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Ambrosia Bella
****
Out of a possible five
$$$

Ambrosia fare a jewel for Angola

The menu at Ambrosia Bella in Angola says it combines small-town charm with big-city taste.

The coffee shop and lunch spot that has now expanded to fine dining in the evening is the brainchild of chef Ben Lamson and Miranda Hartwell.

Lamson is more big city. Born in Lincoln, Neb., he spent time in Iraq while with the Marines and then learned his craft at the Culinary Institute of Virginia and trained at many reputable restaurants there.

Hartwell is more small town. Born in Sylvania, Ohio, she started her culinary career at Mulligan’s in Angola and worked at The Boathouse in Coldwater, Mich. She eventually ended up in Baton Rouge, La., and worked in Washington before heading to Virginia, where she met Ben.

Lamson is the chef, but Hartwell plays a big part in the kitchen, too. And the two of them create that “big-city taste” together.

But Ambrosia Bella isn’t really offering big-city tastes. For me, it was all about small-town, locally sourced tastes lifted to gourmet levels. There was no better example than the finest dish I had there – the pig ear.

Part of the tapas-style small plates portion of the menu, the pig ears were julienned and fried until crisp and served over crispy fried kale with banana peppers and a runny, sunny-side up egg. The little strips of pork looked like potato straws, but these crispy, salty jewels were filled with pork fat. The kale was perfectly fried to tame its bitterness without eliminating it and the peppers added a bite of vinegar and heat. The oozing yolk was the perfect sauce and I actually would have loved two eggs so I would have had more sauce. Regardless, it was a masterpiece.

The pork tenderloin was another simple masterpiece. The thick slices of tender, juicy, perfectly pan-seared and roasted pork were deftly seasoned to not introduce too much spice, and the sweet bourbon-peach glaze just lightly touched each slice so it, too, didn’t mask the meat’s natural flavor. It was beautifully garnished with crispy fried leek straws and accompanied by green beans and roasted fingerling potatoes. Simple but sensational.

Another dish in any Indiana mom’s repertoire was so delicious it made me want to drop my fork and call my mother to apologize.

Ambrosia Bella’s meatloaf was better than mom’s. Lamson uses beef and pork in his loaf, which he stuffed with gouda cheese and glazed with a ghost chile choron sauce (variation of a classic béarnaise with tomato). The glaze and caramelized onions in the loaf gave the super moist hunk of meat more sweetness than heat even with the insanely hot ghost chiles included, so don’t be scared.

A silky smooth pile of green peppercorn-infused mashed potatoes sat under the loaf, along with green beans, and crispy shallot rings were scattered about the plate. It looked like an everyday loaf, but its flavor was a special occasion.

There were some special finds at lunch, too. Ambrosia Bella’s burger, which is also on the dinner menu, is a 60-40 blend of grass-fed beef. It was nicely seared and, like the pork, was not over seasoned so the flavor of the beef really stood out. I had mine with cheddar and havarti, and both were melted until gooey, which made the extra juicy burger a messy masterpiece.

The Pear Berry Salad was a great light option, but it was still big on flavor. Plump blackberries and blueberries, sliced pears, red raspberries and an almond-laced granola were mixed with arugula and served with a thick, sweet blueberry and white balsamic vinaigrette. The intense peppery flavor of the arugula was the perfect foil for the sweet berries and dressing, and the granola gave it a nutty crunch to help offset the other strong flavors.

There was plenty of sweetness at Ambrosia Bella. Given it started out as a coffee shop and lunch spot, there were a variety of cookies, scones and other small hand-held treats in its dessert case. All were great, especially when paired with the impeccable cappuccinos concocted by Hartwell, who also has an extensive coffee background.

The Snickerdoodle Blondie Bars were crazy good. They were basically snickerdoodle brownies that were soft and almost doughy. If grandma’s hugs had a flavor, these bars would be it.

The chocolate-berry scone had that same doughy goodness and was so soft and moist I almost didn’t want to call it a scone. I had to take a couple home and I even hid them from my kids to ensure I got every morsel.

Ying-yang cookies seem to always be available and I shared them. During one trip, they were half lemon, half lime and citrus delicious. The next time it was chocolate chip on one side and chocolate-chocolate chip on the other, and both halves were chocolicious.

The dining room at Ambrosia Bella did not have a good yin and yang, however.

The restaurant is nicely decorated with an eclectic mix of modern furnishings with retro touches. There are portraits and aerial photos of area lakes, artsy black-and-white detail photos of espresso shots being drawn, onions being chopped, syrup bottles and a snazzy one of the owners sitting behind the counter. The brown tin ceiling and aluminum used on the walls of the men’s restroom gave it an industrial edge, the sleek curtains and a couple of chandeliers added elegance.

But the acoustics were really troublesome when it was busy. It was loud during a standard lunch and headache-inducing during the busy dinner. And given dinner was not in the plans at the start, perhaps ventilation needs to be addressed as during dinner smoke billowed out from the kitchen and left a haze hanging over the dining room.

The servers were attentive, but there seemed to be no organization. I had more than one server trying to wait on me during each visit. But this didn’t keep things from going awry.

I requested a glass of water from one server and never received one, so I asked the second server for the same. Within a few minutes I had two glasses of water. At lunch, as things got busy, a second server stepped in to help and wanted to know what desserts we wanted even though we had already told our first server several minutes before. She did get them for us, but asking again showed a lack of professionalism.

Those flaws were not enough to keep me from making Ambrosia Bella a regular part of my rotation, however. The professionalism shown in the kitchen makes it a new jewel in the area’s dining scene.

Restaurant: Ambrosia Bella

Address: 2011 N. Wayne St., Angola

Phone: 260-243-4064

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Pig ear ($8), Pear Berry Salad ($8), meatloaf ($17), pork tenderloin ($18), burger ($11), blondie bar ($2.75), cookies ($1), scones ($1.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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