Some heated conversation on the chowhound boards piqued my interest: Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex, the 2* Michelin chef/owner of Auberge de l’Ile, Lyon was opening a new restaurant in Knightsbridge. A little research uncovered that, from mid-June until July, there would be a soft opening on. When I discovered the 25% discount offered over this period, I immediately made reservations for what turned out to be opening night.
Upon arrival, the dining room was still being arranged, but given that it was indeed the first night, I had adjusted my expectations accordingly and was prepared to let any minor faux pas slide. Whilst waiting to be seated, I took the opportunity to scout the interior. Though split into several segments, the dining area’s tall ceilings and comfortable table layout set an open and sophisticated tone. The décor was a fusion of elegant and eccentric; dark purple walls, white leather seating, mood lighting and TV screens with a live feed to the kitchen. The tables were laid with clean, crisp white cloth and embellished with a single white lily. The setting was conducive to good dining, but with one small criticism: I was not keen on the mood lighting. Its slow revolution of colours proved a little distracting, infringed on one’s espial of the food and may be considered, dare I say it, a little déclassé.
That night the kitchen was offering one menu with two choices: 3 courses, sweets & desserts (£65) or 5 courses, sweets & desserts (£90). I selected five courses, for the sake of a fuller review of course.
Amuse Bouche 1: Les Beignets d’Herbes, de Patate Douce, de Betterave et de Feuille de Lotus. Mixed herb beignets (basilic, menthe, coriandre) were expertly executed; no hint of grease and leaves still moist and juicy. Sweet potato and lotus leaf added an exotic sweetness, whilst the beetroot provided the bite. The contrasting flavours and colours were pleasing to the eye and to the bouche.
Amuse Bouche 2: Miettes de Crabe, Pain de Gingembre, Sabayon Wasabi. An amuse of coarsely chopped crab, sandwiched between two gingerbread crackers in wasabi sabayon was gorgeous. The sweetness of the crab and sharpness of the wasabi were at once countered and matched by the spicy sweet gingerbread. The dish was a deliciously clever play on flavours as well as textures: smooth sabayon, coarse crab and granitic gingerbread. Yum!
Amuse Bouche 3: Foie Gras, Cerise, Caramel. This amuse, on the other hand, failed to amuse. The combination of foie, cherry and caramel (maybe as spread?) upon a rather brittle, dry cut-out of toast was a little cloying for my taste. The acidity of the cherry helped counter this, though insufficiently so.
Les Pains: The bread selection consisted of a choice of lightly-toasted white or brown. This Spartan array was, however, easy to forgive thanks to the bread’s rustic crust, airy texture and tangible taste of onsite baking; délicieux! The accompanying butter, whose origin, I am rather chuffed to admit, I instantly diagnosed as that buttery Basilica, St. Malo, was also superb.
First course: Délicat Mollet de Foie Gras, Emulsion de Morille, Grosse Asperge Verte. The slow-cooked royale of foie gras, veiled beneath cappuccino-esque foam, natant in morel emulsion and decorated with a stem of asparagus was devilishly delicious. The rich, ethereal foie melted like butter on the tongue. The morels, plump, bursting with flavour and drowning in thick bisque (laden with cream and butter no doubt) only added to the dish’s luxury. The asparagus, besides, as something green and healthy, fulfilling a makeshift lightening rod role to attract and digest any lingering gras-induced guilt, added little.
Second course: Sur un Melon rôti au Poivre, Langoustines Bretonnes (et exceptionnel Jambon Ibérique). Served in an open sardine can (nice touch), three langoustines, bedecked with slices of orange-pink Iberian ham, rested on a warm slice of peppered cantaloupe. One problem here: I do not eat pork, a fact mentioned whilst ordering. Once notified, my serveur apologetically and swiftly replaced this dish with another (or the same) serving, minus interloping ham. I was disappointed; last week at Bacchus, Chef Nuno had replaced the set pork dish with an almost entirely new creation, here the ham was merely removed and dish re-served thus.
Refocusing on the food…The bright carrot hews were attractive and appetising; the langoustines, whilst sweet and plump, were also deficient in number and size; and the melon, though described as rôti, was delivered tiède. That said, the cantaloupe’s fruitiness tied in well with the sweetness of the shellfish and the pepper offered a delicate, fresh contrast.
As a side note, I am a big fan of peppered fruit, a combination I chanced upon long ago and indulge in daily (usual lunch = frozen yoghurt, berries, black pepper).
Third course: Nage tiède d’Huître et St-Jacques, Chantilly d’Herbes au Caviar. A creamy, plump scallop and portly ‘princess diamond’ oyster sat swimming in a warm lush potage of Chantilly cream and herbs with a small speckle of caviar stippling the mix. The amber coat of this insincere scallop deceived me: it looked better than it tasted. Though of obvious good quality, the cooking let it down; crispier on the outside, creamier within is what it should have been. However, the oyster, bursting with fresh, salty zest animated the dish and, together with the caviar, provided a sharp counter to the sweeter scallop and cream.
Fourth course: Omble Chevalier à la Peau Croustillante, Un Beurre de Mousserons. A delicate, flaky fillet of Arctic char was decorated with a petite tranche of crispy skin and rested atop a plinth of Mousseron mushrooms soaked in velvety mousseline. The pastel shades of ecru, beige and chestnut echoed the soft and mellow tastes of the ingredients. The char, prized (no less) for its sweetness and tenderness, was semblable to a dulled salmon in flavour (same fish family) and did not enthuse; the de rigueur sauce was naturally delicious; and the skin provided a pleasant and new crunchy texture to the dish. The magnific mushrooms were the meridian of this course; these earthy, meaty champignons added depth and intensity.
