Drive down Ludlow Avenue in Clifton on most evenings, and you'll see a crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside Ambar India Restaurant. Not 'Fish Have Mothers, Too!' activists or unbridled skateboarders — diners willing to wait for a table even though there is another Indian restaurant directly next door, as well as one a half-mile up the road. Ambar seems to be the most popular of the three. Why? I wonder. Seating is about the same. It's not the oldest or newest of the three. Nothing really special about the decor of the dining room. All three restaurants have good food. On a Sunday evening, I invite two guests to help me find the answer: One is a long-time patron of Ambar and the other is a first-timer.
One reason people wait outside is the size of the waiting area: My editor's cubicle seems spacious compared to it. Unless you want to stand right in the dining room, which I've opted for during cold weather wearing my best boy-this-food-smells-really-good-and-I-haven't-eaten-since-yesterday face. (It hasn't gotten me a table any quicker.) Tonight the wait is only a few minutes before we are seated in the center of the room, almost family-style as the table directly adjoins another, with four other diners near the end of their meal. We're delighted as it turns out that one is a good friend, so lots of hugging and close inspection of their food ensues.
The dining area is one square-ish room with booths lining two sides. A high counter which separates the kitchen while serving as a work station lines another side, with tables filling all remaining space, leaving just enough aisle for the servers. Walls are brightly color-blocked in apple green, teal blue, raspberry and mustard yellow and bedecked with several prints depicting Hindu gods and goddesses. Lots of couples, families and a few solo diners — many of whom seem to know each other — fill the room with not an empty table in sight at 8 p.m. on a Sunday.
The menu is largely Northern Indian, famous for its savory Tandoori oven dishes and exotic curries. We start with an Assorted Vegetable Platter ($4.69) of samosas (deep-fried crisp pastries filled with potatoes and peas), pakoras (an Indian style fritter) and papardum (crisp spicy lentil wafer). The samosas and pakoras blend well with the exotic chutneys of fresh mint, spicy/sweet tamarind and hot onion.
Our dinners: Saag Paneer ($8.49), homemade cheese cubes (sort of like a firm tofu) cooked in spinach and cream; Chicken Tikka Saag ($10.99), boneless marinated chicken cooked with spinach, cream and tomato sauce; and the Vegetarian Thal ($12.99), a sampler platter that is a traditional Indian meal, popular for lunch. Each meal is served with Nan ($1.99 per order), the beloved Indian style, unleavened bread baked in a Tandoori oven. We found it all exciting and exotic, a romantic dance of alluring flavors.
A steady stream of carry-out customers picked up large brown paper bags filled with steaming food, including an old friend who told me he is so devoted to Ambar's food, he makes the drive once a week from his home in Anderson Township for carry-out.
I asked several people on the street what they like about Ambar in comparison with the other two neighboring restaurants. Some prefer northern-style over southern-style Indian food; some enjoy all but prefer Ambar's more social atmosphere. The most common answer was simply "incredibly good food."
Go: 350 Ludlow Ave., Clifton
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m., Sunday Noon-9:30 p.m.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: C'mon, everyone knows the cow is sacred in India. Lamb, chicken, fish and lots of vegetarian selections.
Other: Carryout available. Free parking in Clifton business lot on Howell Avenue and a small lot behind restaurant.