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Livin' La Vida Ambiente

I do not know how to dress for Ambiente. For women, it's pret ty easy just think of Jennifer Lopez having a night on the town, with a provocative dress and strappy shoes, and you'll be right there. But for guys, it's tougher. How does Ricky Mar tin dress? Cool looking T-shirts and pants without a lot of things in the pockets, I think. I have a feeling Enrique Iglesias doesn't wear a shirt all that of ten. I remember Marc Anthony more for his music than for his clothing. And Ricky Ricardo, with all those puffy shirts, just seems wrong.

Ambiente 3 stars
45 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra,
(626) 300-5447
Dinner: Fine Caribbean dining everyday in a destination restaurant and night club created by Blair Salisbury of El Cholo fame. This spacious dress-for-the-occasion eatery in the heart of Main Street Alhambra is further proof (the best to date) that this is an area worth noticing -- and the place to go for ancho chile glazed short ribs and Drunken Carnitas, washed down with a Mojito Cubano and a Lemon Meringue Martini.
Price: About $25 per person
Reservations: Essential.

I finally settled on a look that's mostly Tommy Bahama a pair of soft-looking, tan pants with one of Tommy's understat ed Hawaiian shirts, the sort where the design slowly emerg es from the fabric as you look carefully at it. A pair of butter scotch colored Fratelli Rossetti lace-ups seemed to finish things nicely. I didn't want to look like a farmer in for the country for a night on the town. I want ed to look as if I belonged in Ambiente.

Of course, it wouldn't have hurt if I could have done a head transplant as well my beard is more UCLA than salsa. But, you know how it is you've got to work with what you've got.

Ambiente is a restaurant worth getting dressed up for. Unlike Madre's, it's not a landscape of poseurs, wannabes and hangers- on; this is a real Latino night club, with food and drinks to match, a journey to Miami's South Beach or even to Old Ha vana, right in the heart of born-again Main Street Alham bra.

It's the creation of Blair Salis bury, scion of the El Cholo/So nora Cafe restaurant group, who's working hard to prove that the son also rises. He owns the El Cholo on Fair Oaks in Pasadena. He's busy opening a new concept called Dona Rosa. And he's the proprietor of Am biente, which is to the Eastside what the Conga Room is to the Westside, only without the atti tude. And with far better food.

Ambiente sits on Garfield, a long block south of Main Street. If the valet isn't there, don't panic there's a lot of parking in the mall lot across the street, and in the city lot right behind, though on weekends, things do get busy.

The room itself is a peculiar space, a high-ceilinged ware house of a room with open beams that feels as like one of those rave joints where people take over a big room for the night. Except this is an elegant warehouse of a room, with dra matic retro art on the walls and a proscenium stage at one end. There's a disc jockey booth near the stairs that lead to the upstairs, where there are offices and a private lounge.

Down below, there are long ta bles against the walls, occupied by large groups this is not a restaurant to go to by yourself. There's also an outdoor patio that's a very cool place (figura tively and literally) to sit not so much away from the scene, as in a scene all its own.

Ambiente (which translates as "atmosphere, environment, am bience'') is the sort of place where you don't just want to look good you want to feel good. And one path to tempo rary happiness is the exotic drink menu.

Of course there's a Mojito Cu bano, and a dang good one a muddle of ice, mint leaves, sug ar, Monte Cristo Aged Rum, Triple Sec and lime juice (bet cha can't drink just one of those!). There's a classic (and rarely seen) old style libation called a Michelada ice, lime juice, tomato juice or Clamato and Corona a Bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka. There's a fine margarita (as I said, the owner is from El Cho lo, so you'd expect nothing less).

And there's a Lemon Meringue Martini of Absolute Citron, lem on juice and whipped cream. It's not for me, though it could be, if I'd only stop being such a ****tail purist.

In terms of food, the menu is Hispanic Caribbean-Eclectic without a lot of geographic boundaries. Some of the dishes are Mexican, some Cuban, some South American, some just plain Californian as in the case of the salad of spinach, Asian pears, Belgian endive, bleu cheese, spiced pecans and raspberry vinaigrette, a crea tion filled with California signi fiers. Ditto the Dungeness crab cakes topped with a tomato-mango-papaya relish; the ingredients are Latino, but the audacious combination of them is "all-Cal, all-the-time.''

There's a fine chicken soup here that's really more a stew than a soup, of marinated chicken and grilled veggies in a broth flavored with tomatoes and habanero peppers; it's got zing.

Pozole is on the menu nightly, rather than Sundays only (as it often is) a chunky bowl of purple hominy, pork, cabbage, red onions and radishes, a dish with a toothy bite to it.

Check out the daily shrimp ap petizer as well, recently a trio of shrimp dishes tied together by the presence of prawns, but otherwise wildly different one from the other; it's a tough dish to share I suggest you order a double portion to keep greed and envy at bay.

Entrees are substantial, and crazy creative. But here's the funny thing the entree prices are way down there. They hov er around $15 a pop, dropping to $13.25 for the coffee and an cho chile glazed short ribs (messy on the fingers; watch out for the fine duds!), rising to $17.50 for the imposing black ened New York steak (with spinach and garlic mashed, and a tomatillo-avocado salsa). On the Westside, the prices would be about double that; in Alham bra, there are still bargains to be found.

Let me put in a good word for the mango-ginger flavored pan- seared tuna, which manages to make everyone's favorite culi nary cliche taste fresh and good again. And for the chilagua salmon, doused with tomatillo sauce, atop of an island of but ternut squash. I like my carni tas with crunch, and at Ambi ente, they've got a well-fried exterior that crackles with ev ery bite, like mini-chicharrones in your mouth.

There's much more shrimp sauteed with avocado and horseradish, flavored with hon ey and rum, sugared and served in an upgrade enchilada.

For dessert, you can have many sweet things sweet potato tart, rum-banana creme brulee, a cajeta souffle. Or you can have a cigar on the patio (there's a cigar section on the menu, next to the cognac and tequila selection. Or, you can just do what most do which is dance to the live disc jockey on Thursday, or to live salsa music on Fridays and Satur days (there's also comedy on Sundays).

After all, you're dressed in what an admission card refers to as "fashionable attire.'' You look good, you've eaten well and drink much. Even if you have two left feet, you'll feel good on the floor. And you'll be making room for another Moji to.

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If anyone is familiar w/where the Alhambra Havana House is, Ambiente sits about a block and a half away. Great Restaurant and the food and service are excellent. They have a patio w/built in fire pit where they encourage you to torch up your cigars. Their Humidor leaves a lot to be desired, however, the drinks make up for this so bring your own smokes.

Took the wife there for our Anniversary. :al
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