Chef Don Leonard made a name for himself around Spokane, serving as sous chef at places like the Davenport Hotel’s Palm Court Grill, Latah Bistro, Central Food and Italia Trattoria – and developing fans along the way.
“Everybody knows Don,” said Scott Cook, who owns Ambrosia Bistro & Wine Bar with his wife, Kara. “We’ve been kind of keeping an eye on him, where he was and what he was doing. But we never really had an opportunity until now.”
When the executive chef position at his Spokane Valley eatery opened this spring, Cook recruited Leonard to head his kitchen.
The longtime chef has been easing in to the job since early May, taking care to learn the ropes and not to hurry into any drastic changes. While he’s looking forward to influencing the menu in due time, he’s in no rush to leave his mark.
“If a place is not broken, you kind of sit back and wait and see what the clientele likes,” Leonard said. “Too many people like to go in and put a huge footprint down. Changes have to be the best thing for the customer. They have to work for the kitchen. And they have to work for the restaurant.”
Leonard didn’t attend culinary school. Instead, he learned his way around kitchens by working in them, rising up through the ranks in Portland and Seattle before returning to the Inland Northwest. Originally from Coeur d’Alene, he moved to Spokane a dozen years ago.
Ambrosia opened in December 2006. Leonard is the fifth executive chef in the bistro’s 7 1/2 years.
“It’s a busy little restaurant,” he said, noting a few loyal diners come in nearly every night of the week. “It’s driven by local people.”
Cook estimates some 90 percent of Ambrosia’s clientele are repeat customers.
“We have lots and lots of regulars,” he said. “We have lots of people that come here for anniversaries or because they had their first date here.”
And that’s by design.
“We try hard to make it a comfortable, user-friendly atmosphere,” said Cook, a former managing partner of three Chili’s restaurants in Spokane who, all told, has spent more than 30 years in the restaurant industry.
Still, people doubted his plan to open Ambrosia.
“We were told, when we first opened, that the Valley wouldn’t support a restaurant like this, (that) this is the land of chain restaurants and the Valley wouldn’t support us,” Cook said. “And that is absolutely false.”
The eatery, which serves lunch and dinner, seats 100 people, plus another 42 on the patio overlooking the parking lot.
Its wine list features some 70 bottles, most from Washington.
The cuisine is eclectic, with influences from Asia, the American South and the Mediterranean.
Lunch includes a Greek pita, Italian panino and bistro burger as well as classic French onion soup, Caesar salad and a soup of the day.
For dinner, there’s grilled sockeye salmon, apricot curry chicken, short ribs and the ever-popular chicken piccata.
“I don’t really mind it’s not so homogenous,” Leonard said. “I like to say you can’t really pigeon-hole it.”
But, at the same time, he said, “It’s very consistent.”
Leonard has updated the seasonal dessert menu, keeping the flash-fried bread pudding, served with caramel, vanilla ice cream and cinnamon sugar.
He might make some subtle changes in six or seven months or so, but not within his first six or seven weeks.
Said Cook, “He’s not trying to be anything we’re not.”