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Beautiful setting, disappointing food at the Ambassador

There are some widely shared opinions about the Ambassador Dining Room, the Indian restaurant that has operated on the ground level of the Ambassador apartment building since 1997.

The first of them, which is nearly unanimous, is that the terrace is a knockout. Set at the back of the main dining room, it overlooks the lush and fragrant gardens behind the apartment building in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.

It's good to be back here, under cover, sitting on a wide comfortable chair at your formally set table. The other diners also have that contented look of people who have discovered the best things about a city.

Opinions about the inside dining room, it's fair to say, are more splintered. Some luxuriated in the opulence, others found it stuffy. I like the idea of dining in a gracious old relic of a more civilized era, but actually doing it makes me kind of dozy. So like most dinner guests do in good weather, I headed straight back to the terrace.

The next take on the Ambassador, which I'd say is a majority opinion, is there was always a mismatch between the expectations raised by the posh setting and the food, which people thought was not all that much different, and certainly not better, than what you'd get at other Indian restaurants in Baltimore where it was priced a dollar or two less across the board. (It really is just a dollar or so, although people will insist otherwise.)

Are those extra bucks worth it for the fragrant setting, the formal service and the dappled sunlight? That's for you to decide. My only advice is not to date seriously anyone who disagrees with you.

Now here's where it gets a little tough.

Count me among those who have always thought the food at the Ambassador was seldom great but always good enough, especially if you knew going in what to expect. I don't remember ever being disappointed, but on a recent visit I was disappointed, more or less from beginning to end.

We had savory pastries that were mushy, meat that was overcooked, sauces that were thin. And even the elegant preparation you could always count on the Ambassador for — and which made it worth the investment — wasn't holding up on this visit.

There were two dishes where the food presented to us bore little resemblance to the description of it on the menu. The alu chaat was more potato salad than the savory snack described on the menu, with no presence of black salt or roasted cumin. An entree of shrimp adrak, the menu said, is marinated before grilling in lime juice, chilies and ginger. These are pretty basic flavors, the kind of things you notice the absence of.

We just didn't like a tenderloin of lamb served in a chive and fennel sauce mostly because it didn't look or taste like lamb to us.

It was the tandoori grand platter, a presentation of various marinated and grilled pieces of chicken, shrimp and lamb, that distressed me the most. Not a thing on it was satisfying. The chicken was especially dry and everything was shy of seasoning.

What happens when things don't look how they're described — or taste as if care has been put into them — is that it sullies everything else about the experience. Now the waiter's formal demeanor starts to feel a little arrogant. And the beautiful setting starts to feel like a trick.

The dishes that came off best were a mulligatawny soup, where the mild seasoning was refreshing, and the chana masala was not a superior version of this common, near omnipresent, curried chick-pea entree, but it was OK.

And if everything at the Ambassador on this last visit had been OK — not great, but not bad — then we could pick up right where we left off the last time we were all talking about the Ambassador.

It would make me so happy if the next time I heard someone talk about the Ambassador, they said the food was like it was in the old days — perfectly fine.

Ambassador Dining Room

Rating: 1 1/2 stars

Where: 3811 Canterbury Road, Tuscany-Canterbury

Contact: 410-366-1484,

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers $2.75-$11.50 ; entrees $14.95 -$27.95

Food: Indian

Service: Businesslike

Best dishes: Chana masala, lamb vindaloo, chicken jalfrezi

Outdoor dining: The covered patio with its view into the garden is exceptionally lovely.

Parking: On-street parking in a mostly residential neighborhood.

Noise level/television: Civilized and comfortable, no televisions

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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