Food & Wine

Ambience: Fine dining that's small on portions, big on taste

Photos by Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Chef Morgan Song’s recent Ambience creations include chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse cake, pictured, lemon cream pastries with pulled sugar and candied violet, and tuna and prawns with ponzu sauce, wasabi caviar and fresh herbs.

The newly opened Ambience restaurant in downtown Los Altos is certainly full of intrigue. Passersby on State Street can’t help but peer in the tinted windows of the first-class fine-dining establishment to survey the chef’s 11-course sampler menu at $135 per person.

Chef Morgan Song’s new creation is a far cry from the former Lucky Chinese Restaurant that occupied the same space at 132 State St. a few years ago. Song, who has been in the restaurant business 37 years, has been anointed one of San Francisco’s top five chefs (and therefore, one of the nation’s best). He operated a top-tier restaurant in Carmichael, outside Sacramento, before coming to Los Altos.

If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat before dashing off to the theater, don’t make a reservation at Ambience. The dining experience is likely to take from two to four hours – our visit on the restaurant’s Aug. 15 opening night lasted nearly four hours.

The restaurant and its cuisine are the evening’s highlights, period. And the food is not mere sustenance, it’s high art – culinary art, that is. The courses are designed to wow the eyeballs, stimulate the imagination and satisfy the palate.

The system is much different from your standard dinner out. Instead of a few courses with a lot a food, Ambience paces the diner through small portions of each course. Select wines complement each dish. Note: The wine pairings are an additional $85 per person.

The goal of the dining experience, according to Song’s wife, Unni, is to leave the diner feeling neither hungry nor heavy, but perfectly satisfied.

At other establishments, the interaction between diners is the chief experience, and the food, no matter how good, is often an aside to the table conversation. At Ambience, the chef, his cuisine and his staff are at the center of everything. Song doesn’t appear to be interested in volume – a known perfectionist, he wants to serve his best to a handful of diners. During our opening-night stay, the number of customers totaled 15 or fewer.

From the moment you walk in, the Ambience staff makes it clear that you’re in for something special. The waitstaff offers detailed descriptions of each course – much of it went over our heads. Pretentious? Maybe, but we appreciated the spirit in which it was intended.

The menu offerings give diners a clue that this meal is not created for mere mortals: Seared Lobster, Green Horseradish Coulis, Tomato Ginger Puree, Russian Cucumbers, Wasabi Caviar, Rack of Lamb, Micro Greens, Songyi Mushrooms, Fonseca Port Apricot Glaze Reduction.

As with any restaurant this unique, there are a few trade-offs: You may love the lamb, as I did, and crave more than a small portion, while not enjoying the Chilean Sea Bass as much. But the advantage of a tasting menu is that you’re not stuck with a large portion of one particular item you’re indifferent to.

I’m confident, however, that most Ambience diners will enjoy virtually everything the chef offers. He’s a true pro with an already stellar reputation, and his new restaurant should prove a destination for culinary art aficionados all over the Bay Area. Imagine diners from San Francisco making the trek down to Los Altos for a change. If any fine-dining restaurant is going to make that happen, it’s Ambience.

For reservations and more information, call 917-9030 or visit

Ambience, Los Altos - Images by Los Altos Town Crier

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