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Disparity colors Amber dining experience




This newbie says it’s “introducing Tucsonans to the richness and variety of European and Polish cuisine.”

Based on two recent visits, the Polish fare is worth getting to know, while the European counterpart was a largely uninspiring encounter.

We started our first visit with a pair of simple, excellent dishes – Potato pancakes with sour cream and apple sauce ($7) and Mizeria ($3). The pancakes were thin as crepes, oh-so-delicately browned to dainty, lacelike crispness, and had interiors that were pleasant, almost-rubbery and a restrained, upscale potato flavor. Served with small dollops of apple sauce and stripes of squeezed sour cream, it was a mild yet interesting start to the meal.

The Mizeria, paper-thin slices of cucumber in a sweet cream sauce flecked with black pepper, was intriguingly sweet and mild, with the cucumber so carefully and uniformly sliced that they were almost petallike. As with the pancakes, the spicing here is decidedly bridled, with a pristine, comfort-food simplicity prevailing.

We were eager to try a bowl of Borscht, but were informed that the red variety was sold only at lunch. The White Borscht ($7) was a somewhat curious presentation of a thin, slightly milky broth essenced with vinegar and swimming with bits of kielbasa and hard-boiled egg. There was nothing wrong with it, but not a lot right with it, either.

Entrees, though generously portioned, struck us a little overpriced considering the quality of food we received. We wanted to sample the Grilled Polish Kielbasa ($16), but they were out, so we went with European entrees.

The Pan Seared Duck Breast ($23) was served on a risotto topped with duck confit and a side of sliced and lightly poaches apples and pears. The medallions of sliced breast were only slightly different in flavor than standard-issue pork tenderloin, and was cooked past the pink hue that normally heightens the flavor. The confit was much more conspicuously duck, but its pairing with the somewhat al dente risotto was awkward, with the confit’s saltiness combining with the risotto’s pungency in a fashion that obliterated the flavor-challenged duck breast.

The Veal Schnitzel ($24) was two pork chop-sized servings of boneless-breaded veal served with a egg noodles in a cream sauce with mushrooms. The noodles were appealing, the sauce coming off as a cross of alfredo and stroganoff, one pleasantly augmented with the bacon bits and delicately sautéed mushrooms. The schnitzels were a big disappointment. Though the breading was thin and golden, the veal itself was overly thick, dense and dry, conveying a flavor and texture that was much more like pork or chicken-fried steak than veal.

Desserts ended the night on a positive note. The European-style cheesecake was intriguingly cakey and airy, with a subtle hint of anise and a quiet sweetness that had a playful and interesting character. The Crepes Suzette was served in classic style, the crepes thin and rubbery, the sauce dramatically sweet and citrusy. The major departure from classic versions was the sheer size of the dish, a gathering of half a dozen crepes swimming in a pool of sauce that could easily sate three people. The German Chocolate Cake, which for those who don’t already know, is neither European nor German (is usually attributed to Trenton, N.J., circa 1905), was divinely moist and chocolatey and mortared with a luxuriously sweet coconut frosting that almost tasted of butterscotch.

I went back to Amber for lunch, eager to sample the Borscht and the kielbasa. Alas, there was no borscht to be had.

“Nobody ordered it, so they just took if off the menu,” the server told me. She also told me there was no shortage of orders for the Polish kielbasa on Ciabatta roll ($9.95). In fact, it sells so well that they often run out of the sausage for the dinner crowd, as my companion and I had earlier experienced. The kielbasa is flown in from a somewhat secret source in Chicago, and has clean, lean profile and hefty hit of fennel and spicy heat. I opted for sauerkraut on one half and sautéed onions on the other. The onions were caramelized to a good sweetness, but were no match for the sausage. Next time, I’ll go all sauerkraut, as the sour tang of the kraut is just right for complementing the notably good sausage.

Service at Amber on both visits was pleasantly friendly, in a way that belies the tender age of the restaurant. Though the servers are youthful, the tone they convey is one of a family-style haunt that’s been open for decades. It’s almost as if this restaurant, which spent so many years as the Olive Tree, has retained the vibe of the longtime Green mainstay despite the overtly amber makeover.

Though we were less than wowed by our dinner entrees, Amber seems to be pulling in a good dinner crowd, more than a few of which were ordering and enjoying the same schnitzel of which we were so unenamored. The pancakes, mizeria, kielbasa and desserts we sampled are more than worth going back for, enough to have me thinking this attractive and well-staffed newbie should hold its own.


Address and phone: 7000 E. Tanque Verde Road, 296- 9759

Hours: open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers from $7 to $12, soup and salads from $5 to $11, entrees from $14 to $29, desserts from $6.95 to $7.95

Bar: full

Vegetarian options: Fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil salad with olive oil and a balsamic glaze; Mizeria (cucumber salad in a sweet cream); Red cabbage and carrot slaw.

Desserts: Crepes Suzette, German Chocolate Cake, Crème Brûlée, Homemade European Style Cheesecake, assorted ice creams and sorbets

Latest health inspection: Passed opening inspection in December. Has yet to undergo its first unannounced inspection.

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