9 Place des Vosges,
75004 Paris, France
Tel. +33 1 42 78 51 45
Food type: French
Paris. The city is the playground for the rich and famous. If you can afford it, it offers some of the best food that money can buy. The accolade of 3 Michelin Stars still stands for a restaurant delivering the pinnacle of gastronomy. This is especially true given Michelin’s rapid expansion worldwide with the necessity to dole out new 3 stars to sell more guides and generate headlines. L’Ambroisie is the grand daddy of all of Paris’ 3 star temples with Bernard Pacaud holding the full monty since 1988 – a time where Michelin had yet to expand outside Europe. When a restaurant has held 3*s for such a long time, there is of course a fear that the accolade may be one of historical value. Yet, even with todays eating trends of tweezed flowers and foraged herbs, many serious foodies still consider Pacaud’s cooking as the pinnacle of gastronomy.
Truth is, I have never dared make a reservation at L’Ambroisie. Perhaps its my inability to speak French. Maybe its the stories of the haughty service here. Or indeed the astronomical prices commanded for a starter alone. I have always looked in admiration at the photos other people post but never had the guts to pick up the phone. But it was recently, following the sudden passing of pastry chef Laurent Jennin (of Le Bristol fame) did it strike me that time will wait for no one. I had only been eating at Epicure two weeks prior to his passing. As someone who truly enjoys French gastronomy, I really wanted to experience the masterworks of these great maestros while they are still around. Pacaud will be 70 this September and while still a spring chicken in relative terms compared to Michel Guérard and Paul Bocuse, you have to wonder how many years he still has left cooking before he hangs up his frying pan. So with a little bit of egging on by Kang, I booked a table for two for a nice, leisurely Saturday lunch.
Arriving almost an hour early for our 1pm booking, we were warmly greeted before being led to the second of three dining rooms. In my opinion, this is the most elegant of the three dining rooms with flowing tapestry adorning the walls and a crystal chandelier that hangs from the ceiling. It reminds me of Versailles palace. For many, the second dining room is supposedly where the select few regulars are sat. Indeed on the day, the local/ French diners were seated in the middle dining room and the tourists huddled in the first room. After procuring a glass of champagne each, we were offered the menus. The carte is in French. No English translated menus here and as per French tradition, only the male diner receives the menu with prices to sweat on. Pascal Vetaux, Maitre’d at L’Ambroisie proceeded to recommend a couple of dishes which might be of interest to us. Perhaps he is also a mind reader on top of being a class act, as his suggestions matched what we had in mind. When we asked to add an intermediate fish course, Monsieur Vetaux immediately offered us a demi-portion without hesitation.
As we were perusing the menu and enjoying our glass of champagne, a quartet of sable biscuits were brought for us to nibble on. The texture of the biscuits were incredibly light and simply melted in the mouth. Red pepper is not my favourite flavour, but here, all you had were the sweet roasted notes of the pepper without any of its aggressive notes. A second nibble of smoked salmon with crispy potato and dill cream was offered after our orders were taken. The Scotch salmon had been smoked in house, and very gently, with just the mildest hint of smoke. What was interesting was that the salmon had been slightly warmed on one side to release its natural oils and you had contrasting textures of the slightly cooked salmon with the raw side. Again the balance of flavours were impeccable with just enough hint of the dill without being overly intrusive.
My first official course was Pacaud’s signature langoustine with curry sauce. There is something immensely pleasing with the smell of roasted crustacean and the minute this hit the table, the dining room is filled with the heady aroma of the shellfish. Sandwiched in between two layers of crispy sesame tuile are three jumbo sized langoustines. How ironic then that we have travelled all the way to Paris to eat these magnificent specimens from Scotland. The tails had been seared in a pan, mi-cuit as the French would put it, with a golden, crispy crust on the outside. The sesame element here serves two purposes – providing texture as well as reinforces the roasted, nutty notes of the crustacean. Alongside the rich langoustine tails is some spinach, simply wilted, providing a bitter, vegetal, cleansing note. The creamy curry sauce is Pacaud’s take on the traditional French dish ‘mouclade’. There is virtually no heat here, but you get a beautiful whiff of the curry aroma. The balance is superb, with plenty of acidity in the sauce which keeps the flavours lively without causing palate fatigue. All 5 flavour sensations are here – sweet and salty from the langoustine, bitter from the spinach, sour from the curry sauce and finally umami from the sesame tuile. This is a dish of 4 elements, but immaculately executed, confidently delivered and majestic in its simplicity. Many young chefs should learn from this ‘less is more’ approach.
