It has been months since my last visit to l’Ambassade de l’Ile. But that has not stopped me recommending it to others. Lately, however, I had started to feel a little guilty about this fact. What if it had changed? What if it was no longer as good as it was yet I was continuing to send hungry men and women to unhappy, unsatisfying lunches and dinners?
That is why I was delighted though surprised when Ambassade popped up on Ulterior Epicure’s programme. Surprised as I had not suspected the restaurant’s name to be familiar, yet, with those in the Americas and delighted to at last be returning, again.
When we arrived, everything was superficially the same as when I left it last; the purple lights continued to shine, the curious curios around the reception remained where they were and the TV monitors spying on the kitchen had not been switched off. And Chef Jean-Christophe was still there too. Before the summer, many believed that he was just another foreign chef out to bleed British diners dry with one more fancy, expensive franchise restaurant. Contrary to this, like a good sentry, he has not abandoned his post and still spends more time in London than at home, in Lyon.
The staff, however, are not the same; most of the faces are in fact unrecognisable from my previous meals. Something else certainly different is the menu, but then this changes every month. It usually reads very well and there are always dishes that cry out for me to order them. Today there are (too) many that we want to try, but not two to compromise, we decide to really test the kitchen…
Amuse Bouche 1: Beignets d’Herbes aromatiques. Mixed herb beignets (basilic, menthe, coriandre) together with sweet potato, beetroot and lotus leaves were promptly rustled up. The herbs, in butterfly-light batter, were crunchy without, moist within and at once sweet and savoury. The vegetables were distinct in taste and added sweetness, crunch and colour. This was my third try of this palate teaser and each time it has been better than before; so to reiterate, practise does make perfect.
Amuse Bouche 2: Palourdes et Légumes croquant; et Boudin noir ‘en croute’. Still sitting in their shells, clams came on a cushion of crunchy celery, celeriac and carrot and in a bubble of truffle butter. The shellfish were soft, contrasting with the vegetables, and briny; the truffle did not come through thoroughly enough. Black pudding croquettes lay in cider sauce, but these I could not sample.
Les Pains: Pain blanc et Pain de campagne. On my first visit, the bread impressed, but on my second, it was just decent. This time, its quality had returned to that initially high standard. The customary couple of white and brown were offered, with the former, lighter and with a more open crumb whilst the latter was dense, wholesome and very good; it also proved a potent sponge. Butter, previously supplied by Bordier, had been replaced with Échiré, from Deux-Sèvres. The new stuff was still good, but I have been brought up by Jean-Yves…
Entrée 1: Œuf « cassé » au Caviar d’Aquitaine, Un Sabayon au Citron cru et confit. A softly-boiled hen’s egg, lying in lemon confit sabayon, was adorned with Aquitaine caviar and spiked with celery leaf; bread tuile rested on the plate’s rim. The plump egg was pierced to release creamy richness into the zesty lemon that embraced it; the sabayon also held very small tangible traces of raw lemon that helped accentuate its tang. The caviar could have been the consummate component that completed this dish, had it had the concentrated crack of good quality (although admittedly in danger of extinction) wild Caspian sturgeon roe; this caviar from more eco-friendly farmed Siberian sturgeon in Southwest France had a dirtier, duller taste. Another worry was the greasiness of the crispy tuile.
Entrée 2: Polenta crémeuse à la Truffe blanche d’Alba, un Miroir de Porto. Creamy polenta, concealed under uncooked egg yolk and port glaze, came covered with a cluster of shaved white truffle from Alba and with a side of toast infused with truffle oil. The fungi’s fragrance was forcibly felt from the instant of its arrival, immediately alleviating our concerns over its additional cost. The polenta, produced by blitzing it with a literal pinch of parmesan, cream and a little milk, had an excellent soft consistency that complemented that of the dish’s other constituents; its neutral savour allowing the stronger sweet port and garlicky truffle to work with the runny, raw egg. Dipping the crunchy, thick toast into the unctuous fusion was a must: posh egg and soldiers.
Plat Principal 1: Tronçon de grosse Sole de Ligne, soufflée de Langoustine, une Béarnaise légère. A duo of Dover sole fillets, curled into coils and stuffed with langoustine soufflé, were set atop a winter vegetable bed resting in béarnaise emulsion; one coil stood, topped with fried leeks, whilst the second was on its side, supporting a grilled Scottish scampi. The clear, bright colours pleased the eye, but the theory behind a fluffy farce of shellfish was fascinating yet fishy. The first, tentative try of the vivid yellow sauce tempted a second; the béarnaise (basically beurre blanc with tarragon and egg yolk) was tangy, herby and surprisingly light – what made this Béarnaise so légère was that no egg yolks were actually included. The firm, delicate Dover sole itself was well-cooked and the filling actually firmer than ‘soufflée‘ suggested. Veg bed of artichoke, celeriac and potato gave the course some substance whilst the sweet thread that ran through the tarragon, artichoke and leeks teased that naturally in the sole and shellfish.
