The first thing you notice upon entering Amba — a nearly museum-like space of stark black, thick rope, rattan shades and low light in Hingetown — is the intense smell of simmering, spicy Indian cuisine.
“The concept is driven by Southeast Asian spices,” says interior designer Kelley Shaffer, who succeeding in her attempt to create one of the most otherworldly dining spaces in Cleveland. “I wanted to deprive the senses so you would be completely overcome by the food.”
Located inside the “Tiger Building” on West 28th Street, nicknamed for artist Michela Picchi’s massive, colorful “Flying Tiger” mural, Amba is the latest offering by chef Douglas Katz and business partner Todd Thompson. The former machine shop has been transformed into a 5,000-square-foot eatery with two distinct rooms, including the attached cocktail lounge, Bar Amba. While the decor may be causing the biggest stir among those of us who’ve gotten an early look, the food, which builds upon the Indian-influenced ghost kitchen concept that Katz launched in 2020, is not to be ignored. The kitchen is led by chef de cuisine Cameron Pishnery, who has worked with Katz since Fire Food & Drink, where a tandoor oven inspired early experimentations with Indian cuisine.
“This is the restaurant our team has been working toward,” says Katz, who plays the role of director in the film that is Amba. “We have a dream team of people who are really passionate in their areas of expertise.”
Here’s everything you need to know about Amba, which opens May 24.
From a fluorescent-lit former machine shop, once home to Schaefer Printing Co. and built in 1923, the building has undergone a dramatic transformation into a moody and enticing restaurant lounge. Thompson, the restaurant’s chief curator of vibes, describes Shaffer’s vision for the space as a neoclassical painting from Jacques-Louis David or even Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, where highlighting the subjects are in focus to create drama. Thus, uplighting and glowing fixtures against blank walls put the spotlight on the buzzing crowd like film noir. Even da Vinci’s Judas and Jesus could get a head bob going to the enveloping playlist of bumping deep house and French electronica music that Thompson meticulously crafted over the past year.
“A restaurant experience should make you feel like you’re somewhere else,” says Thompson. “The whole idea is to be transported, to escape for an hour or two.”
Amba is split into two connected rooms with independent entrances: the main restaurant, which seats 80 guests, and Bar Amba, the cocktail lounge led by Noah Biddle which seats 40. Three tall, skinny, rounded windows bring a little more light into the main room lit by glowing, triangular rattan shades along the ceiling and tulip light fixtures on the table. A stone bar and twisted rope ceiling bring texture into the space. Two walls of banquette seating and rectangular tables in the middle of the room are designed for spontaneous additions to your party. In fact, the spacious room feels not at all jam-packed, like it could hold many more than it’s currently set up to accommodate. Meanwhile, Bar Amba’s lounge is cozier, even darker and more secluded with candlelight bistro tables separated by transparent cloth partitions.
“You really just get immersed in the experience,” says Katz.
Expect the orange and brown hues of the food menu (more on that in a second) to extend to the spirits on display across each room’s unique cocktail list. Additionally, a list of primarily sweet whites, such as rieslings, and sparkling wines pair brilliantly with the spicy cuisine — even if you think sweet wine isn’t your thing.
“Something like a gin is just going to get rolled over by the food — all the delicate aromatics and botanics would just be crushed,” says Thompson, though gin and vodka does get its shine across the menu in sips like the Frost & Licorice ($15), a tart mix of gin, Pernod, maraschino liquor, lime and grapefruit. “So we needed something that’s got some big shoulders, and whiskey has that inherent sweetness, smokiness and oak. You wrap the vanilla smokiness around mango juice, pineapple juice or anything sweet with exotic fruit flavor and you get a really cool flavor.”
On the restaurant’s list of eight cocktails and a few no-proof options, the a5 ($14), which mixes chai bourbon, mango puree, yogurt and orange liquor, and the a7 ($13), with tequila blanco, mezcal, cardamom agave and lime, exemplifies this spicy-sweet blend. Meanwhile, Bar Amba offers nine diverse signature drinks that play up magical pairings, three shots and seven classic cocktails for the traditionalists. So far, the Gypsum & Flint ($15) with bourbon, rye, Barbados rum, garam masala, blackstrap bitters and mace and the Verbena & Root ($14), a fresh, herbal blend of tequila blanco, yuzu, verbena leaf and ginger have our mouths watering.
Fans of Katz’s Middle Eastern and Mediterranean menu at Zhug will find a familiar set-up with Amba’s list of offerings, despite their Indian influence. The sharable and build-your-best-bite spirit certainly carries over. “People just love the sharing at Zhug and doing it where it’s very elemental,” says Katz. “It’s all about mixing and matching and getting different flavors.”
Start by ordering clay bread ($5) and/or the toasty gluten-free flatbread ($7), similar to naan bread, to dip in accouterments such as chili crisp ($3) and beet root or herb raita, which certainly may work alone for the right person but shine as an accompaniment to centerpiece dishes like the grilled chicken tikka ($17) in a creamy sauce and the hearty paneer cheese ($18) in a baked beans-like stew of dal, a regional legume. Still, our initial favorite are the Turkish fried eggs ($18), served in a bed of dill, yogurt and chili butter, accompanied by the Pilau ($11), basmati rice, quinoa, spices and herbs, and the Crispy Puris ($13), a wafer-like ball stuffed with refreshing potato salad and minty zhug. Of course, everything goes best with the house sauce, amba, a pickled mango chutney that resembles a barbecue sauce.
Those new to Indian food may find the menu a bit challenging. If that’s the case, order one of the chef’s tasting menus (starting at $70) or use them as a guide to plug-and-play the dishes you want to try.
Nonetheless, the exploratory menu and curated vibe come together to create a one-of-a-kind experience never before seen in Cleveland. Thanks to ethereal decor and thousands of flavor combinations, Amba is a restaurant that begs for repeat visits.