I know what you must be thinking: “Another ‘return’? Again, Food Snob? But we want to hear about different places, not the same ones over and over again.” Well, settle down readers, I agree; of course I too want to try new restaurants, but exceptions are acceptable and do sometimes seriously pay off…
The sample à la carte menu, on show though not on offer during my opening-night visit at Ambassade, had already tantalised my taste buds and a return visit was certainly on the cards. There was a wee problem however: this menu was available for a limited time only and would change in only a couple of days for July’s full opening. Hence, I would lose forever my chance to try all those lovely dishes, as well as the soft opening discount still in effect (being the stingy s(n)ob that I am, this naturally did not escape my attention)! Thus, I had my raisons de manger, which with a little weighing up of the pros and cons – teasing teaser menu, discount, deadline vs. not-dining-at-untried-restaurant opportunity cost – was excuse enough to schedule a long, lazy Saturday lunch.
Arriving at Ambassade, I was instantly recognised by the staff. I was warmly welcomed by restaurant manager, Caroline, who showed me to my table; a table certainly more convivial to solo dining than my previous one as it afforded a direct view of one of the television screens with live-feed to the kitchen. I like to think this was a considerate, intentional gesture made for my benefit. After some very friendly conversation over how the opening had gone so far, the star of my last dinner, Monsieur Remy, came over to greet me. He was to be my serveur-en-chef once again; I was delighted. So far, so good; the omens were favourable. I was eager to eat.
Amuse Bouche: Les 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 salty. The vegetables were distinct in taste and added sweetness, crunch and colour. These were very good on my first visit and even better this time; I see practice does make perfect.
Les Pains: The same selection of freshly baked white and brown were offered again. Just as fluffy, just as tasty as before, however, the crust was a little chewier on this occasion. Both salted and unsalted butter were now served.
As I amused myself with my amuse, Chef Jean-Christophe approached my table; he too remembered me. This was all the more impressive as we had only exchanged a few pleasantries previously as he toured the tables, greeting his guests. He was touched that I had returned so soon. We spoke about the restaurant, his cooking, London and about Lyon. The impression he left on me after our first meeting – gracious and humble, quiet yet open – was not only preserved, but deepened. He had a patent passion for cooking and was eager to please his guests, welcoming criticism and suggestions. He was curious to know what people genuinely thought, what I had genuinely thought. I was surprised and touched when he proceeded to take my order himself and together we arranged an exciting menu featuring all the dishes that had caught my eye.
Entrée 1: Tendre Gelée d’Ecrivisse et Pêche Blanche, Un Lait d’Amande ‘Frappé’. My first starter featured five chubby crayfish each floating on its own white peach island surrounded by an icy-cool sea of sweet, light almond milk. The delicious condensed milk, so full of taste, was ethereally light. The peaches were perfectly ripe, soft and juicy. Each firm, sweet crayfish clung to an almond-half paddle. A bite of shellfish, peach and almond delivered sweet, delicate, nutty flavours and textures varying from firm to milky to crunch. The dish worked very well; the combination of fruit, nut and shellfish was original and well considered. From the first spoonful to the last, I was transported to a warm seaside veranda in Southern France, savouring a gentle breeze or maybe a lovely meadow in Valence, enjoying these lovely peaches just picked, peeled and plated.
Entrée 2: Délicate Gelée de Betterave, une Crème Fumée Fouettée, Caviar d’Aquitaine. Served within a cocktail glass, a pristine layer of smoky white cream rested upon a thick royal purple beetroot jelly. Caviar and a lightly-fried breadstick grissini garnished the cocktail. My first spoonful was of cream and beetroot together; the initial flavour of smooth, woody mousse slowly gave way to deep, rich, earthy beetroot that was startlingly intense and pure. The grissini was very light and betrayed not a hint of grease. The addition of caviar was inspired; those delicate, precious little pebbles were like flavour bombs. The uniquely refreshing caviar cut through the mousse and complemented the beetroot. Each flavour was simple, powerful and distinct, but none overpowered the others. It was a well thought out, well designed dish. A wow.
Plat Principal 1: Homard et Figue, Réduction d’une Vendange Tardive liée d’un Beurre de Corail. A painter’s-palette-like plate of rich, exotic colours was presented. Lush lobster morsels, wrapped in their velvet skin, bathed in opulent orange bisque of ‘late harvest’ wine reduction and coral butter. In the centre of the dish lay a large roasted black fig decorated with a pretty pink claw and garnish of lobster shell. The inclusion of powerful passion fruit gave this brilliant bisque a fruity, fiery zing and its seeds, found floating in the sauce, gave an unexpected crunch. The delicate, sweet lobster was excellently cooked, firm but bouncy and dissembled in the bouche without difficulty. The hot, smouldering fig added warmth to the whole arrangement. Passion fruit and fig, though both very rich, intense flavours, were tamed and their sweetness tempered; they blended together harmoniously and obediently and instead of overpowering the gentle lobster, complemented its natural sweetness well.
Plat Principal 2: Sur un Gros Ravioli de Tapenade et Marmelade d’Orange amère, Vapeur de St Pierre tigrée d’Algues. Succulent pristine white pieces of John Dory wrapped Zebra-esque in jade seaweed strips and a large tapenade ravioli were served swimming in a dark amber bitter orange consommé. The fish fillets were perfect; delicate, flavourful, flaky and firm. The sea-salty seaweed contrasted well with the natural sweetness of the St Pierre. The plump ravioli, bursting with black olive, remained intact until ingestion, whereupon the fragile, soft skin dissolved on the tongue, delivering a salty smack. The bitter orange consommé was gentler than its name suggested and was sprinkled with small super-sweet surprise cuts of candied orange peel. There was a lot going on in this dish – bitter orange vs. salty olive vs. delicately sweet fish vs. briny seaweed – and though the individual components were cooked well and each flavour was able to express itself, they did not generally complement or add to one another. That said, there were no clashing or unpleasant combinations and though my least favourite dish of the night, I would not describe it as bad; it just did not work for me.