Fifth course: Grillade de Noix de Veau de Lait au Vinaigre de Jerez, Purée de Pomme de Terre Nouvelle à l’Huile d’Olive. The meat course consisted of a cut of grilled milk-fed veal tenderloin on a bed of mashed potato, drizzled in Jerez sherry vinegar and olive oil and garnished with confit cherry tomato and rocket.
‘Hmmmm’ was my first impression. For those yet unable to decode my groans and grunts, this meant surprise. I was surprised by the very unsurprising-ness of the dish; it whispered brasserie, whilst the price tag yelled restaurant-shooting-for-Michelin-stardom. It was just a little too ordinary, too mundane to be the meal’s summital dish. This obviously did not stop me eating it. The veal, grilled well-done on top and rosy underneath, lacked both force in taste and submissiveness in texture. In contrast, the mash, smooth and flavourful, was good and the piquant vinegar was a splendid touch, giving the dish the kick it deserved.
Gingerly, however, my initial criticism of the plate’s simplicity began to evolve into sceptical admiration. The ingredients – veal, vinegar, potato, tomato, rocket – each contributed a clear, confidant and precise flavour; could it be that there was a certain refinedness, an elegant purpose hidden in this dish? I was torn.
Thinking retrospectively, I concluded that had the veal been better prepared, I would class this as good comfort food but, in the context of the whole meal, it was simply itself uncomfortable.
Pre-dessert: Cornet de réglisse et vanille. A mini cornet of liquorice and vanilla ice cream was presented in a bucket of sugar and decorated with star anise, symbolic of a summer beach scene (bucket of sand, starfish…). Unfortunately, the ice cream had already begun to melt before reaching the table, but even ignoring this, it was rather forgettable.
Sixth course: Sur un Sablé Breton, une Poêlée d’Abricots au Romarin. Instead of a cheese course, I went for two desserts. The first was fried apricots with rosemary on a Breton sablé with pistachio sorbet. The apricots were molten within, but not crispy without (I assume, given it was fried, this was the ambition) and the rosemary garnished the dish, but did not add flavour. The sablé was decent; sweet and crumbly. The sorbet, punctuated with chopped pistachio, tasted good, but, again, had almost melted into a puddle before reaching me (freezer problems?).
Seventh course: Clafoutis aux Cerises, Jus de Cerise. The second dessert was cherry clafoutis, topped with crumble and laced with a cherry jus. This was another homely, unassuming offering, like the veal, but more satisfying; I can picture the grannies françaises baking these sweet treats in their petites cottages rustiques right now. This pudding was warm, soft, just a little gooey and fully loaded with fresh, zingy cherries; I liked it. The sweet sour combination was refreshing and had the crumble topping been better, it was a little soggy and devoid of crunch, it would have contrasted nicely to the batter’s very subtle runniness.
PF: I declined coffee, but welcomed the petit fours. I should not have bothered though as they paled miserably in quality and quantity to the cornucopia of mignardises I have gotten into the hoggish habit of expecting after fine French dining. I received two coffee sablés, a macaron vanille, a macaron chocolat and popcorn dusted with raspberry sugar. The biscuits were dry and bland; the vanilla macaroon was OK, the chocolate chewy (but then, after Pierre Hermé, one can never really enjoy another man’s macarons); and the popcorn was, well, popcorn.
Overall, the food was a diminuendo of satisfaction for me; having started off very well, successive courses proved less successful. I see hope, however. Throughout the meal there were some flashes of real creativity and very fine cooking – the beignets, crab amuse, foie gras royale were rather excellent – and I do believe, given a little time and practice, the kitchen will tighten up and iron out the little imperfections – forgettable scallop and veal, melted ice cream.
In contrast, the service left me very impressed. A full legion of staff, the sine qua non of French restaurants, was indeed present and though not yet running like a well-(olive)-oiled Gordon-Ramsay-drilled machine, they were efficient and capable. During the entire meal there was just one minor blip (aforementioned pork episode) and considering it was opening night, this can be duly disregarded. The staff who looked after me were each friendly, attentive and courteous, however, special mention was earned by my principal serveur, Remy (formerly of GR@RHR), who was charming, knowledgeable and considerate. Towards the end of dinner, Chef Jean-Christophe himself came out to say hello; while reserved and quiet, he seemed amiable and gracious. Although really an inconsequential gesture, it leaves a big impression and I, for one, always appreciate it.
The bill, which included the five course menu; desserts; bottled water and service, totalled £101. Factoring in the soft opening discount, I paid £75 and considered this good value. Nevertheless, full prices are high and suggestive of an ambition to compete with London’s finest (rather than milk les Anglais, I hope).
When I first arrived, I was provided with a sample à la carte menu to whet my appetite for what was to come. I cannot deny that dishes such as Tendre Gelée d’Ecrivisse et Pêche Blanche, Un Lait d’Amande ‘Frappé’ (tender crayfish jelly with white peach, almond milk frappé) and Caille farcie et laquée de Miel et Vinaigre de Cidre, Tomates « Coeur de Pigeon » en Aigre-doux (quail stuffed & varnished with honey & cider vinegar, sweet & sour ‘pigeon-heart’ tomatoes) had not only my mouth watering, but at these prices – entrées ≈ £23, plats principals ≈ £30; and desserts ≈ £17 – left my eyes watering too.
tel: 020 7373 7774
nearest tube: Gloucester Road, South Kensington