One of the Sacramento area's best fine dining restaurants is closing. I spoke by phone with Morgan Song, the owner/chef of Ambience Restaurant in Carmichael, who told me business has lagged and he has decided to relocate to Los Altos. He expects to pack up and close for good by the middle or end of January.
This is a significant loss to the local culinary scene, as many food aficionados considered Song to be among the best, most precise and artistic chefs in the area. Almost all of his dishes were so beautifully plated you couldn't be blamed for staring instead of eating.
And yet, Ambience was rarely crowded - and wasn't as crowded as it should have been or deserved to be. Song said much of that had to do with the less-than-prestigious location in Carmichael (he extensively renovated an old Wendy's) and the persistence of the economic downturn.
That may be partly true. The meals at Ambience were prix fixe, meaning there were no options for anything but the $70 for five courses or $95 for seven courses, and the cooking was geared toward nouvelle French cuisine. If you wanted an $18 pasta dish and a glass of wine on your way home from work, you were out of luck. A gourmet burger and a beer at happy hour? Not here. It was all or nothing. In that location and in this economy, that was probably a recipe for failure.
But some of Ambience's problems were self-inflicted. After I raved about the restaurant in a 2009 review and gave it four stars overall, Song told me he was going to limit the number of reservations he took after that so he could maintain his very high Michelin-caliber standards.
While it's admirable that this Type-A perfectionist wanted to serve each customer only his best work, without any rushing or any cooking missteps, I just don't think it was a good idea to keep a restaurant half empty. When people go out to eat - and especially when the bill is going to be $150 or more for dinner for two - they want to feel like they are siding with a winner, that they are at a so-called hot-spot. No matter how great the food is, if folks look around and see empty tables, they're going to start to wonder. Only the very confident customer would not feel a little insecure about eating in a mostly empty dining room.
Morgan Song is a superbly talented chef, but he is a stubborn man. In that regard, he reminds me of Daniel Pont, who, when he was downtown at his La Bonne Soupe, refused to hire any help - and the line at lunch was often out the door with a wait of 90 minutes or more, as customers stood and watched Chef Pont take orders, ladle soup, slice sandwiches, grab drinks and then make change, over and over. Now Pont is doing fine dining at his Chez Daniel in Folsom, but some of those staffing issues remain -- and he doesn't accept credit cards on Friday and Saturday because he thinks the credit card companies are too slow to pay up through the weekend.
Song only had one or two others helping in the kitchen at Ambience. That's not nearly enough - and it certainly isn't sustainable if you want to handle dozens of customers at this very high level, serving course after course and maintaining perfect pacing at multiple tables simultaneously. It's mathematically impossible. And yet, Song wouldn't hire more people in the kitchen.
I often hear from readers who ask me to remark on the noise level at restaurants, as they are put off by music or chatter so loud that they cannot carry on a civil conversation. The only thing worse than a restaurant that is too noisy is one that is too quiet. Ambience was too quiet. And it wasn't as fun as it should have been to eat there, despite the engaging servers, the wonderful food and precise pacing. There was no view, little energy in the room and the music was soft and romantic when successful restaurants these days are much more up-tempo. These restaurants opt for hard surfaces for a reason - the noise may reverberate until your head spins, but it sounds exciting. People go out, in part, to be part of that excitement.
Ambience had many devotees who will be disappointed, if not devastated, by the news of its demise. Lynn and I have dined at Ambience many times and enjoyed scores of superior meals there. I'm certain that if Michelin stretched its boundaries beyond the Bay Area and Napa Valley and rated Sacramento restaurants, too, Ambience would have been a contender for a Michelin star.
Song says he is looking forward to the new location and the new challenges. One of his goals is to finally get that Michelin star in Los Altos. This well-heeled Bay Area town between San Jose and San Francisco offers better demographics for Song's approach to prix fixe fine dining. There will be more people willing to pay $200 for dinner. But there will also be more competition for those dining dollars.
Those who love Ambience, or those who are curious about this chef's skills and have yet to dine there, there's still time. As noted, Song isn't packing up until the middle or end of January. I will certainly miss his Beef Wellington, the wild boar, the black rice, scallops and sea bass, among many others.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.