review: of blood and wonder…
There is a sinister sleekness to l’Ambassade de l’Ile, the recently opened outpost to l’Auberge de l’Ile, a 2 Michelin-star restaurant in Lyon, France.
There are shadows and dark corners. There are distorted silhouettes cast by underlit fixtures. Angles and mirrors make you doubt your presence. And there are voyeuristic vignettes: monitors in the dining room from which one can spy the kitchen.
Things here breathe black and exhale indigo. They glow amber around the edges.
If Dracula had a fashionable, gay brother in London, this is where he would eat.
And what does a fashionable, gay, vampire eat?
French food, of course. And blood.
The two of us ordered deep and wide – and definitely way too much. Here is what we conquered (CLICK HERE to see the entire photos set, or click each dish for the individual photos):
Truffle butter and root vegetables
Black Pudding Croquettes
Cider vinegar sauce
Oeuf “casse” au Caviar d’Aquitaine
Un sabayon au citron cru et confit
(Soft-boiled Hen’s Egg with Caviar from Aquitaine
Polenta crémeuse à la Truffe blanche d’Alba
Un Miroir de Porto
(Creamy Polenta with White Alba Truffles
Marmite de Saint-Pierre
Tigré d’algue et tous les coquillages
(John Dory striped with nori
served with various shellfish)
Tronçon de grosse Sole de Ligne
Soufflée de langoustine, une Béarnaise légère
(Tranche of Line-Caught Sole)
Canard au Sang Servi à la Presse
En deux services, pour 2 personnes
(Pressed Duck in Two Services)
Velouté de Cèpe“comme un Cappuccino
Vapeur de foie gras
(Porcini Cappuccino with foie gras emulsion)
Tarte Sablée à la Châtaigne
Citron confit, Sabayon au Lagavulin
(Chestnut Tarte Sablée with lemon confit
and Lagavulin malt whisky sabayon)
Chocolat blanc et Truffe blanche d’Alba
Un coulis de Poire
(White Chocolate and White Alba Truffles
with pear coulis)
Rôti entier à la Vanille Bourbon
Whole-roasted with vanilla Bourbon)
I don’t think it’s a question of whether, but rather how many.
I’m no mantic and I can’t claim to know dear Bibendum’s heart, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict that l’Ambassade de l’Ile, which opened in South Kensington last July (2008), will get starred in the next Michelin cycle.
Three – no. Not yet, anyway.
Two are within reach.
One is all but guaranteed. [See edit footnote.]
Most of the food here reads like three-star food. Some of it looks it. And a few items I tried, like the first service of our pressed duck, is three-star food.
But l’Ambassade de l’Ile’s cooking lacks that certain prissiniess and eccentricity that seems to plague all three-star cooking.
There are intermittent fumbles that evidence a lack of finesse.
The second course of amuses bouches is a good example: the clams (on a half shell) were distastefully fishy and struck a discordant note with the vinegary sauce that accompanied the other pre-dinner bite, a blood sausage croquette. It made for a rather unsavory start.
The food here is bold.
Subtlety is not the restaurant’s forte. In fact, the one instance where a dish aimed for subtlety, it overshot by completely turning off the volume.
The “Marmite de St. Pierre” (£36) was so devoid of flavor that I wondered if the recipe hadn’t come from some long-lost Puritan spa cookbook.
Instead of presenting the fish in the cauldron, they plated the filets of St. Pierre, strangled by strips of dried seaweed (I won’t call it nori, but it sure looked like it), and accompanying shellfish. The marmite – a silver one, the most regal marmite I’ve ever seen – was brought to the table, filled with a clear broth teaming with confetti of brunoise vegetables, which was poured over the seafood.
To be sure, all of the seafood was properly cooked (though I tend to like my John Dory a bit less stiff). But there was no angle from which to grasp or hold onto this dish; its purpose and aim were not clear to me. It probably flew over my head. Or maybe it was just flat.
Then there was our first course, “Oeuf “casse” au Caviar d’Aquitaine,” which we borrowed from the tasting menu. It too was a bit too subtle for me.
Runny yolks, caviar, and lemon sabayon should have been a wonderful combination of flavors. However, one look at the glossy, pitch black beads and I knew that the caviar would be disappointing. And I was right; farm-raised stuff still remains handicapped next to the real deal.
The inferior caviar aside, the lemon sabayon lacked punch. Altogether, the dish failed to move beyond the first dimension.
Now, my friend, as I recall, marched up and down the aisle praising its wonders (I’m taking somewhat of a liberal license here), so I can only imagine that I missed out on something.
Everything else, however, I found to be quite tasty and interesting.
