On 2nd August 2009 Ambassade de l'Ile closed, and its head chef returned to France to focus on his two star restaurant in Lyon. The restaurant eopened as Bistro K, which itself appears to have folded. Hence the notes below are of historical interest only.
I am impressed that the menu here changes monthly, in line with what is good in season. I have had more than half a dozen meals here now. In summary, while there are some ups and downs, the best dishes here are genuinely superb, at times up there with the best in London. There is some inconsistency, and so the overall meal feels less assured throughout than at The Square or Le Gavroche, but personally I would rather live with the odd imperfection and have at least one dish that I am really excited about. Prices have also moderated since opening, and there is an excellent value lunch at £25.
First are some brief notes from a lunch in April 2009.
Today we began with langoustine sand scallop ravioli with grapefruit, lemon coulis and pepper foam. This was a very well-balanced dish, the pasta having lovely soft texture, the grapefruit and lemon giving a little acidity without being too sharp, and the pepper foam giving a gentle spicy note (18/20). Fois gras with morel mushrooms and green asparagus had particularly carefully chosen morels and a creamy sauce, the asparagus a welcome colour and earthy flavour contrast to the richness of the fois gras (18/20).
Roast skate wing was served with artichokes and pink pepper, resting in a jus made with a blend of spices. Spices are little used in French cuisine (Olivier Roellinger made his name by breaking this taboo) and often when a French chef uses them it can result in a rather odd vaguely mild “curry” flavour, which does not always work well. Here the distinct spices came through clearly, and the skate itself (not the easiest fish to cook) was very tender (18/20). Navarin of lamb was cooked with spring vegetables, a simple, classical dish (17/20). A passion fruit mousse in a tuile was a refreshing finish to the meal (16/20).
Here are notes from a meal in March 2009.
Regular readers will know that I am a fan of bread, and so I always have a soft spot for restaurants that make their own bread rather than just lazily buying it in. Here both the brown and white bread is made from scratch and was excellent, fresh and with good texture and correct seasoning (18/20). After the obligatory vegetable crisps we started with a tartare of red tuna with caviar and vodka, served on a bed of good beetroot – an unusual combination but one that worked (17/20). Next was a superb soft and warm foie gras mousseline served in a soup bowl and covered with intensely flavoured lobster broth, topped with a tender langoustine. This dish was a triumph, each element excellent in its own right, the combination of tastes working together (19/20).
Next was grilled John Dory with cumin seeds, celeriac and artichoke. This was prettily presented and the cumin was an interesting idea that worked nicely with the fish, but the piece of fish itself was significantly overcooked, an uncharacteristic slip of technique here (14/20). We then tried the pressed duck. This is a dish made famous at Tour d’Argent in Paris. The carcass of the duck is crushed in a specialist duck press, and the blood used in the sauce to accompany the duck breast. The Challans duck was lovely, carefully cooked and showing off its inherent flavour, while the rich sauce made from the duck press was a dark and delightful experience; providing some much needed balance to the dish were slices of sweet and sour turnips, the sherry vinegar of their dressing providing just the right amount of acidity to cut through the rich taste of the duck. A second serving of the duck was the leg, with a simple green salad with hazelnut dressing (19/20). One of the friends we were dining with had tried the pressed duck at Tour d’Argent and pronounced the version tonight better.
My wife's Dover sole was filled with a salmon mousse and wrapped in a buckwheat pancake, served on a bed of spinach. The fish was good though cooked a fraction longer than ideal, but the pancake didn’t really add anything for me and the spinach was tender but rather over-salted (15/20). Cheeses these days are supplied from Lyons rather than London and were in excellent condition (18/20).
