Continental dining these days is often viewed as archaic. It's what your grandparents considered fine dining. People say the food is old-fashioned; the décor is often dreary, and the wine list can be straight out of the time of Methuselah.
But then there is Amber, an eastside establishment that combines the best of old-world Continental dining and new-world style.
Located in the site where the Olive Tree spent many years, Amber serves Polish food and dishes from other parts of Europe. Yes, the crowd was of a certain age you'd expect to see at a Continental restaurant, but that's not saying the next generation won't enjoy dining here. I think they might even learn something.
The décor is anything but dreary. The place also serves as an art gallery, and the walls are filled with bright, colorful paintings. The background music is mostly classical, but I would not expect anything else.
We made reservations to dine early on a Saturday evening, and it was a good thing we did. Every table was full, and several tables turned over while we sat there. People were even eating in the barroom, which also serves as the entryway.
Earth tones and the art, by local artists, dominate the dining room. There is also a lovely patio, although it wasn't being used due to the heat.
Missing was a hallmark of Continental dining: Amber does not have a huge menu. But that could be a good thing. We started with the potato pancakes ($7) for John, and the French onion soup ($6) for me. For entrées, John ordered the Hungarian goulash ($18), and I ordered the veal schnitzel ($24). We each ordered a glass of pinot grigio ($7 each) from the rather modern wine list.
If you flinch at those prices, note that the portions here are immense—so much so that we took enough food home for dinner the next evening. Most other patrons got to-go boxes as well.
The appetizers were hefty. Six potato pancakes trimmed with a swirl of sour cream and some dabs of applesauce sat on John's plate. They were about three inches across, a quarter-inch thick and packed with potato flavor. And as good as they were, we ended up taking three of them home.
I have to admit that I set the bar pretty high when it comes to French onion soup. I grew up eating this yummy dish at a place called The Corner House in Racine, Wis., and no other version I've had has come close. Most are too salty, too beefy or covered with too much cheese—but I truly enjoyed Amber's version. Savory beef broth and plenty of tender onions had been baked in a small crock, then topped with French bread and just the right amount of bubbly, golden-brown-on-the-edges cheese. This soup was almost as good—almost.
Service was totally pleasant and informative. Our server truly seemed to care that we enjoyed ourselves.
Our entrées were also huge. John received a large potato pancake containing tender chunks of beef and vegetables with a pop of sweet, smoky paprika. Even though goulash is sort of a winter dish, this was still delightful in the dead of summer.
My schnitzel consisted of two thin, tender pieces of veal that were dipped in an egg batter and sautéed to a golden brown. I love schnitzel, and this one didn't disappoint. It was served alongside a portion of egg noodles tossed in a creamy mushroom bacon sauce that could have been a meal itself; it was a little like stroganoff, without the beef. This was a totally satisfying dish in every sense of the word.
For dessert, we chose the European cheesecake ($7). Again, this was enough for two people, or maybe more. Unlike the cloying sweet stuff we Americans are used to, Amber's cheesecake was wonderfully mild, with the cream cheese being the forward flavor. Little bits of candied lemon peel added a tartness that was surprising.
And then there was the complimentary Nalewka Babuni, a Polish dessert wine served after every dinner. Neither of us are fans of sweet wines, but we were pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as sweet or sticky as we feared.
The lunch menu has most of the same menu items, but in smaller portions and with lower prices. The meat pierogi ($9.95) that John ordered is $14 at dinner, although that comes with sauerkraut. My schnitzel at dinner was $24; at lunch, it is $16, but I can't attest to the lunch size. I ordered the turkey Reuben ($9.95), which came with a choice of sides; I took the rice pilaf.
Although service was again friendly and professional, it seemed to take an inordinately long time to get our food.
There were six pierogi on the plate, each filled plump with shredded beef. They were tasty as far as pierogi go, but the plate could've used something besides three tiny tomato slices.
My sandwich, on the other hand, was a fine example of what a Reuben should be, in spite of the fact that it included turkey instead of corned beef. The marble rye was crispy; the Swiss cheese was melted with golden brown edges; the turkey was piled high; and there was the perfect amount of tangy Thousand Island dressing. The hefty side of pilaf was fluffy and light, with just a hint of chicken flavor.
Dessert at lunch usually means a nap later, but we had to try the crepes Suzette ($7). Four paper-thin crepes were dressed in a cherry sauce and oodles of butter, then topped with a scoop of ice cream. Both sweet and savory, the crepes were a pleasant end to our meal.
Amber offers up a wonderful slice of gracious hospitality along with outstanding examples of Eastern European and Polish food—with style to boot. What a delightful change!