Meanwhile, my wife had another of the restaurant’s signature with the ‘Hot & Cold’ Egg with caviar. From what I understand, the flavours of the egg changes with the seasons. This being summer and Paris still delivering relatively warm weather compared to London, the egg was served with a cucumber and dill gazpacho infused with vodka. I had a small nibble and it was certainly very good. The seasoning of the gazpacho relatively light, in view of the caviar which lent its natural saltiness. At this point, I noticed that other tables were served a different amuse of egg with caviar and I suspect that Pacaud had intentionally changed our amuse to the smoked salmon ensure that my wife would not have a repetition of similar elements.
We followed next with the sea bass served with artichoke hearts and caviar-nage sauce. When the plate hit the table, the first sight that caught my eye was not the large beads of golden-black caviar but the sea bass escalopes which had been so perfectly cooked that its flesh was shimmering in all its pearlescent glory. From the size of the escalopes, I suspect that this was cut from a 5kg or so specimen. The skin had been left on the fish, and provided a slippery contrasting texture to the firmness of the fish. This texture is of course highly prized by Chinese people but something my wife was not too keen on. The caviar-nage sauce was all that it was hyped up to be that even my wife, who is not the biggest fan of caviar, was impressed. This is traditional sauce making at its finest with the nage reduced to the perfect consistency and the caviar acting both as a seasoning and to provide body to it. The artichoke hearts were beautifully cooked, firm, slightly acidic with a bite to it. This is for me, a perfect dish.
Sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are often the simplest. Roast chicken is a dish that speaks to people from all walks and creeds of life. It is after all a humble dish that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, will have eaten.This is not some fancy, cheffy deconstructed roast chicken but roast chicken as your mother would prepare at home. Pacaud has taken what is essentially an every-mans dish and elevated it through superb produce (Bresse chicken of course!) and immaculate technique. Roasted whole, the chicken is stuffed with tarragon butter tunnelled between the skin and the result is perfect crackling and flesh which is incredibly moist that you would have thought that it had been cooked sous vide. There is no pretension here, and the chicken is served with perfectly prepared girolles, fresh almonds and courgettes tied together with a chicken jus. The tarragon is restrained, providing a background aniseed flavour which emboldens the meatiness of the jus. This is simple cooking of few elements, yet everything is perfection on a plate. After clearing our plate of supreme, the kitchen sent the second serving of drumstick and thigh with a frisee salad tossed in a little vinegar.
After a visit to the all-French cheeseboard, we were presented with a palate cleanser to recharge before dessert proper. A beautiful rocher of almond sorbet is paired with apricots poached in sweet wine and vanilla. We were both left impressed with the sorbet which was luscious, smooth and a good almond flavour like eating cold marzipan.
I concluded my meal with the signature chocolate sabayon tart. This is a dish which has been replicated in various guises, with Tom Kemble at Bonhams even going as far as to producing his own homage. What makes Pacaud’s version a class apart is the complexity of the chocolate use. I honestly don’t enjoy eating chocolate desserts because after the first couple of mouthfuls my palate gets fatigued with the flavour of chocolate. Here, there was something seductive about the chocolate mix and with every spoonful, I discovered new nuances of flavours – bitter, malty, coffee, nutty. Up until this visit, I have always thought that Royal Hospital Road produced the best vanilla ice cream. Ambroisie’s version trumps what Gordon produces. The vanilla is simply more intense, more perfumed. Although Kang, may disagree with me, I actually think the thicker sable base is a necessity. It provides contrasting texture to the souffléd sabayon layer. It really is a matter of preference from someone who finds a soufflé incredibly boring to eat after 3 mouthfuls.
Prior to visiting L’Ambroisie, I had my reservations. I was worried that the food here would not be able to match the lofty prices commanded and my lofty expectations. These worries were unfounded as Pacaud’s cooking surpassed every single expectation of mine and more. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, clarity and confidence. Many chefs in England and France champion the ‘less is more’ ethos yet none deliver it is a clearly as Pacaud. In all the dishes we tried, there were at most four elements on the plate. To assume that Pacaud’s cooking could be easily replicated at home would indeed be foolish. The execution here requires a level of perfection that even the slightest flaw would result in a dish which is mediocre. If there was a slight nitpick with the overall experience, it is that the glassware used is very mediocre. It certainly detracts from the overall enjoyment especially if you were to enjoy one of the many amazing bottles on the list. Based on my admittedly limited experience dining at high-end French restaurants, for me, L’Ambroisie represents the pinnacle of French cooking. Food for the Gods indeed!