Within moments of rolling my window back up, the interior of my car was imbued with the honeyed aromas of an Indian spice market. As my windshield fogged over with the steam of dinners future, it was all I could do to not pull over halfway home to tuck into a few crisp samosas. They say we eat first with our eyes, but my bag full of Amba proved otherwise.
I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around how odd it is to pull up to a building one day to procure South American fare and return a few days later to the very same building to obtain Indian food prepared by the same crew. Depending on which hats they happen to be wearing, culinary elves deep inside that cloistered building are dispatching cuisines from a kitchen that simultaneously is home to both.
In the post-Fire world, Doug Katz has filled much of his attention to opening virtual eateries that shun dine-in eating in favor of pick-up and delivery. Chimi
, which debuted in June, presents Katz’s and chef Cameron Pishnery’s take on South American cuisine, while Amba, which followed in November, offers the team’s take on Indian food. Katz would be the first in line to tell you that Amba is not intended to serve as a definitive example of *authentic* Indian cuisine, but rather the chef’s personal exploration of flavors and textures inspired by that country.
To simulate a restaurant experience at home, we transfer hot foods from paper take-out containers to warm serving plates. We pile high the steamed rice, lay out the buttery naan and pop the tops of the many colorful chutneys that serve as meal’s condiments. Dinner kicked off with a bang thanks to those flaky samosas ($12), veggie-filled pastries that arrive in the familiar triangular shape. The mellow, comforting flavors provide the perfect backdrop to test out the chutneys, which range from tart and sweet to herby and hot. For what Katz calls “Indian-hot,” add an order of the absolutely incendiary lal chutney ($1), a Ferrari-red tonic that scorches on contact.
On the other end of the spectrum is the brassica poriyal ($10), a bright and citrusy vegetable medley of crisp-tender cauliflower and broccolini. The kitchen takes its time roasting the vegetables and it shows in the form of great color and texture on the food. Dried mulberries add intriguing sweet-tart pops throughout.
Another pair of dishes nicely illustrates the diversity and range of the offerings. In the spicy keema ($17), ground lamb and warm spices form an earthy stew that feels like a familiar Indian restaurant-style dish. In the sambar ($19), however, delicate flanks of lingcod – a buttery, flaky cod-like fish with milky-white flesh – sits in a flavorful, mildly spiced broth that keeps the meat moist. These two delicious but distinctive dishes will have you reaching for steamed rice and tender naan (which is included). Not included but worth every penny is the biryani ($12), a splashy rice dish studded with fresh herbs, saffron, peas, raisins, slivered nuts and crispy fried onions.
For dessert, we enjoyed a fat square of golden honey cake ($7), a moist, rich cake with restrained sweetness. A slick of sharp yogurt sauce below and a sprinkle of chewy coconut above added a nice boost.
Ghost kitchens were enjoying momentum before the pandemic, but have since picked up speed for obvious reasons. Diners – especially those of us in Cleveland, where delivery options had been limitless as long as it was pizza – are the ones who benefit the most. Who doesn’t love the convenience of ordering and paying online for effortless curbside pick-up and delivery. For me, meals at home, regardless how delicious, can never replace the social experience of a restaurant visit with friends. But until that all returns, we’re lucky to be fed and fed well.
For Katz and company, Amba and Chimi offer real-time R&D – the opportunity to kick the tires of a potential brick-and-mortar restaurant that could come to fruition one day. The prolific chef has even hinted at a third such concept to join the Cleveland Heights ghost kitchen, which will require an entirely new wardrobe of hats for those industrious elves.
1975 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.