PAWS Magazine

 

Issue 48, Winter 2001

 

Dining that’s elegant and animal-friendly

by Lisa Parks

Step into a world where greens team up with noodles, fruits, and grilled vegetables in extraordinary, zesty combinations; where vegetables, dressed in unusual spices, explode into lush, aromatic meatless dishes.

You are dining at Café Ambrosia. Welcome.

Open since October 21, 2000 (in the former location of an Azteca franchise), the restaurant is perched over the eastern shore of Seattle’s Lake Union. The stark angularity of the light green stucco building does not prepare you for the burst of originality within. Inside, linen tablecloths, soft lighting, and elegant cuisine conspire to create a quiet, peaceful atmosphere overlooking the water.

Ambrosia Food

Café Ambrosia is an upscale gourmet vegetarian restaurant that features an international menu. Its mission: to furnish an unforgettable vegetarian dining experience. Those looking for tofu stir-fried with a few simple vegetables and soy sauce should scramble over to another location—Café Ambrosia’s specialty is elegant cuisine, artfully presented. The unexpected flavors pay homage to cooking from various regions of the world, as is obvious from the names on the menu, like “Winter Israeli Couscous” and “Thai Gnocchi.”

The great news is that these colorful, fragrant, flavorful dishes also bolster a healthy lifestyle, and utilize the best possible ingredients. One Seattle diner describes the experience as “sensual.”

The heart and mind of this unique restaurant are Francis and Carol Janes.

They are a slender, graceful pair, radiating good health. Where Francis is petite, Carol is willowy. Francis is a third-generation restauranteur, and hails from Vancouver, British Columbia. Carol, a Seattle native, is a lawyer and still regularly participates in the PAWS attorney workgroup. She is also an avid musician, and has performed in numerous Gilbert & Sullivan Society productions.

Dressed in a trim white apron over pin-striped black pants, Francis pauses for a few minutes in the midst of a hectic Friday night dinner shift to share his reflections on opening a vegan, haute-cuisine restaurant in Seattle. Perched on a stool, he heaves a sigh that seems understated for a busy restauranteur. His large eyes are intent and thoughtful, though not without humor.

“It’s a busy night!” he remarks. “I will need to go soon to check on our guests. I like to talk to diners, hear what they think about the restaurant.”

This concern over every diner’s experience seems to be the hallmark of Ambrosia’s spirit of hospitality. The Janes’ goal is to provide a gracious atmosphere and a happy, memorable experience for their guests. In many ways, Café Ambrosia is an extension of the astounding multi-course dinner parties for which Francis and Carol were well-known among friends and family.

They feel that the shared dining experience is a pivotal event among loved ones, and are excited to extend this hospitality to the Seattle community at large. Food, in their opinion, has a greater function than merely sating hunger. “Healthy food nurtures both the body and soul,” comments Francis.

Restaurants are generally the fruition of their owners’ dreams, but Café Ambrosia is also the embodiment of a cherished philosophy: an organic, vegan lifestyle.

Many people’s faces curl up in horror at the implied restrictions of the vegan diet—no meat or dairy products—but no one seems to be suffering at Café Ambrosia. Unusual, succulent combinations such as Vegan Spanish Paella (“Fragrant saffron paella with seared oyster mushrooms, spiced apples, grilled broccolini, and green onions, presented with creamy mint chile sauce”) are the reason why. Are you quivering with hunger yet?

Janes is especially proud of a lemon dessert he calls “Teasecake” (made with millet and cashews), which is a tasty, but healthier, non-dairy reincarnation of the sinful cheesecake.

So why eat vegan?

Francis’s own switch to vegetarianism came on the heels of a close friend’s bout with cancer. Watching his friend suffer through painful treatments, Janes decided to investigate a healthier lifestyle for himself to stave off such disease. “It was fascinating to discover the impact of food on health and the body. It became clear to me that the North American diet is not good. It’s high in fat, sodium, and protein. Not enough fiber.”

A plant-based diet has the additional endorsement of offering antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals, all of which promote good health. The diet is low in saturated fats and is cholesterol-free.

“I made the switch mainly to give myself the best chance of avoiding cancer and disease.” But after conducting his own research, he found more reasons beside health—revolving around ethical, ecological, and humanitarian issues—to confirm his new commitment. “A vegan diet is more efficient ecologically, and shows compassion for sentient beings, not just the few we call pets.”

