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River-Level Revamp: Hotel Contessa’s upgraded Ambler Texas Kitchen isn’t just pretty to look at 

click to enlarge Ambler Texas Kitchen + Cocktails sets itself apart with an approachable, comfort food-focused angle to its fare. - NINA RANGEL
  • Nina Rangel
  • Ambler Texas Kitchen + Cocktails sets itself apart with an approachable, comfort food-focused angle to its fare.
When I first learned that the river-level restaurant at San Antonio’s Hotel Contessa had been renovated and rebranded, I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly looking forward to a visit. My last to the hotel was circa 2015, and my memory focused on a dingy, slightly off-smelling water feature that spanned one wall of the cavernous, almost dungeon-like river-level lobby. I felt a tinge of dining PTSD brought on by thoughts of dark upholstery, heavily traveled area rugs and awkwardly placed up-lighting that, let’s face it, flatters no one.

Color me shocked when I visited the hotel again this spring, about a month after the newly renovated eatery, Ambler Texas Kitchen + Cocktails, opened its doors. A brighter, airier color palette of rust, cream and royal blue now reflects the sunlight spilling in from floor-to-ceiling windows. In other words: a much more welcoming vibe than I remembered. The rectangular bar is at once stylishly modern and a tad rustic, creating an approachable space at the heart of the venue and hinting to potential diners what kind of culinary experience awaits.

One my first visit, my dining partner and I started with the Texas pantry board and the roasted cauliflower and chorizo queso. The pantry board — Ambler’s take on charcuterie — was loaded with house-smoked duck and Tasso ham, beef jerky, Texas cheeses, jalapeño honey and tart pickles. The succulent smoked duck was easily our favorite protein, and we slathered the herb-heavy Texas goat cheese over toasted crostini with gusto.

While the queso ran the risk of joining Ambler’s house guacamole as a token River Walk Tex-Mex appetizer, the slightly gamey chorizo flavor that permeated the gooey cheese helped elevate the dish. At any rate, it warranted a to-go box.

For the main events, we stuck with the Gulf red snapper and chili-glazed short rib. The snapper featured a chorizo crust, lightly dressed summer vegetable medley and a tangy verde sauce. The fish itself was seasoned and cooked expertly, though the sauce, which looked more like a punchy chimichurri at first glance, ended up being unexpectedly bland. The short rib was fall-off-the-bone tender, rendering the steak knife I’d been given ahead of the meal unnecessary.

An enchilada featuring a charred root vegetable filling stuffed inside thinly sliced potatoes, rather than quick-fried corn tortillas a la my abuela, was topped with crisp, uber-fresh pico de gallo and offered a creative accompaniment to the short rib.

I’m not necessarily interested in living a tortilla-free life, but this creative take on an enchilada certainly got my home-cook wheels turning.

My Riverwalk Sangria was presented in a glass that could have easily doubled as a fishbowl. The drink was delightfully tannic, and fresh citrus complimented the sweet notes of the wine without pushing it into syrupy-sweet territory.

A second, solo happy hour visit afforded me a prime seat at the bar from which to people-watch while noshing on the house guacamole with crab meat and crispy fried vegetables with a delicious horseradish-chive remoulade. The addition of crab to the guac costs a little extra, but the difference in texture and taste were well worth the upcharge.

I nursed a Spill the Tea cocktail, which features green tea-infused Tito’s vodka, peach puree, salted honey, lemon and a dash of absinthe. Garnished with an expertly activated bouquet of mint, the flavors proved balanced and botanical, making for a refreshing afternoon sipper.

Ambler’s recent top-to-bottom renovation provides a straightforward compliment to the revamped food and cocktail menus. The new look of the eatery offers a brighter, more approachable space where diners from near and far can indulge in traditional South Texas fare with thoughtful, sometimes even unexpected, twists.

Ambler Texas Kitchen + Cocktails
306 W. Market St. | (210) 229-9222 |

Breakfast: Monday-Friday 7–11 a.m. | Saturday-Sunday 7–11:30 a.m.
Brunch: Saturday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday noon–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday–Thursday, Sunday 5:30-10:00 p.m. | Friday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. | Sunday 5:30-9:30 p.m.

Price point: Lunch dishes from $10-20, dinner entrees cap out at $40

Best bets: Chili-glazed short rib, Texas pantry board, house guacamole with crab, Spill the Tea cocktail

The skinny: The new owners of luxury downtown spot Hotel Contessa revamped its restaurant space, along with its food and drink menus for a much-needed update. The results are, hopefully, indicative of SA’s emerging hotel culinary scene. While it may seem like luxury hotels are cropping up downtown every week, Ambler Texas Kitchen + Cocktails sets itself apart with an approachable, comfort food-focused angle to its fare.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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