Desserts continue to be (relatively) the Achilles heel of the kitchen in my view, though they have improved since Antoine Danthu (winner of the Lacam trophy for pastry in 2008) took over as pastry chef. The tarte sablée à la Châtaigne et Citron confit, Sabayon au Lagavulin is a little tuile dome over a casing of sable pastry filled with chestnut mousse and lemon confit. Inside is a whisky sabayon. This is a clever dish, though personally I would liked to see a greater proportion of lemon taste to the chestnut (17/20). I love crepes suzette, but thin crepes lose their heat really fast, and on this occasion when they arrived they were rather cold; this was not the case the last time I had them here, but perhaps making them at the table, as well as adding some theatre, would be safer in terms of ensuring their temperature. On a previous visit they arrived hot, so this was really just a slip. Service was excellent; our waitress (Holly) is a real asset to the dining room.
The notes below are from an earlier meal in late 2008.
This evening we went for a purely fishy menu option. Nibbles were the crisp vegetables and herbs that I have written about previously; the vegetable crisps (beetroot, lotus root) work well, while the herbs (e.g. parsley) can be a little soggy. Bread, just white and brown slices, but made on the premises, was excellent (18/20), served with top notch butter. We began with Cornish sardines with Brunoise ratatouille (£19), wittily presented inside an open sardine tin before being served. As the sardines were served on the plate a few drops of high grade olive oil from Baux de Provence was drizzled over the fish. The sardines were very fresh and had great taste, while the finely chopped ratatouille was beautifully judged, with just a gentle hint of peppery bite. To me this is an example of real cooking. To take a lobster or fillet of beef and make it taste nice is one thing, but to make a pair of sardines genuinely exciting takes real talent (19/20).
Next was a pretty millefeuille of organic Scottish salmon with black radish and whipped cream flavoured with lime. The use of lime wisely added acidity to balance the cream and cut through the inherent oiliness of the salmon, while the radish added a texture contrast (18/20). This would be even better with wild salmon. Next were five Scottish langoustines (£38) roasted in their shell and prettily presented around a central confit potato. The shellfish rested in a rich herb-infused butter, which I think had a hint of saffron. The langoustines themselves were cooked perfectly, not a moment over or under-cooked, while the herbs and butter lifted the dish to a higher level (19/20).
For main course we had fillet of line-caught Dover sole (£33), served as a pair of fillets on top of each other, separated by a filling of finely diced ham and spinach, with girolles, resting in a classic beurre blanc. The fish was of high quality and timed well, the beurre blanc a tried and tested match for the fine fish. If I am being picky, the spinach was a cooked a tiny bit too long for my taste (18/20).
A soufflé of lime (£19) was well made, served with a sorbet of wild strawberries (18/20). Millefeuille of white chocolate and raspberries (£18) had in the centre a smooth mousse of milk chocolate using Valrhona chocolate (18/20). Petit fours included excellent waffles, and there is now a short coffee menu including Jamaican Blue Mountain. Service was impeccable. This my was third meal here, as well as one evening of nibbles, and the food continues to impress. Technique is hard to fault and ingredients are carefully chosen. Seasoning was superb and sauces beautifully made, increasingly a lost art these days. This is cooking of the highest order. The bill came to £135 a head.
Below are notes from a meal in July 2008.
The menu is now fully open and we tried the tasting menu (£90 – a shorter five course version is available at £65). An impressive nibble was a mushroom duxelle topped with a quail egg – the mushroom flavour was really well concentrated (18/20); I enjoyed this more that a veal lollipop, which for me didn’t really work. A creamy crab tart was very prettily presented as a cylinder, with layers of red pepper and herbs and pistachio sable as well as the crab. I like the idea of this dish but I think it can be improved; the overall effect was a little dry rather than creamy, and the pistachio sable added too much sweetness to the dish for my taste (17/20).
A Scottish scallop was perfectly timed, a fine sweet scallop served with a cherry vinegar dressing and a polenta croquette. The scallop was lovely, the polenta croquette adding a nice earthy contrast and crispness, but I am not sure about the cherry vinegar as a concept. Certainly acidity is welcome to balance the sweetness of the scallop, but I don’t think the flavour of the cherry pairs that well with the shellfish (18/20 for execution, but for me 17/20 overall).
