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Local chefs find their place with mAmbu, offering that elusive blend of good food, good service and good vibe

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mAmbu

1806 Hayes St. 329-1293

Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; for dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., till 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

A white rectangular sign hangs over the front door of the blue Victorian house at 1806 Hayes St. Imposed over a block of yellow and a block of pink is one word: mAmbu. If I just happened to be driving down the street, on my way to DaVinci’s Pizza two doors over, or Las Palmas Mexican Restaurant on the next corner, I would be intrigued. The light that glows from the tall windows beckons, and the small “open” sign on the front door announces that mAmbu is receiving guests.

Step inside the bright-green entry, and you’ll be met at a reservations desk made out of several pieces of old-fashioned, hard-sided leather luggage. Walk down the long hall, and you can take a peek into the rooms on both sides, each with their own distinct look and vibe. There are three to the left: the front room, with old X rays curled into floor light stands and a wall-length stretch of netting that ensnares whimsical trinkets like pom-poms, swimming goggles, a Barbie doll and a toy toaster; the middle room, painted deep, sensuous red, with wooden chairs glamorously padded in leopard fabric and a collection of feather hats on the fireplace mantel; and the back room, exotic as a sultan’s tent, with huge swaths of multicolored silk and satin hanging low from one corner of the ceiling to another.

At the front of the house to the right is the periwinkle room, so named for the pale shade that covers the walls, on which has been stenciled the mAmbu mantra: “drink talk live eat.” Behind that room is the small lounge, with seven tall, metal-backed stools at the intimate L-shaped bar, a few tables and mAmbu’s freakazoid monkey logo emblazoned on the wall.

What the hell does “mAmbu” mean? The actual definition is anyone’s guess, but what it really means is that Nashvillians now have another unique, creative, independent dining choice on their plate, one so thoughtfully priced it can be frequently enjoyed, and one so fun and welcoming, you’ll be dropping by even when you’re not hungry.

The wizards behind the curtain will come as no surprise to those in the food scene: Anita Hartell and Corey Griffith, formerly of Sasso, the restaurant they opened in East Nashville three years ago with businesswoman Nina Neal. The pair parted ways with Neal this past January, at which point Hartell decided she didn’t want to open another restaurant. But Griffith felt otherwise. So when the pair found the house on Hayes, and it just happened to be the perfect place for the kind of restaurant they would do if they were ever insane enough to do a restaurant again, well, what choice did they have?

“I felt like after Sasso, we needed to prove ourselves,” says Griffith, who moved here from San Francisco in the mid-’90s to chef at Cakewalk, which is where he and Hartell met.

“Once you’ve done your own thing, it’s hard to work for someone else again,” Hartell says. “It’s hard to find a place where the owner will let you take the menu and run. That’s understandable; it’s a hard, hard business and you do what you do to survive. We understand that a lot better now. We learned a lot from the Sasso experience.”

If customers come to mAmbu on a Friday or Saturday night, they’ll be greeted at the door by Hartell—who has typically preferred to stay in the kitchen, clad in a white chef’s jacket and a head wrap. But that’s one of the lessons that she and Griffith learned from their time at Sasso: If both chefs in a chef-owned restaurant are in the kitchen, neither one knows what’s happening in the front of the house, which can lead to some service complaints.

“We got a bad rap at Sasso for service and long waits for food,” Hartell says. “We decided that on our busiest nights, I would work the front. If I am on the floor, I can communicate better with the kitchen, because I know the kitchen, I know how it works. Customers don’t care what’s happening back there. They just want their food cooked the way they want it in a reasonable period of time. At the same time, if it gets really crazy, I can throw on an apron and help out back there.”

Though Hartell still cooks some nights, and the pair collaborate on the menu, Griffith is in charge of the kitchen. Ted Prater, most recently Deb Paquette’s sous chef at Zola, is now performing the same job at mAmbu.

Though the interior of the restaurant presents plenty of eye-candy, make no mistake that when it comes time to eat, the food grabs the spotlight. As is his wont, Griffith gathers culinary seeds from China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, and scatters them throughout the menu. Diners who appreciate the signature balance, clean flavors, fresh ingredients, subtle nuances and palate-awakening zings of that region are the beneficiaries.