Our second course, “Polenta crémeuse à la Truffe blanche d’Alba,” (£60 with 10g of white truffle) was nicely accomplished – a creamy, warm bowl of finely-milled (or pulverized?) polenta topped with a warm egg yolk smothered with shavings of pungent white truffles. As wonderful as all of this was, the true lifeblood to this dish was a fabulous “miroir de Porto,” a shiny Port reduction pushing a round, sweet note that worked perfectly against the rest.
But the side of burnt truffled toast sticks, presumably for dipping into the creamy pool, is the type of inexplicable carelessness which bars l’Ambassade de l’Ile from the three-star club and seriously jeopardizes its potential second macaron.
Technical proficiency was demonstrated in the “Tronçon de grosse Sole de Ligne” (£35), a beautifully filleted tranche of line-caught sole fused to its counterpart with a fluffy – almost imperceptible – layer of “soufflée de langoustine.” These two logs, with a barely cooked langoustine perched on one of them, balanced on a bed of uniformly (medium) diced cubes of artichoke hearts, potatoes, and celeriac. The whole was surrounded by a butter-yellow Bearnaise légère.
Sole takes particularly well to buttery, creamy treatments and this dish reinforced that fact. The use of Bearnaise here was perfect, if not a bit obvious.
But, what impressed me the most was the trio of diced vegetables, which looked uniform in every way – size, color, and degree of cooking – yet took on distinct and different personalities – flavor, texture, and tenor – in the mouth. This level of culinary precision and thought is the type I find challenging, satisfying, and star-worthy.
The “Canard au Sang servi ‘à la Presse’” (£69 for 2 persons) was exciting in many respects, not the least of which was the spectacle of having the duck presented, carved, and pressed right in front of us.
The carving process was quite an ordeal. For a few moments, I wondered if our poor bird would survive the operation. But, after a few struggles, the breast and legs were removed quite beautifully and the remaining carcass was stuffed into the gleaming, silver contraption and pressed. It yielded an impressive amount of blood and juice.
The lot was taken back into the kitchen. From my seat, I had a perfect view of the kitchencam and watched as the breast was carved and plated along with a line of glazed turnip coins. The blood, which was reduced with wine to produce a velvety, rich civet sauce, was poured around the plate.
I really can’t say enough nice things about Challans duck. It tastes like beef. Well, not really, but it is quite an amazing duck. The strip of breast meat sported a proper rind of fat and was marbled – yes, marbled – throughout. It was the most flavorful and tender piece of duck breast I’ve ever had. I still don’t believe what I ate.
But the duck was just one-third of the pleasure of this first service.
The second third, the civet sauce, was wild – it tasted like no other blood sauce I’ve ever had. This one had the nature of fine Mexican mole poblano – a bit smoky, a tad nutty, and a bittersweet ending. It smelled like cacao and nuts, and possibly even toasted corn. It was complex, rich, and utterly bewitching.
So were the turnip coins, the last component of the first service, which were molten with a tart, saliva-inducing, and sticky vinegar and honey glaze. Gah. They were good.
In concert, this triumvirate – duck, sauce, and turnips – pulled off a veritable coup (see “best dishes of 2008”).
It’s rare that a white meat dish outshines a dark meat dish. And, with such a strong showing in the first service, it seemed almost certain that the second service of the duck – the leg and thigh presented on a bed of frisee dressed with vinegar and hazelnut oil – would pale in comparison.
To be sure, there was nothing wrong with this second service. The dark meat was juicy, and full of flavor – not more or less, but different from the breast meat. It was about at this point that some light, brightly dressed greens were appreciated. But hazelnut products can sometimes be too cloying if used immoderately, and I thought that the greens – fragrant though they were – could be a bit too much after a few bites.
The staff seemed a bit bare-boned. I expected to see more servers about. But, we caught the restaurant on a very slow night.
Because we ordered the bulk of the menu, we got a high level of attention.
The chef, Jean-Christophe Ansany-Alex, was in the house and swung by our table before and during our meal to chat. He apparently recognized my dinner mate, who had been in a couple times already. Denim and booted with a spotless chef’s white coat on, the man was apparently not a working chef that night (and, I’m not sure how much he actually does cook any more).
The staff at l’Ambassade de l’Ile is very professional and knowledgeable. Personally, I found our server, a young lady who handled herself and our questions quite well, to be the ideal server – attentive, friendly, and – above all – honest. She knew the menu upwards and sideways and clearly had a passion for the hospitality industry.
But there was a noticeable streak of novice running about the house. I can’t quite pinpoint it. Perhaps it was nervousness, or timidity. It wasn’t sluggish, but it wasn’t the sharpest service I’ve experienced. It lacked a certain snap. After a good six months in business, you’d think they’d have stapled things down. From conversations that my friend was having with some of the staff, it seems they’ve already had quite a turn-over.
Whatever it was, they had better fix it before the Michelin inspectors come snooping about.