Next was a fillet of John Dory with a curry sauce. While not in the league of the version I ate recently at Roellinger this was still an excellent dish, the curry sauce nicely controlled and adding an extra dimension to the John Dory, a fish with strong enough flavour to cope with the subtle spices (18/20). Pot au feu chicken breast was enjoyable but for me not as interesting as some of the other dishes (17/20).
This was followed by a perfectly executed ravioli of foie gras presented in a little bamboo steamer. On the side was a heavily reduced sauce of duck veloute with port sauce. The intensity of flavour in this sauce was remarkable. Sometimes ultra-reduced sauces can become too gloopy in texture, or unwelcome flavour notes can creep in, but here the duck flavour came through incredibly well, and yet the flavour was very clean and pure (19/20, with 20/20 for the sauce). The skill in the sauce making at this restaurant to me shows what top French cooking is all about.
A dessert of cherry clafoutis seems to me a much better use for the lovely cherries, the clafoutis having good texture and the fruit itself lovely (18/20). The sable biscuit was a little better tonight than the one I tried previously, though I am still unconvinced by the raspberry popcorn as a concept. Coffee was excellent, and now appears to be £4 per coffee, which is reasonable given the petit fours.
While there were some minor issues (some of which are as much my personal taste as to do with actual execution), some ups and downs are inevitable in a tasting menu, and the ups were very high indeed. This seems to me to confirm a restaurant cooking overall at two Michelin star level, with the occasional dish even better than that. I ended up mopping up the duck and port sauce with the superb bread and grinning like a child at that point, so rare it was to taste a sauce of such quality. Service was excellent, as previously. The bill arrives in the form of a scroll with a wax seal, which suggests something pretty serious inside, but I feel this is a fair price for the level of cooking. £90 for the tasting menu is the same as Petrus, for example.
Below are the notes from my first meal here, in June 2008.
After the disappointment of Alain Ducasse’s much heralded opening in London at the Dorchester and the Pourcel Brothers W Sens (now closed), it was with some trepidation that I entered Ambassade de l’Ill, the London opening of two Michelin star Lyon chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex. Would this be another case of a French chef over-reaching, or just cynically out to make money from les rosbifs?
The dining room itself is smart though a little eccentrically decorated, with black walls and carpet and one partition wall of white padded leather tiles, which match the modern chairs upholstered in white leather. Each table has a crisp white linen tablecloth and a single white canna lily. Lighting was generally good, but above our table was an ill-conceived idea of a lamp with rotating colours lurking in the skylight. This had the unfortunate effect of changing the colour and appearance of the food on the plate as the colours switched and is an idea that should be consigned to the 1970s disco décor museum where it belongs (editor's note: the colour is now stable).
The menu was short, with just four starters, main courses and desserts, though there are some different dishes on the tasting menus (a seven course tasting menu was £90). The wine list appeared in a hefty photo-album tome, primarily French, stretching over 38 pages of high class growers. Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet 2005 Combettes was listed at £230 (retail price around £70). La Mouline 2004 was £390 for a wine that retails at about £140, Didier Dagenau Silex 2005 at £165 for a wine that costs around £60 in a shop (£140 on the list at Sketch). Josmeyer Pinot Gris 2005 at £45 was a welcome relief (retail price around £14) from wines over £100 a bottle. The list was genuinely good in terms of producers, and it can be seen that mark-ups are not the worst in London, yet most of the bins have prices with three digits in them. A few more basic choices would be welcome.
We began with a plate of vegetable crisps, a pretty pile of both herbs (parsley) and vegetables (sweet potato, lotus root, beetroot) deep-fried. The vegetables were crisp and enjoyable, the herbs rather soggy (15/20) overall). The bread is made in the kitchen and is just one choice: a simple slice of brown bread, but what bread it is. It has lovely airy texture, excellent firm crust and is nicely seasoned (bread 19/20).