Among the Asian-influenced appetizers are the lobster-tail satay, featuring lightly battered chunks of the sweet meat served with a delicate rice-vinegar-cucumber chow-chow; plump, refreshing vegetable spring rolls with a happy sparkle of basil leaves and cilantro sprigs; deep-fried quail paired with spicy green papaya salad and cool citrus dipping sauce; and Griffith’s signature, gigantic steamed shrimp dumplings with cilantro-spiked dipping sauce.

Many of the entreés also have an Asian bent. The most accessible of these is the seared, wasabi-crusted tuna, which, depending on how rare you order it, is not unlike sashimi; but the bonus is a bird’s nest of fried sweet potatoes piled atop the fanned tuna slices, along with a side of sautéed bok choy. Other samplings from the Far East include roasted duck breast atop spicy noodles with a ginger soy sauce; the caramelized shrimp bowl with crispy bean sprouts, fresh veggies and buckwheat noodles, reminiscent of the Vietnamese noodle dishes that Griffith loves; and the juicy jumbo veal chop marinated in a Korean red barbecue sauce, then grilled and plated with a lemongrass glaze.

Classic and hearty bistro fare offers options to diners not enamored of ginger, lemongrass and soy. Start with a bowl of mussels in a garlicky tomato broth, the fried calamari, or the crispy lamb phyllo rolls with a sweet fig raita. Salads at mAmbu are scene stealers, particularly the arugula with mango, walnuts and goat cheese; pickled beets on mesclun greens with bleu cheese and orange-horseradish vinaigrette; and wilted spinach with shiitake mushrooms and miso dressing.

When the weather turned cold last week, I immediately thought of Griffith’s Alsatian rabbit; the chunks of tender rabbit meat in a stew of root vegetable ragout, creamy gnocchi and port wine sauce will take the chill off the most frigid winter night. Comfort food gets tweaked in several dishes: roasted-fennel-and-orange chicken with black mission figs, Yukon gold potatoes and Granny Smith apples; salmon schnitzel with potato latke and cherry tomato chutney; beef filet medallions with pancetta scalloped potatoes; and slices of roasted lamb fanned over stewed white beans and spinach-walnut-gorgonzola ravioli. Sautéed Swiss chard is a staple on many plates.

Portions are generous, but don’t hurt pastry queen Rebekah Turshen’s feelings by snubbing her desserts. There’s always room for lemon-basil sorbet or one of her delectable chocolate concoctions.

The wide array of dinner choices aside, mAmbu is also a fresh answer to the tired question, “Where shall we lunch?” Smaller portions of many of the dinner apps and entrées, main-dish salads and a selection of distinctive sandwich options come out fast, delicious and priced from $6 to $9.

“All we want to do is cook good food in a nice atmosphere that people enjoy. Doesn’t that sound easy?” Hartell asks with a smile. If owning your own restaurant were easy, everybody would do it. It is excruciatingly hard work, and it is a daunting challenge to find the elusive balance of good food, good service and good vibe that makes customers want to plunk down their bottoms and hard-earned dollars. At mAmbu, Anita Hartell and Corey Griffith have found it; now it is up to diners to find them. Drink talk live eat. That’s simple enough.

Got Jack?

This weekend, the Jack Daniel’s Great American Tailgate Judging Crew hits the parking lots of Adelphia Coliseum as part of its nationwide search for the best tailgaters in pro football. The crew will be looking for fans who demonstrate great cooking ability, creativity and team spirit. Winning teams in each city will be recognized with trophies and prizes awarded by the Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

At the end of the season, the winning tailgate teams from the cities whose professional football teams make it to the Super Bowl will be invited to the Great American Tailgate Party in New Orleans, Feb. 1-3. With the Titans’ 1-4 record, it’s not looking good for local tailgaters, but fire up those grills, boys, and win one for the Gipper. Keep up with the search and get some tailgate recipes at www.jackdaniels.com.

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