Ambassade de l’ile lies in a most appealing part of London, in South Kensington. Life here seems somewhat more tranquil and definitely less hectic than in other parts of the city. Another feature that both the restaurant and the surroundings share is the very French atmosphere. Here you’ll see a few French children playing in a garden, there you have a chef who comes from Lyon, where he holds 2*. In London, he defends his city’s heritage in the capital of the « rosbifs ». On a beautiful sunny day, yes these do exist in London, and are in fact quite frequent these days, I sat on the terrace of Ambassade sipping Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque waiting for the menu and the meal to come my way. Instead of the menu came the chef, Jean Christophe Ansanay Alex, a good looking man, who left a very good impression on me. Just that you know, he had to suffer from even harsher criticism than Jocelyn Herland had, over at the Dorchester. One of these incredibly gifted British food writers went even as far as attacking him personally in an incredibly unpleasing way. I don’t see what can drive you to go to such low levels, but these guys obviously have to fill their pages with something. So, if you don’t have an idea of what is on your plate, or how it is prepared, well, then you better find some other things to write about. I for one, don’t really care about the means, as long as the end gives me what I want: Pleasure.
Having done my fair share of research, I found it quite interesting to have all of the more well-eaten people rave about the place, whilst my good friends, you know who, absolutely hated it. I don’t think that I need to mention, that this was one of the meals I eagerly awaited, if with mixed feelings.
The room, about which my dear friends have of course written their fair share of words, does appeal to me. It is very modern, certainly not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Somehow, it seemed very refreshing and somewhat in the style of Sketch (if less crazy). Another nice touch is the wide selection of newspapers and magazines available in the lounge, which you rarely see, even in restaurants of such standards. Even a German magazine was available, and that in a French restaurant! The European Union does have some effect on our everyday life!
The little terrace is lovely and whilst I sat there drinking this very nice Champagne and talking to the chef (who seems to be a very interesting and generous person), I was approached with the first little amuses: Different fried herbs and vegetables, coated in the lightest, crispest of batters that I have encountered up to this day. The fine flavours were able to stand out clearly, while the crunch gave the whole preparation this exciting side. Apart from this, the whole thing was well seasoned and provided a very, very good start for this meal.
To follow this, the second amuse bouche consisted of a little croquette of goat’s cheese and a kind of marmalade and a cod brandade with beurre blanc. The croquette was, once again, very well made and powerful in flavour. The coating was thinly coated, crisp and nearly greaseless, something I can only recall in this quality at Les Ambassadeurs, where J.F. Piege serves a divine croquette. The brandade, a classical Provencal dish, was equally well made and the beurre blanc made this (olive oil ladden) mouthful even more decadent. The original dish consists of salt cod that is flaked and mixed with potatoes and olive oil, in case you want to know. The level of the cooking was very high, which these two delicious mises en bouche clearly showed.
A few words about the bread. It is home made, which always is a delight, especially if it is as well made as in this case. Only two kinds were on offer, but they were good. They were excellent if I’m honest. Light, with a crunchy crust, a delightfully moist mie, and well seasoned. A delight. I wish, the meal could have gone on like this, but there came a few questionable dishes, which I didn’t quite understand.
The first was Consomme de Tomate au Basilic comme un Irish Coffee. A tomato consommé was covered in basil foam and in it bathed a cherry tomatoe covered in caramel. The consommé had nice flavour, but didn’t impress (after all we’re in May). I guess the usage of Magiquo tomatoes from Spain would have helped this dish quite a bit, but then these are as expensive as a good piece of foie gras. The problem was the overpowering sweetness, which also came from the tomatoe. This little thing was entirely covered in a caramel, which definitely was too thick. The only flavour one retained was the caramel’s sweetness, which would be nice, if the dish would have served as a dessert or pre-dessert, but as a starter, it wasn’t quite my thing. The froth was pleasant, but basil was only hardly distinguishable. Unfortunately, I must say that this was a mediocre dish. Honestly, it would be worth serving this as a very light, refreshing dessert, which would then be very good.
The following one, Ravioli de St Jacques et Langoustine, Agrumes, Asperge et Lait au Poivre, was another of these strange dishes. The filling of the raviolo was not seasoned enough and therefore tasted relatively bland. Or, if you prefer it this way, it was very (very) subtle. The citrus fruit sauce was, yet again, overpoweringly sweet, which I didn’t understand. The sauce just seemed to be entirely made out of caramel. It might have been the kind of dish that would have lived on the salty/sweet contrast, if it was well seasoned, but here it didn’t deliver. Mediocre again. After these two poor dishes, I began to question the whole praise the place got. After all, scallops and langoustine are among my favourite products and I can’t recall having them in such an uninspiring way.
But, things looked up. The Dos de St-Pierre tigre de Basilic, Curry, Courgette, Tomate confite et Olive de Nice featured some very good John Dory. The fish was cooked in a most precise way, resulting in a delightfully moist, firm texture, that really showed, of what this kitchen is capable. This seriously was a fine example of great product quality and precise cooking. It lacked any dryness that John Dory often has, if it is overcooked. The accompanying sauce was seasoned in a way, that didn’t overpower the rest, but gave the whole dish enough punch. The vegetables were nice, but the olives could have been pitted, especially in such a restaurant. Overall, the dish got somewhat closer to the amuses, but still wasn’t anywhere near of my initial expectations. It didn’t wow me at all, but at least it was a decent dish, which was well executed.