As amuse bouche we had a spoon of excellent clam in saffron sauce and a little sandwich of gingerbread with crabmeat and wasabi, which had particularly nice balance between the fresh taste of the crab and the subtle spiciness of the wasabi and ginger. These were both exceptionally good nibbles (19/20). To begin with I shared a duck foie gras terrine (£48 for two) that was baked in brioche; this is brought to the table and then sliced in half to serve. This had plenty of foie gras flavour and a smooth texture, served with a trio of excellent cherries from France (17/20). However much better was a superb young vegetable tart with green mustard ice cream (£19), featuring perfectly chosen vegetables, fine pastry and a clever use of savoury ice cream; the vegetables tasted great and yet were apparently from the UK, which makes me wonder why other London chefs fail to obtain produce at this level (19/20). Crayfish jelly with white peach and almond milk (£24) worked together surprisingly well, with fine langoustines and a dazzlingly good white peach imported from France (18/20).
Milk-fed lamb (£64 for two) was cooked in a salt crust and again presented to the table prior to being carved. This was served just with some cooking juices and, on the side, a lovely green pea potato gnocchi. I think the dish would have been better for something green on the plate, but the lamb was tender and had excellent taste, and the gnocchi had fine texture (17/20). Lobster and roasted fig was served with a reduction of late harvest wine and coral butter. The lobster tasted very good and was certainly not chewy, but was still cooked a little longer than optimal; the sauce worked well but I am unconvinced that the fig was a good idea – it seemed superfluous to me (17/20).
I lucked out with quail, stuffed and varnished with honey and cider vinegar, pigeon heart and cooked tomatoes with sweet and sour sauce. The quail (imported from France) was absolutely superb, perfectly cooked, the careful use of sweet and sour elements from the honey and vinegar adding a little interest without in any way detracting from the fabulous bird. This was the best quail I can recall eating (20/20).
Cheese was in good condition; at this stage Premiere Cheese seems to be the main supplier. We tried a lovely runny Colombier, good Camembert, Beaufort, Munster and Bleu d’Auvergne, while Roquefort was unusually good. The cheese was served with a toasted fruit and nut bread, grapes (served too cold from the fridge) and kumquats (18/20 overall). A peach soufflé was extremely well executed, light and fluffy (18/20). This was better than a dish of puff pastry served with red fruits (e.g. strawberries), a vanilla cream and a raspberry and red pepper sorbet. The fruits themselves were excellent, but the dish was a little dry, the only relief being the quite spicy ice cream, which seemed to me ill-conceived (16/20 at best). Much better was a Valrhona chocolate pastry and creamy nuts, the chocolate very rich indeed, a little crispness a welcome texture contrast to the velvety chocolate (18/20).
A little cornet of liquorice ice cream at the end was one of those “love it or hate it” ideas, but I was impressed that a choice of chocolate sorbet and vanilla ice cream was quickly offered when it was noticed that not everyone was eating their liquorice. Petit fours consisted of good macaroons, slightly dry sable with coffee, and a rather odd idea: raspberry popcorn, which tasted of, er raspberries but was basically just popcorn after the first bite. Coffee was of good quality, and so it should be at £10 for a double espresso, an absurd price for a cup of coffee (I asked for a large espresso and ended up being charged £12, which left a rather bitter taste in the mouth when the bill arrived).
Service was simply superb from the moment we arrived. It was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable throughout the evening. Dishes arrived at a leisurely but steady pace. The best dishes this evening were better than anything else in London right now, and although the standard was not uniform this was still in soft opening, and so if anything things should get better as the kitchen settles down. Even the worst dish of the evening was still very good indeed.
The wine list could do with some additional modest choices for those not dining on expenses, and the coffee price is an unwelcome sting in the tail, but overall we paid £150 a head for a superb meal including some pretty serious wine. Starters around £25, main courses about £32 and desserts £17 is hardly cheap, but in my view represents fair value for cooking at this level. Overall, the best new restaurant opening in London for many years.