Fewer natural resources are used in a plant-based diet than one that is animal-based. Large-scale animal food production systems gobble up land and vegetation, and also generate enormous amounts of waste that harm soil and waterways.

With 10 years of veganism under his belt, Francis has noticed positive changes. “It was a remarkable change for me in health, especially after giving up dairy products. Because I used to have [respiratory problems] and couldn’t breathe well. Now I haven’t missed a day of work in 10 years.”

He was skillful enough in the kitchen to adapt to vegetarianism without a problem. Janes received culinary training at a cooking school in England, but his education began informally at an early age, in the kitchens of family restaurants and at home. “I was baking bread by the age of 10.”

Ambrosia with Franics

He credits his grandfather with inspiring him to cook. “He had a restaurant in Newfoundland called The Boston Café. It had sandwiches, soups, and pies—basic fare. It was great going there.” Janes pauses and flashes a wide smile. “Every time I went to grandpa’s, I got pie!”

He joined forces with his father to open The Wok Inn in Vancouver, where he was also the chef. Already interested in preparing healthy food, Janes specialized in cooking fresh Asian dishes without MSG or other additives.

In creating a high-end organic restaurant, Janes says his intention was to ‘elevate the vegan menu.’ “We wanted to show you could have good dining on a plant-based diet. We wanted to be more elaborate, and show more attention to detail.”

Internally, Ambrosia fosters creativity among its workers. “This restaurant is a collaborative effort,” explains Janes. “We rely on talented chefs in the kitchen.” The collaboration bears fruit in the form of menu items like Smoked Tandoori-Spiced Yams, served over savory coconut tapioca garnished with tamarind cranberry chutney and mint oil.

“We also work with suppliers and ask them what new products are available—like new potatoes, squash, legumes.” Menus rotate to reflect seasonal availability of produce. Janes and his chefs have a constant supply of new foods to experiment with. “There are 70,000 known edible plants but [in North America] we eat only 7,000.”

Ambrosia has gotten good reviews in the papers, and the Janeses are pleased with its progress. The restaurant business is an unrelenting proposition, though, and Francis invests most of his waking hours in Ambrosia. “To own a restaurant, you must love the business, love food, love giving your customers a consistently outstanding experience.”

Comments from customers such as, “That’s the most delicious meal I’ve ever had!” fuel Janes and his work.

Although Seattle is home to a highly vegetarian-friendly population, the customer Janes seeks is not necessarily a vegan. “I would like to have many non-vegetarians come here and take interest in using more vegetarian food in their diets. I like helping people explore new possibilities in eating.” In addition to offering cooking classes, he hopes to write a cookbook.

Café Ambrosia strives toward stocking their cellars at least 90% full of organic food (many come from local sources), including: grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Even the beverages must fall under code, and 90% of their coffee, tea, juice, wines and beers are certified organic or use ingredients derived from organic production.

So what exactly constitutes organic food? It refers to products that have been grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Natural methods, which have less impact on the environment, are substituted for chemical-intensive agriculture. Organic foods are usually processed very little in order to retain nutrients and avoid dousings in artificial preservatives, many of which may have deleterious effects on human health. Organic growers make use of insects, mulch, and sustainable cultivation techniques. Organic food is produced on a much smaller scale than traditional commercial farming, and is more labor-intensive.

According to Janes, many chefs agree that organic foods have a superior taste to conventionally grown products. Organic farming has several other benefits, such as increasing water quality. Since chemical pesticides end up in water run-off that feeds into streams and lakes, they affect aquatic populations. Also, organic farmers tend to utilize more exotic varieties of greens and vegetables, which ensures biodiversity.

The Janeses have strong civic sensibilities, and would like Café Ambrosia to serve as a positive example of organic living, and bring their talents and ideas to the public.

They hope to help in the process of transitioning to a society that saves, rather than wastes, its resources. “Adopting a vegetarian diet and supporting organic farming is a step in this direction.”

Café Ambrosia
On Seattle’s Lake Union
2501 Fairview Avenue East
Seattle, WA
206-325-7111

Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11 am to 2 pm
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10 pm
Prices Lunch avg. $10, Dinner avg. $17

Reservations
Café Ambrosia partners with Open Table to accept on-line reservations. Visit Open Table at www.opentable.com, or call Café Ambrosia directly at 206-325-7111.

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