Plat Principal 2: Marmite de Saint-Pierre tigré d’Algue et tous les Coquillages. Nori-enrobed and steamed John Dory, seared scallop, clams and poached ‘pink diamond’ oyster arrived plated with minestrone, served from a silver marmite, added tableside. The seafood was well-cooked and well-flavoured, especially the tender John Dory that was gently complemented and contrasted by its encircling salty-sweet seaweed. The supplementary soup was composed of pasta rings, celery, carrot and courgette spiced with star anise, cardamom, orange and pesto. However, for all these ingredients, we thought it startlingly bland. The finely chopped vegetables brought bite, but some much needed zing was severely missed. In fact, it reminded me of a similar dish – Sur un Gros Ravioli de Tapenade et Marmelade d’Orange amère, Vapeur de St Pierre tigrée d’Algues – I had eaten here on a previous instance and thought exactly the same of….so I should have known better.
Plat Principal 3: Canard au Sang servi « à la Presse » en deux services. An amber-gold, glistening, fat Challans duck was delivered to our table. Arguably the best of ducks, the canard de Challans is a four hundred year old black Barbary breed from the marshes near Nantes and is marked by robust flavour and tender flesh. It was once the preserve of French kings, then made famous as the duck of choice at the legendary La Tour d’Argent.
Photographs taken, it was transferred to the nearby serving station upon which Aurelien, the sommelier, proceeded to carve up the roasted bird. The meat was removed and the remaining carcass was placed into a special ‘press’ ou presse, which, after a few twists and tilts, extracted the duck’s blood and essences.
The first service comprised the duck’s bisected breast, accompanied by sweet and sour slices of turnip spread atop a civet sauce fashioned from the bird’s distilled blood and juices. The cerise-coloured meat was beautifully marbled, much as a good porterhouse (that is the strip loin for my Americans) would be and it cut just the same too. Dark maroon civet (simply the sang, jus roti, stock and a little butter) was intense and intoxicating and delicious. Segments of translucent, rusty-tangerine tinged turnip, seasoned with sherry vinegar, honey, green anise and peppercorns, were the final tasty touch. The inherently honeyed, peppery root was acutely acidic and seductively sweet; this last aspect may have been from the anis vert, one of the holy trinity of herbs that go into absinthe.
The second serving entailed the bird’s leg and liver, which had been cooking a little longer whilst we ate our preliminary portions, laid on frisée and rocket salad, dressed with hazelnut oil and balsamic vinegar. The canard cuts were deeply ducky with the skin, crackly crisp. Bitter leaves, with their roasted nut and mildly acidic vinaigrette, cut through the richness of the meat nicely. After the heartiness of the last course, this simple salad was rather refreshing.
Entremet: Velouté de Cèpe « comme un Cappuccino », Vapeur de Foie gras. A velouté of cèpes, concealing steamed foie gras lardons, was crowned with milk foam and dusted with mushroom powder. This course was presented in a double-handed coffee cup and saucer, ‘like a cappuccino’. The mushroom mixture, living up to its name, was velvety smooth and decadently heavy. Submerged, succulent foie was teamed with thick chunks of meaty cèpe under the comforting cream. This dish, typical of Chef Jean-Christophe, is exactly the sort that I associate with Ambassade.
Les Fromages: Notre Sélection de Fromages Anglais et Français, Pains Toastés et Condiments. We contemplated the offer of cheese. Though unsure of whether to accept it, we thought it worthy of at least a look. However, after Holly, our principal serveuse, had to steer three separate cheeseboards across the room just for our viewing pleasure, we felt a little guilty and felt obliged to indulge (even further). Each table had a theme: the first board featured house-mixed Cervelle de canut – a speciality from Lyon of fromage blanc flavoured with herbs, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper; the second, English cheeses (Montgomery Cheddar, Stinking Bishop and Port-soaked Stilton); and the third, several French cheeses.
We took the Cervelle de canut, Port-soaked Stilton, Napoleon, Vacherin Mont d’Or and Baby Munster; homemade hazelnut-raisin and cumin crackers, seedless red grapes and confit kumquats came too. The Cervelle was very good and very moreish. The classic recipe was lightened to just chives, chervil and shallots (i.e. no garlic), making each mouthful a little easier on the palate in preparation for our sweets. Cervelle de canut translates to silk worker’s brain; named after the canuts who worked the silk mills of nineteenth century Lyon, it reflects the contempt well-to-do weavers had for them. The Napoleon, a cow’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees similar to Ossau-Iraty, was mild and smooth; the baby munster, also cow’s milk but from Alsace, was much stronger. The Stilton, to which Ambassade had added the Port itself, packed a punch whilst the Mont d’Or was maybe not yet ripe enough. From the condiments, the kumquats, what with their thin, sugary skins sheathing tart juicy flesh, stood out.
