Perfect for special occasions, business entertaining, out-of-town guests, or just a beautifully serviced and presented meal for two, Amber Café has been a Westmont mainstay for 12 years. Set on Cass Avenue just north of the railroad tracks, it's next to the main downtown municipal parking lot.
I first visited Amber a week before the 2004 opening when I pulled up in front to see who the new kid on the block would be.
Locking up for the night after a long day of putting finishing touches on his soon to open restaurant was the proprietor, Branko Palikuca. During our curbside meeting, Branko articulated his dreams for Amber and after my first visit, I was a believer.
Branko would go on to open Topaz in 2008 in Burr Ridge and Dolce in 2009 in Westmont, both successful ventures. Together, they comprise the Gemstone Restaurant Group.
Understated elegance is one way to describe Amber. Composed of three separate dining areas, the front dining area is a bistro sized, upscale gem. Comfortable seating, full linen service and hushed tones set the stage for a relaxing meal.
There is additional seating in the rear bar area as well as a beautiful three-season walkout covered patio. The patio area is sided and heated during the cooler months and is in great demand during the summer season, as it is both a comfortable and relaxing dining option. Full bar service is available along with an extensive wine list.
The menu is revised quarterly to reflect seasonal variety with signature dishes remaining, some since the restaurant's inception. Daily specials always supplement the regular menu and serve to broaden the scope and offer something for every taste.
After beverage service is initiated, a hearty bread service is presented. Our choices included a whole grain harvest containing seven different grains and a polenta bread with a nice chew. Served with unsalted butter, topped with a bit of sea salt and parsley, a repeat visit to our table becomes mandatory.
With several Starters to select from, the Steak Tartar makes a fine sharing course. Coarsely ground sirloin is mixed with shallots, pureed chipotle chilies, sherry vinaigrette and a few herbs and is then paired with grilled bread and an interesting take on crème fraiche. The crème fraiche is a chunkier, more crumbly version similar in texture to some goat cheeses. Together, the steak tartare plate provided a nice opening round.
While the wedge salad includes all the standard ingredients – ice cold lettuce, crisp and slightly thick bacon, fresh tasting cherry tomatoes and a delicious, crumbly blue cheese dressing – combined and served on a chilled plate, they join together in a perfect harmony of flavors. Another light alternative is the roasted beet salad. It's an eye appealing mix of different colored beets served adorned with orange segments and feta cheese.
Soups continually rotate and the Onion Soup is a rich and deeply flavored option. Melted cheese is not that star of the show as in a classic baked French onion soup, but rather the broth takes center stage. Simmered for hours allowing the onions to soften and caramelize, the soup takes on a deep, dark color matching its flavor. While topped with a Parmesan crouton, this soup pairs perfectly with the bread selections.
If you're feeling a bit more extravagant, Lobster Bisque has been a mainstay since opening and features a table pour of each individual velvety smooth portion.
The Grill section of the menu features several beef options from steak sandwich to filet mignon to veal and chops. The Steak Frites consists of a sliced, grilled prime sirloin revealing a just-as-requested medium rare interior. Topped with an onion marmalade, which provides a complimentary caramel color and a nice sweetness, the steak is also served with a nice rendition of the classic frites, here referred to as Amber fries. Dusted in parsley, they were crispy and greaseless.
With several seafood choices standing out, everyone should try Amber’s signature dish and a mainstay since opening, the Lake Superior Whitefish. Served crispy with the skin side up, the whitefish is served on an eclectic bed of flavors. Anchoring the bed is fregola sarda, an Italian small bead pasta from Sardinia closely resembling Arab couscous. The pasta is joined by mushrooms, spinach, a few oven charred tomatoes and a gently flavored lemon buerre blanc sauce. The resulting combination provides a great example of why Amber has been successful for 12 years and why this dish remains on the menu.
While the Favorites category features a delicious burger as a solid option, a meatier choice are the Short Ribs. The short ribs are roasted for hours producing a fork tender rendition. Pan drippings are combined with house made veal stock and carefully reduced to create a flavorful demi-glace.
The accompanying gnocchi are house made and then pan fried instead of boiled to caramelize the exterior and also provide a textural contrast to the silky soft interior. This multi-layered dish is rounded out with crisp green beans, sweet peas and a small salad consisting of arugula, fennel and apples. This is a monster portion with the leftovers carrying well the next day on a short rib and brie sandwich! As a side note, all sauces and stocks are prepared in-house resulting in an extraordinarily rich flavor.
Dessert choices at Amber are mainstream and dependable, ranging from Chocolate Lava Cake to a delicious White Chocolate Cranberry Bread Pudding that is creamy soft and decadently sweet.
There is also a selection of gelatos and sorbets, but the carrot cake is one of my favorites. It is actually a square of super moist cake with a sandwich and topping of light cream cheese frosting. The carrot cake is secured to the plate for presentation by a pool of caramel and provides a nice ending to a memorable meal.
Amber has remained successful by retaining its signature dishes and creating new, seasonally coordinated menus and specials around this core. Catering is available and private parties are easily coordinated – think patio bridal or baby shower, or front room graduation dinner to name a few.
Like an old friend, Amber has stood the test of time and remains a downtown Westmont gem and proud cornerstone of the Gemstone Restaurant Group.
WHERE: 13 N. Cass Ave., Westmont
HOURS: 5 - 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Closed Sunday and Monday
DRESS CODE: Business Casual
INFO: 630-515-8080 www.ambercafe.net
NOISE FACTOR: Medium Buzz
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