An exemplary dinner at L'Ambroisie - one of the best meals of my life.
The details first:
Starters: Jo had the Langoustine with curry sauce and sesame tuiles. Langoustine the size of small lobsters, succulently cooked, with a perfect complementing balance from the sesame and the sublimely fragrant curry sauce. I had the "hot and cold prawns" - of fantastic freshness served with almost tropical accompaniments (including a passion fruit sauce) and as pretty as a picture. A stunningly attractive plate, if arguably, just a fraction too sweet.
Fish: We shared a dish of red Snapper with truffle tapanade and asparagus. One of the finest things I have ever eaten. Bit of a 'leftovers' dish, you understand, just using up the last of the season's truffles…whatever's at the back of the larder. Oh my God, was it good! The truffle tapanade was positively filthy is the best possble way…aromatic, sexy, earthy. And the asparagus was sensational. Three plump spears at absolute peak of freshness prepared to the minimum extent necessary to achieve utter perfection. And that was it. Two small fillets of snapper, a quennelle of tapanade, three spears of asparagus, and an olive emulsion sauce (light and without cream). No airs, no foams, no smears, no "look at how many clever processes I've put on the plate". An absolutely masterclass in perfection achieved through confidence that once a perfect balance is achieved you can stop and it will be worth its 3 michelin stars no matter how simple.
Mains. Jo had pigeon I had chicken with morels. If there was one slight misstep in the meal for us it was the mains. Not that they weren't perfectly cooked and delicious. And I am never going to complain about being served a bucketful of fresh morels (I have never seen so many on one plate before!). But perhaps, in contrast to the fish course, each of these did need one more dimension to provide a counterpoint to the sweetness of the pigeon dish and the full-on mushroominess (sic) of my roast chicken breast.
Dessert. Hauled us quickly back to the assured Olympian heights of what had gone before. L'Ambroisie's chocolate tart and vanilla ice cream is rightly legendary. It is the *length* of flavour on the palatte (to lapse into pretentious wine-speak) that makes it so extraordinary, in combination with the lightness of touch. But the same classic combinations of flavour, balance and perfection of execution were equally evident in my Iles flottantes with wild strawberries.
But of course, it is not just the food. Read the blogs and reviews and you may quickly get the impression that L'Amboisie is characterised by service and atmosphere that is formal to the point of intimidatory. Not so. Service was, of course, immaculate (the aperitifs - champagne and a gin and tonic - being prepared separately but to a timing that, somehow, had both poured to completion simultaneously in a way that seemed almost "accidental", or naturally expected, rather than the product of complete attention to detail that it so clearly is…). But that immaculate service was steered by a Maitre D' who was warm, engaging, flattering of our limited attempts at French, and charming to Jo. The sommelier echoed the food by displaying an utter confidence that quality speaks for itself far more than show - evident in both the composition of his wine list (the shortest I have ever seen at this level), and the same natural un-showy presentation of the wines at the table.
I have been lucky enough to eat here (twice) a few years ago, and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that with the transition from Bernard to Mathieu Pacaud had come a more relaxed approach: the suggestion that a fish course may be shared (rather than having to ask for it); the idea of "specials" not on the menu; a sneaky "extra taster" of the other desserts; a warm enjoyment of the occasion which pervaded.
Three things haven't changed, however:
First, that this is one of the most elegant dining rooms in the world (note "elegant" not "oppulent" or "bling"), in the most beautiful square in Paris.
Second, that the food remains simply astonishing - not just in its perfect execution - but in its commitment to its own style. No multi-course tasting menu. No celebrity TV chef ego. No lab experiments or showy techniques. No sheep-dipping of Michelin-awed tourists (see Guy Savoy qv.). Each plate is heartachingly pretty to look at, but the real substance comes from the belief that plates which present clean combinations of flavours cooked with the finest ingredients and with a generosity of spirit will be sufficient in and of themselves (there is no skimping on the expensive ingredients to shave a margin here: if the dish is centred around an ingredient, then it appears in decadent abundance…). Juan Fangio once said "win as slowly as you can"; L'Ambroisie's philosophy appears to be "be perfect as simply as possible".
Finally, that - in return for paying the price of a small house - you will be eating at one of the finest restaurants in the world; I certainly can't think of better*.
*Jo disagrees. She still holds a candle for L'Auberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncouse. We're revisiting that in August so watch this space..!