And, there was the occasional blunder, as in a misdirected dish. Mid-conversation, off our server took, chasing after our last savory course, which was being presented to a befuddled couple across the room.
That course was the “Velouté de Cèpe comme un Cappuccino” (£22), a satiny, hot soup boasting a beefy charge. As the name suggests, this decadent wonder was capped with a frothy milk top dusted with dried porcini powder.
At the bottom of the bowl were fat morsels of porcini mushrooms and soft, bursting batons of “steamed foie gras lardons.” If my heart hadn’t been racing, I’m sure it would have quit on me entirely.
Cheese carts – all three – were precariously shuffled around (these were not carts or chariots, rather tables on wheels – on carpet) and we fell prey to our own weaknesses (£20). Or, I did. My eyes always grow bigger than my stomach when cheese is offered.
The cheese selection here is not grand. But it offers unique selections.
One cart, dubbed the “Lyonnaise,” bore not much more than a silver, cherub-supported chalice containing Cervelle de Canut (look up the history and meaning, it’s quite interesting), a traditional Lyon cheese creation involving fromage blanc (or crème fraiche), herbs, vinegar, and oil. Our server explained that Chef Ansany-Alex leaves out the chopped garlic, which he believed would interfere with diners’ sense of taste.
I took a scoop of it. This tangy cheese spread was flecked with herbs and had a simple clean taste. It’s probably not the ideal thing to eat alone. As a condiment, however, I can imagine this would be quite fantastic (perhaps with some nice cured beef).
A second cart had a small, but nice selection of British cheeses. The centerpiece was a giant round of Stilton that had been hollowed out. The cheese was crumbled and put back in the tub and doused with Port wine daily, we were told. The result was a burgundy-tinted cream soft enough to spread. I took a dip of this one too. Port and Stilton is such a classic pairing; here, the marriage of the two could be had in one bite. This was a highlight.
The last cart focused on French cheeses. From this, I took a spoonful of Mont’Or (it was, unfortunately, under-ripe, a disappointment after the fantastic one I had at RGR at RHR a few nights before), baby Munster (quite a sassy baby – this was pungent and full-bodied), and a semi-firm cheese called “Napoleon” (this one was my favorite; in fact, I swung by La Fromagerie the next day and picked up a wedge of it).
The cheeses were served with thin slices of toast studded with hazelnuts, candied kumquats, and grapes (which, I have to say, looked a little pathetic). The kumquats, candied whole, were quite good, very sweet.
Desserts here are wonderful. No – actually – they’re extraordinary.
While I certainly think they were three-star quality, upon further reflection, I think they were a little too gutsy to fit the three-star mold. Again, they lacked a certain subtlety and priggishness.
We ordered three. One for me. One for my friend. And one for both of us.
Chestnut desserts are usually crude and frumpy. My “Tarte Sablée à la Châtaigne” handily smashed that mold (£17).
This was amazing – the sablée crust was only a ring in which was piped chestnut mousse with a core of lemon confit (think lemon curd the consistency of very fine and silky apple sauce) topped with a vexing Lagavulin malt whiskey sabayon. This other-worldly creation was crowned with an iridescent sugar glass dome that shattered with a gentle tap. It was ethereal. It was wicked. It was magical. (See “just desserts 2008”)
The “Chocolat blanc et Truffe blanche d’Alba” was far behind (£22). White truffles take well to cream, and I suppose it is only natural to pair it with white chocolate, however absurd that might sound.
The description on the menu was vague and my imagination was simply insufficient to realize just how great this dessert would be. Even now, I’m not sure how to describe it: it was an orb of molded white chocolate mousse filled with more white chocolate mousse layered with a sweet jam-like substance (I’m tempted to say that it was a pear puree of some sort) intensely infused with the aroma of white truffles.
The ivory-colored globe was surrounded by an exquisite pear coulis and was topped with a little coronet of white truffle shavings and graced with a thin sugarwork halo gilded with silver. This was Queen Elizabeth I incarnate as confectionary, not to be irreverent (fellow Tudor buffs will understand).
Though it wasn’t as delicate as the Tarte Sablée à la Châtaigne, it managed to avoid being heavy or mawkish, though it was quite rich. If nothing else, it was a novel and successful use of white truffles (though, I wonder whether any white truffle oil was used).
Our final dessert (“Ananas Victoria”), like the Canard au Sang, was a performance piece. A little pineapple Victoria (a rare treat, indeed), roasted whole, was presented table-side (£35).
Striated, it wore a thick, dark vanilla-Bourbon glaze – one achieved only through the use of ungodly amounts of butter (I’ve roasted whole pineapples before – Tramonto’s recipe – and I am loathe to think about the amount of butter it takes to do the job properly).
