Ambassade de l’Ile
117/119 Old Brompton Road
London, SW7 3RN
Tel: 020 7373 7774
Food type: French
Food rating: 9/10
Nearest tube: Gloucester Road/ South Kensington
Website: Ambassade de l’Ile
I have amassed quite a substantial backlog of restaurants but rather than posting reviews of these backlogged restaurants I wish to talk about my visit to Ambassade de l’Ile yesterday to celebrate J’s birthday. Having heard many good (and bad) reviews of this newly opened place, I still approached this visit with a level of trepidation. After all, I had a very good experience at Le Gavroche just 3 weeks ago.
Ambassade is located on Old Brompton Road. The distinctive Edwardian building originally housed a library. In more recent times, the building has housed various restaurants including Lundum’s and Chanterelle. The chef at Ambassade, Jean-Christophe Ansalay-Alex also runs the 2 Michelin starred l’Auberge de l’Ile in Lyon. l’Auberge is located on a tranquil island in the Saône called Ile Barbe which was declared an independent and sovereign state by the famous author Felix Benoit in 1977.
Chef Jean-Christophe Ansalay-Alex
Unknown to many, Jean-Christophe is deprived of the use of his right hand due to an accident he suffered in 1990. It was around this time as well that he returned to work at his family own restaurant, the aforementioned Auberge. He navigated the restaurant through two difficult years in 1991 and 1992 during the Gulf War period before winning his first Michelin Star in 1993. The second star duly arrived in 2002. Jean-Christophe was made honorary Governor of l’Ile Barbe. It is from this that Ambassade gets its name – the restaurant is an outpost of l’Auberge.
We arrived at the restaurant for our 7 pm booking. Unlike most restaurants in London, the restaurant only opens at 7 pm (as compared to most others which open at 6 or 6.30 pm) so this was the earliest slot we could obtain (J prefers to dine earlier). We enjoyed a glass of rose champagne at the lounge area with large white leather sofas. There were ample magazines and the daily newspaper to peruse if you were waiting for other guests to arrive. A large cookbook sat in the middle. The lounge area also had a very stylish fireplace to warm us up – ideal for such a cold day.
A poem from the chef… (in French)
The menu is ever-changing and unlike many restaurants in London, the menu changes every MONTH depending on what items are at the peak of its season. The a la carte menu is limited to 4 options for starters, fish course, meat course and desserts. There is also a menu découvert (Tasting menu) available as either 5 or 7 course. The tasting menu also features various dishes which were not available on the main menu. Of special mention was that the restaurant was Canard a la Presse was available on the menu. This dish was of course featured on UKTV’s World’s Greatest Dish and is reknowned as much for its taste as it is for its theatre (the duck bones are crushed using a special press at table side to draw out the duck marrow which is then used to make the sauce).
The interior of Ambassade is modern, stylish and chic draped. The common theme of the restaurant is the emphasis put on the colour purple and white – the colours of the Ile Barbe flag. The restaurant is spacious with white leather chairs accompanying tables draped in white table clothe and purple lighting. The restaurant seats 40 covers with a downstairs private dining room as well as a chef’s table. Black wooden blinds are placed around the restaurant. One cool feature of the restaurant is plasma TVs placed at specific locations in the dining room which allows diners to catch a glimpse of the kitchen at work.
Some canapes were brought to us while we were enjoying our apperitif. This came in the form of vegetable crisps. It consisted of crispy thin slices of sweet potato, beetroot and lotus as well as mixed herb beignets composed of basil, coriander and mint. The nibbles were ideal accompaniment to our apperitif with bursts of saltiness accompanying the sweetness of the vegetables and the ‘spiciness’ of the herbs. As would be expected from a high-end restaurant, the fried goodies were virtually grease-less. (7/10)
Bread came in the form of white or brown and was made in house. Both were perfectly capable with good crust and soft fluffy interior with enough salt to lift it from being ordinary to something remarkable. Bread was served with both salted and unsalted butter. (8/10)
An amuse bouche of Sauteed Potato, Black Pudding & Quince Jelly and Baked Clam with Beurre Noisette was, amusingly, brought to us resting on a turf of grass. The creamy potato was matched by the richness of the black pudding with the quince jelly providing the sweetness and acidity to lift the whole composition. (10/10) The baked clam was equally interesting. Served in its shell, the juicy morsel of clam laid on top of a bed of finely diced mirepoix and topped off with a small dollop of foamy beurre noisette. The sweetness of the clam was the highlight here. (9/10)
Our first course consisted of an autumnal vegetable and fruit fricassee topped off with some pata negra iberico ham. A mixture of the autumns best offerings included baby leeks, parsnips, turnips, grapes and figs. The gentle cooking process allowed for the vegetables and fruits to retain its textures while bringing out the flavour of the autumnal harvest. The cooking process also resulted in the light, yet flavourful sauce carrying all the sweetness of the fruits and vegatbles. The pata negra, without a doubt the BEST ham in the world, provided the necessary saltiness and creaminess to the dish. Undeniably, this was simple, yet elegant cooking at its best. (8/10)