Dessert 1: Tarte sablée à la Châtaigne et Citron confit, Sabayon au Lagavulin. A tuile dome, dusted with gold leaf, lay over a sablé ring that was filled with chestnut mousse and lemon confit; imprisoned between the pastry and sugar bubble was rye whisky sabayon, sneaking out. With a tap or two, the costly cupola was cracked and access was allowed to the strong, but slightly sweet single malt Scotch (Lagavulin – from the island of Islay), then earthy-sweet chestnut; the confit citron commingling with the mousse, was an agreeably acidic counterpoint.
Dessert 2: Truffe Chocolat blanc et Truffe blanche d’Alba, un coulis de Poire. White chocolate boule, bedecked with white truffle slice sitting atop half a white choc truffle and filled with white coco mousse infused with more white truffle, stood in conference pear coulis and was circled by a silver sugar tuile spiral. The boule broke readily to reveal creamy, thick mousse. We had been eager to find out whether the truffe blanche would work. We were not disappointed. The chocolate and truffle each had its distinct flavour yet with the garlic-like savour of the latter humbled into harmony with the former. The pear sauce was sweet, delicate and gently fragrant.
Dessert 3: Ananas Victoria rôti entier à la Vanille Bourbon. Another salver was shown off: one whole, roasted Victoria pineapple, skinned, scored and stabbed with Bourbon vanilla pods, was stuffed with brioche and grapes, soused with St. Etienne rum. The Victoria, a small, sweet and intensely fruity breed, had little acidity and fine texture; the stuffing was juicy and rich with vanilla ice cream proving an effective control when called upon. Bourbon vanilla picked up on the subtle floral notes in the rum (good rum distilled from pressed sugar cane itself and not its by-products). This variety of vanilla is from the French island, Réunion (in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar), which was formerly Île Bourbon and where, together with Victoria, it is a traditional delicacy.
Petit Fours: Madeleines; Macarons aux Amandes et Chocolat; et Caramels fleur de Sel. To finish with, we had lemon-hinted madeleines, almond macarons with chocolate middles and salted caramels. The cakes had a nice citrus hint to them, but were not served piping hot, as is essential. Bonbons, dubbed caramel moos by the staff, melted in the mouth. The macarons, made with Guanaja 70% Valrhona, were very good; crisp and dense with the dark chocolate lingering on the palate.
Service was very good – although it should be noted that restaurant was more empty than full. We always had someone’s attention when we needed it, courses came in good time and we were treated very well. Holly was very well-informed, friendly and interested. Aurelion made some excellent choices with the wine and gifted us a glass of Domaine du Tariquet Famille Grasa 2007, which clearly must have been special as habitual readers know I rarely comment on my tipple. However, he also served full glasses with the other wines rather than the requested halves (let’s call it even?). As much as I found the service agreeable and all the FOH individually very nice, there appears to be room for a little polish. Maybe the staff have not been together long enough? Maybe it is easier to work in a full restaurant rather than almost empty one? Whatever the cause is, I am sure it will be resolved in time or at least tested as Ambassade’s popularity grows and reputation spreads.
In hindsight, we ate enough for four (and spent just as much), but we did not regret the eating it. There were a couple of dishes that fell short of the mark – l’oeuf, le marmite - that we would not have done wrong not ordering, but the high quality of the other courses and excellence of the very best – le canard à la presse - mean that those were almost forgotten. Desserts seem to have always fallen short of savouries here, however, after this visit, it seems that the sweets can now stand toe-to-toe with them (as well as the afters at London’s other restaurants). This should not surprise as the chef de pâtisserie, Pascal Molinès, is a MOF and former World Pastry Champion.
Ambassade’s style is classic French, but always with a little improvisation. The food here is rich, powerful and often delicious. The flavours are big and bold and that is what I like. There are also all the hallmarks of haute cuisine; indulgent recipes, luxury ingredients and a little theatre too. And the cooking is exciting – something that cannot always be said of other similarly geared restaurants.
Something I have noticed about Ambassade since it opened is its ability to polarise opinions. From what I have seen and heard and read, either one does not like the food here or one really likes it – there does not seem to be a middle ground. Additionally, people’s feelings are often at the more extreme ends of the spectrum; its critics tend to hate it whilst its fans, to love it. I like this too. I want to eat food that elicits some sort of emotional response from me. And that is what one generally gets at Ambassade de l’Ile.
I am pleased to say that Ulterior Epicure liked it too. I am even happier though to finally be able to use this line, which I have been shamelessly saving:
With food like this, ambassadeur, you are really spoiling us.
119 Old Brompton Road, SW7 3RN
tel: 020 7373 7774
nearest tube: Gloucester Road, South Kensington