The following dish was certainly one of the strongest of the day. Carbonara de Homard. The title was deceiving, as I couldn’t detect any egg yolks nor bacon (the basis of Carbonara and not cream as so often wrongly assumed). Still, it was worth trying it for a few reasons. Firstly, this was some very fine lobster, not as perfectly cooked as the one at the Greenhouse a couple of days earlier, but still very well made. Also, it represented only three elements on the plate: Lobster, pasta and sauce, which shows, yet again, how much can be achieved with so little. Finally, the association with the sauce and macaroni turned it into some very comforting food. This certainly was a very strong dish.
Luckily enough, the meal did present me with one memorable course, which is all I ask for, even if two or three of those in a meal don’t hurt neither. The Pomme de Ris de Veau lentement braisee au Pamplemousse rose et Petits Pois certainly was one of those that didn’t fail to impress. This was the kind of food I had hoped to get here: Bold, simple, strongly flavoured and well executed. It was stricking to have the sweetbreads served not pan-fried, but braised. This results in a very different texture, that one could describe as being even more tender, but less creamy and rich. The cooking technique used here also features on a French classic called Ris de veau braise a la Crecy, a recipe, which also involves oranges, making me wonder if the chef might have used it for inspiration?
Wherever he got the inspiration from, he certainly did a most convincing rendering of that dish! It was fantastic: the croutons providing a lovely crunch (which obviously couldn’t come from the braised sweetbreads), the grapefruit giving it some acidity and tanginess and the peas some creamy, clear backdrop. I guess the perfect jus didn’t hurt the dish neither. It showed yet again, of what the kitchen is capable. This dish alone might have been worth coming for, even though some of the rest wasn’t quite my kind of stuff. Excellent.
Unfortunately, no cheese was offered to us, which we would have gladly accepted (I for my part at least). But dessert (mark the singular) did make up for this. I had a Mille-feuille de Rhubarbe, Crème Anglaise Vanille et Fraise des Bois. Having been told that desserts were this restaurant’s Achilles’ heel, I must confess that I thought this to be one of the stronger parts of my meal. The pastry was fantastically well made, the cream also pleasing, the sorbet intense with only the rhubarb being a bit underwhelming. It wouldn’t win any price for being highly inventive, nor very refined, but it was very well made and very enjoyable. I’d say this was very good and better than the desserts in most British restaurants.
Another very good dessert was the Souffle a la Peche blanche. A classic peach soufflé which was done in a most convincing way. All in all, this was excellent even if I struggle with soufflés, as you can throw one together in no time at home.
The petit fours must have been the highlight of the entire meal. They consisted of a Lyonnais classic: Tarte aux pralines roses de St Genix, lemon tart and two kinds of macarons. The tarte aux pralines roses is a real delight, which I absolutely love, I never had the luck to try Alain Chapel’s, but this certainly was a pristine version. The lemon tart too, was impressively well made and had spectacular flavour. The macarons were on that same exceptional level, which made me eat more than one probably should. This was all outstanding stuff, which unfortunately came a little late!
This was a strange meal. Apart from having been the most expensive meal I had in London (due to the Champagnes I had during the meal), it was also the most thought-provoking one. I couldn’t say I felt the prices to be exaggerated, nor could I argue much about the products, execution of the dishes or anything in that respect. The problems were the tomatoe dish and the raviolo. They just didn’t seem to fit into such a restaurant. I don’t understand,why the menu changes every month here, even if it makes it a very seasonal place. Serving tomatoes in May does seem odd to me, especially in a dish that relies on them being of stunning quality. The cooking certainly has capacity to improve greatly, but if such dishes do prevail on the menu, I don’t see why people could claim a second star for it. Nor can I understand anyone, who hates the place. The room is well furbished, the service lovely and the food can reach some (for London) impressive highs, at least if one chooses carefully. It is this inconsistency, that makes me question the meal I had here. I have no problem with a dish that just doesn’t do it, but if two get served, well then I start to wonder. Maybe shortening the menu even more would help to eliminate these odd dishes? What really does impress though is the honesty of the chef and his will to give something real to his guests. For instance, he is going through the menu with each customer to make sure they get exactly what they like and one can change things here and there. This is definitely a big plus, as no one apart from the chef will know better how things are done in the kitchen.
For those who are afraid of the prices, it is definitely not expensive for what you get. A lunch menu here is 20 or 25£ (the latter for 3 courses), with wine, water and coffee only 37£. At dinner, the menu goes from 45 to 70£ (for the tasting) which is a steal for Michelin starred restaurants in London. After this meal, I accompanied a friend to a little sushi place where he had dinner. Being there, I had 4 little portions of sushi, which cost a whopping 20£. Considering that this wasn’t any special sushi restaurant, it really puts the prices these restaurants charge into perspective.
One of the friends who was dining with me here clearly meant, that this wasn’t his strongest meal here today, so I might have to go back to give them another chance?