By Leslie Lee
It is 2:15 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. The smell of tomato sauce and yeast fills Ambrosia restaurant. Owner Mark Lesley jumps from the kitchen to the bar counter, answering the phone, writing down orders, and calling out to his staff, who bustle around the kitchen, chopping and stirring that night’s culinary creations from scratch. Four loaves of bread crown the kitchen counter, cooling in the late afternoon light.
We sit in tall, wooden bar stools over a small round table that’s covered with a white table cloth and white paper. Long lamps hang from the high ceilings, casting a mellow golden light over the bar’s copper patina counter top, cozy leather booths, and the green-charcoal walls with poinsettia-red trim. 1930s-era Italian and French posters adorn the walls.
Lesley was born in London, 1945. He’s slender, with a full head of greying hair and Harry Potter glasses. In 1954 he started his professional career as an apprentice in London at the Strand restaurant, studying continental cuisine. He was introduced to Italian cooking when he traveled to Fort Lauderdale in Florida for a job, only to discover upon his arrival that the restaurant had not been built. The owners offered him a position to learn East Coast Italian Food at a restaurant called La Scala. There he honed his skills, working 17 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When he moved to California, Lesley wanted to offer a different type of Italian cooking. He was influenced by an influx of great chefs, and sought to combine Italian cuisine with a California influence.
He bought Ambrosia restaurant in 1999. There he had a strong customer base for fourteen years, but the restaurant was too small for their needs and parking was limited.
“Our business was growing and we needed more parking,” says Lesley. When Dan Ohlson, the owner of Half Day Café and the site of Pacific Café restaurant, told Lesley that Pacific Café was closing after 37 years of business, Lesley took him up on his offer to move to the Kentfield site. He opened on October 5, 2013.
Diners can and should expect a leisurely dining experience at Ambrosia. Every meal is prepped from scratch, and nothing is microwaved.
Lesley explains, “If it takes twenty minutes to make a dish, then it takes twenty minutes to make a dish.”
His guiding philosophy is borrowed from Roger Minhonda, chef at Chalet Basque in Santa Benicia: “Patience is a virtue, cooking is an art.”
Their offerings include fresh bread made on the premises every day, home-made gluten-free salads and salad dressings, plus homemade pizza crusts. Almost every pasta can be made gluten-free, and gluten-free pizza crusts are bought from Mariposa bakery. The fresh scallops are breaded with rice flour, and hold the succulent juices in without a heavy aftertaste. Aside from the attractive décor, Ambrosia’s most distinctive attribute is the quality of their food. The care and time taken in preparing the food can be tasted in every bite. It’s fresh, bursting with flavor, and is superior quality. The meals are worth the wait. Lesley shops locally and sustainably whenever possible. Recently he switched his to-go bags to Go Green, which are made out of bamboo.
Ambrosia also stands out from the average Italian Restaurant because of its bar. Diners can partake of a wide variety of beers on tap and boutique wines from the Napa Valley.
Although Ambrosia doesn’t specifically offer daily specials, Lesley plans to make more bean-based soups with the advent of the colder weather. Sometimes he creates a salad special, such as a zucchini salad topped with homemade ricotta cheese, because he wants to see if he could make ricotta cheese from scratch.
Reservations are not required, but are highly recommended. Ambrosia accepts reservations for a single person and also for seats at the bar. The restaurant site at Kentfield is larger, and there is a good-sized parking lot adjacent to Half Day Café. The increased visibility has attracted more business. On the Friday night that I went, the restaurant was filled to capacity from 6:00 through 8:30 p.m., and when I left there were still several parties waiting to be seated. Individuals who show up for a table without a reservation can expect to wait for at least an hour before they will be seated. Ambrosia has nine booths, and they were all reserved for Friday by Tuesday afternoon.
“If you take the time to call me and make a reservation, the least I can do is save you a seat at the bar,” says Lesley.
One exception to this rule was student Beau Lino’s experience. Lino showed up on a Thursday evening, at 5:00 p.m., when Ambrosia opens. He enjoyed beer, Napa Valley wine and the minestrone soup, which “had a nice spice to it.” Lino reports that the beer is on tap, and that Pond Hollow wine in particular has a “smooth, full-bodied flavor”. He also found the food “good and the atmosphere really nice,” although he felt the restaurant was too bright and he wished there was live music.
Ambrosia is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5 – 9 p.m., and on Fridays, 5 – 10:00 p.m. They are closed Mondays. Reservations are available only by telephone: (415) 454-9292. To view the full menu, go to http://www.ambrosiapizza.com