Plat Principal 3: Caille farcie et laquée de Miel et Vinaigre de Cidre, Tomates « Coeur de Pigeon » en Aigre-doux. A juicy, fat French quail, skin glistening in a honey and cider vinegar, was presented table side, ready for serving. Carved straight down the middle, a rich succulent stuffing of quail meat, garlic, rosemary, thyme and more herbs was revealed; the superb surprise was a lavish liberal lobe of foie gras nestled in the middle. The bird was plated alongside caramelised ‘pigeon-heart’ tomatoes and a sprig of rosemary with a sweet and sour sauce poured over it. The little quail’s meat was moist and tender, while its skin sticky and tangy. The farci, packing a punch, stuffed with flavour and luxurious, was well balanced by the sweet and sour reduction and the tiny tomatoes that, zesty and deceivingly powerful, were like little taste grenades. Yet another wow!
Dessert 1: Soufflé chaud à la Pêche blanche. The first dessert to arrive was a warm peach soufflé within a petite silver saucepan. The ivory soufflé was crowned with a crisp, even, sugar-dusted, caramel-coloured top. This was pierced and, from a matching saucepan, a sauce of liquefied peach compote was drizzled in and over the delicacy. The aroma was warm, summery and dreamy. The mellow, fluffy alabaster soufflé was light and airy, like a whipped cloud. It was delicate in flavour and not too sweet; quite lovely indeed.
Petit Fours: These provided some breathing space in between the two dessert courses. The PF elements themselves had not changed since my previous visit – coffee sablés, macarons vanilles, macarons double-chocolats and popcorn dusted with raspberry sugar – but were all of noticeably better quality. The sablés, previously two dry, bland biscuits, were replaced by four skinnier, much tastier ones. The infusion of raspberry essence into the vanilla macarons made one nostalgic of jammy dodgers. The now double-chocolate macarons, chewy before, melted in the mouth. The popcorn was again decent.
Dessert 2: Carré Chocolat Valrhona et crémeux Noisette The last of the courses was a Valrhona chocolat pastry with creamy nuts. The adorable chocolate monument consisted of layers of sabayon, ganache, brownie and mousse, each carefully crafted and delicately, evenly shelved one upon the other. A wafer-thin chocolate feuille completed the construction and gave a mortarboard-aspect to the whole treat. A scoop of chocolate ice cream crowned the pastry and an elegant, flash comet of caramel provided the final flourish. The chocolate was rich and nourishing, whilst the contrast of textures between layers was quite pleasing. The caramel comet was filled with a sweet almond marzipan surprise.
Café:: To round off the feast was another good, strong and richly-roasted espresso.
Service was once again wonderful. The staff were ever-present, but not intrusive; whenever I required something, someone was there to provide it, but no one stood over my shoulder waiting, watching. Between courses, I was able to enjoy conversations with several of the staff, which being a solo diner was appreciated. They each came over as very friendly, very polite and were able to tell when I wanted to talk and when I wanted to occupy my mouth otherwise.
Before the meal, my expectations were high and the pervading, only-natural fear of disappointment did indeed haunt me. However, I am delighted to say Ambassade did, without a doubt, not only match those expectations, nor just exceed them, but it blew them away. The food was fantastic; each dish was at least good, with only one forgettable (the John Dory and even this had some merits) but several wow dishes (Betterave, Homard, Caille) that really stole the show.
Some investigative journalism later uncovered possible explanations behind the excellent cooking; the expertise and adventure of Chef Jean-Christophe is supplemented by the skills and energy of an ambitious, young and dynamic twelve-strong team that includes sous-chefs Armand Sablon (2007 Roux Scholar) and Sylvain Bouget-Lavinge (Midlands Young Chef 2001) and Pascal Molinès, MOF and former World Pastry Champion.
Further investigation also exposed another interesting titbit of information. Chef Jean-Christophe’s original Lyon restaurant, Auberge de l’Ille is situated on Ile Barbe in Lyon’s Saône River, which in 1977 was declared an independent sovereign state within France with the right to print its own money. Moreover, Chef Jean-Christophe was made its honorary governor. This is why his new South Kensington outpost is rather aptly titled Ambassade de l’Ile i.e. Embassy of the Island. The restaurant is quite the Lyonnais affair actually and is sponsored by some serious names, with the financing having come from City trader Marc Grosjean and Jean-Michel Aulas, president of Olympique Lyonnais.
The delicious food and impeccable, hospitable service I have enjoyed during my two visits here have proven to me that dining at Ambassade is real pleasure. Chef Jean-Christophe is an uplifting breath of fresh air. His arrival in London is a long-planned, well thought out effort to establish an excellent restaurant serving excellent food in an excellent manner, unlike some compatriots who possibly see London as a cash cow and opportunity to cash in; hopefully London’s sophisticated diners and their ever-maturing palates will discern the difference. As for me, now that there is yet another menu on offer, showing off many of Chef Jean-Christophe’s signature dishes from Lyon, a further visit is surely necessary…
117/119 Old Brompton Road, SW7 3RN
tel: 020 7373 7774
nearest tube: Gloucester Road, South Kensington