Next up was an interesting dish of Oyster, Scallop, Aquitaine Caviar with an Oyster Nage. A solitary, plump oyster sat alongside a crispy pan seared scallop and the Aquitaine caviar lined on top of a quenelle of herb (chive) Chantilly. This was accompanied by the foamy and briny oyster nage. The sweetness of the scallop was contrasted by the salty, creamy oyster. Oysters are at their peak right now and it this was clearly evident with its sweetness exploding in my mouth. The Aquitaine caviar was disappointing however. Aquitaine caviar is produced from farmed sturgeon. At its best, caviar literally explodes in your mouth with the saltiness giving small bursts of pleasure. Aquitaine caviar however has that lingering taste you would expect from farmed fish. (6/10)
The cod served to us was one of the chef’s signature dishes. Crusted with gingerbread, the cod was perfectly cooked – yielding to the slightest touch of my fork, the fish flaked apart perfectly revealing its ivory, opaque flesh. The fish sat on top of a solitary ravioli – the filling containing a lovely surprise of bittersweet marmalade. A small pouring of warm almond milk provided a richness and nuttiness to complement the sweetness of the fish. The addition of the gingerbread crust was indeed a masterstroke as oftentimes cod is a very bland and boring fish. Here, the spices in the gingerbread highlighted the sweetness of the cod and certainly added a different dimension to the dish. (10/10)
We had an extra course of John Dory as J is a huge fan of fish. The fish was wrapped with strips of dried seaweed (nori) giving it a tiger-like appearance and providing small bursts of brininess with each bite. The fish was gently cooked in a vegetable bouillon consisting of carrots, courgettes and turnips. The consommé like bouillon was clean, clear and sweet – infused with all the lovely flavours of the vegetables. The fish was accompanied by a selection of shellfish – a poached oyster, clams and a grilled scallops. (9/10)
A meat course consisted of melting tender pigs cheeks served with puy lentils. Simple though it may be, this dish was executed flawlessly – the pork was packed full of flavour having absorbed all the flavour of the cooking liquor from the braising process. The lentils, one of my favourite items, was cooked perfectly with the right amount of give while still maintaining good texture and its earthy note. The gravy was simply superb as you would expect from French cooking – clean, pure and deep in flavour. This was rustic cooking at its very best. (9/10)
Our last main course was another one of the chef’s signature dishes. Deep, intense, earthy cep soup was served ‘cappuccino’ style with the mandatory foam and a touch of cep powder to mimic the cocoa of a regular cappuccino. You could drink the soup as you would a mug of cappuccino, or if you like with a spoon. The soup was a treasure trove of goodies with thin slivers of the powerful ceps mixed with steamed lardons of the fatty foie gras. The addition of the liver was a masterstroke – the foie giving out bursts of flavoursome oil which coped well with the intense soup. (10/10)
After a much needed time out, it was time for us to peruse the cheese board. Cheese here is supplied by La Fromagerie. The board is brought to us on three small trolleys, dividing British, French and Lyonnaise cheese. We made a selection including the Lyonnaise cheese recipe consisting of Fromage Blanc, mixed herbs (chives, parsley and chervil) and shallots. Persille du Marais, a goats cheese made in the style of a Roquefort was unusually good – the cheese had a more well rounded flavour with a faint taste of goat cheese coming right at the end. Upon further questioning of the cheese, the waitress was happy to offer us a slice of Roquefort to compare both cheese – a very nice touch. Cheese was served with some plump red grapes, kumquats, Walnut bread and Cumin breadsticks. I felt the cumin breadsticks were overpowering and detracted from the cheese itself. Leaving the breadsticks alone, the cheese were uniformly in good condition and highly enjoyable. (8/10)
A dessert of pears consisted of a sorbet, thin wafers of pear crisps, parfait, coulis and a poached pear crumble. Sweet, juicy, amber, poached pears was accompanied by crumble and a cylindrical slice of a pretty mild parfait. The refreshing sorbet was decorated with 4 slices of pear crisps and garnished with a stick of chocolate to resemble a pear. The dessert was pleasant without being truly memorable. While well made, there wasn’t a single outstanding component of this dish which made me go ‘Wow’. (6/10)
Mignardises consisted of Canelés and Macaroons. The Canelés were filled with blackcurrant custard and topped off with a burnt sugar. Macaroons were of the vanilla and blueberry variety. All these little treats were capable and enjoyable – although at the end of the meal we were pushing our limits of gluttony. (8/10)
A final treat was brought to us – a birthday cake for J. I had phoned up in advance to place a special request for a cake, and the restaurant were more than happy to oblige. The cake was glamorously presented on a golden tower of cups, plates and cutlery. A small, deliciously rich, bittersweet chocolate croustillant, similar to the Louis XV croustillant, sat magnificently in the middle. The croustillant decorated beautifully with gold leaf, a chocolate cage and some sugared kumquats at the side. The almost liquid dark chocolate exterior housed a creamy ganache interior. The cake perfectly capable but perhaps lacking as much crunch as the version served at Roussillon. (8/10)
Overall, this was a dinner that more than surpassed expectations. Cooking here is outstanding with inspired, uncomplicated dishes making full use of fresh seasonal produce. The restaurant went out of their way to fulfil any of our requests – additional courses, a surprise cake etc. Service was friendly and attentive without being intrusive. In short, this is clearly the best London restaurant in terms of cooking. I am already looking forward to the next time I am lucky enough to make a return visit.