a complete Udaipur experience without it.

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