Carving the pineapple tableside revealed a core stuffed with brioche and raisins – a bread pudding of sorts – drunk with St. Etienne rum. A bit of both – pineapple and stuffing – was plated with a quenelle of vanilla bean ice cream on a hill of sablé crumbs.
This dessert was perfect in every way. The pineapple was properly roasted – a good balance of moisture, not too juicy or raw, but not leathery either – and was wonderfully perfumed with vanilla and rum.
It was getting nearing midnight and it looked like we were going to shut this place down. But that is no excuse for serving the petits fours with the desserts – especially when freshly-baked madeleines are involved.
A little silver crib bearing madeleines and macarons arrived with our first round of desserts. By the time I got around to nibbling a madeleine, it had grown cold and hard. It wasn’t very good.
I won’t say that the macarons were bad; they weren’t traditional. Instead of a soft buttercream filling, the two meringues sandwiched a hardened dark chocolate ganache, more claylike in consistency. The true joy of these macarons – for a dark chocolate lover like me – was the quality of the dark chocolate, which was appreciably high.
There were also some salted caramels, which I did not try.
Our bill was not small. And this was not helped by the fact that they charged us for two full glasses of wine when all I asked for – and I was very clear about this – was two half-pours.
All the same, the sommelier did an excellent job of both giving advice and explaining his selections, and he did pour us an extra glass of dessert wine. His selections were, perhaps, some of the most interesting wines I had on this trip to Europe. Each one had a distinct and memorable characteristic.
He started me off with a glass of ‘Henri Milan’ Le Grand Blanc, which was like drinking a bouquet of flowers and herbs. I especially liked the weight of the wine, which was a bit heavier. In the second half, to pair with the duck, primarily, I progressed on to Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estephe, 2000, a Bordeaux blend that was spicy (licorice was predominant), smoky, and full of dark fruit. This paired especially well with the first serving of the pressed duck, though it was also fabulous with the Velouté de Cèpe comme un Cappuccino.
The most fascinating wine of the evening, and my favorite, was the Domaine du Tariquet Famille Grasa 2007, which the sommelier poured for us to enjoy along with the Ananas Victoria. It tasted like pears and honeysuckle – but mostly pears. I spent a few moments wishing he had poured this wine with the Chocolat blanc et Truffe blanche d’Alba, which had a significant pear component. But one sip of this nectar (it really tasted like pear liqueur) along with the pineapple, and I knew that this was the perfect match.
The reception area at this restaurant is quite odd. It’s a dentist’s waiting room. No, wait, it’s a security check point.
Whatever it is, the little counter-with-the-receptionist-sitting-in-an-alcove thingy is just plain awkward.
What was in this space prior to the restaurant’s tenure?
I looked it up. The website says that the Edwardian building (and it is quite magnificent from the outside) was, originally, a library, but has been more recently occupied by restaurants.
The place seems to be full of random oddities. For example, there is a wall-sized phone inside a “phone booth” in the reception area. It’s also where the elevator bank is located. There’s a giant canvas rendering of a London phone booth stretched on one wall that doubles as a giant touch dialing pad. There is no receiver, as I recall – the conversation is broadcast by way of an overhead speaker. The booth is not sound-proof. Vestige of a previous restaurant?
So, where does l’Ambassade de l’Ile go from here?
Well, for starters, it could shape up its service. Again, it’s not a matter of competence or personality – they’ve got both in spades. It’s a matter of confidence and polish. As thoughtful as it is, it needs to be more so.
As for the food, I can’t offer much criticism. My dinner at l’Ambassade de l’Ile was certainly a very good one. If nothing else, the food here has character.
I won’t say it was faultless. But I’ll concede that most of my disappointments were due to personal taste and not execution. Another diner may have rejoiced over that mild “Marmite de St. Pierre” or, as my friend did, the “Ouef ‘casse.’” I gravitated towards Ansanay-Alex’s dishes that boasted boldness and spice.
l’Ambassade de l’Ile is certainly a very exciting restaurant to be dining in right now. It’s still largely under-trafficked and the kitchen is quite focused. And, it still has the attention of the proprietor, something which I hope the restaurant will never lose.
I don’t expect l’Ambassade de l’Ile to remain on the fringes for much longer. I suspect the press will soon start to infect the place, and for better, or for worse, expense accounts and trend-setters will launch their invasion. And if, as I predict, it gains a twinkle or two from Bibendum, then the circus might as well show up.
But my imagination is getting way ahead of – well – reality. All you need to know for now is that I had a wonderful meal at l’Ambassade de l’Ile and I commend it to you.
l’Ambassade de l’Ile
117/119 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3RN
Edited on 1/17/2009 to add: As predicted, l’Ambassade de l’Ile did pick up one star in the 2009 Michelin Guide Rouge for London.
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.