High-profile French chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex's restaurant Ambassade de L'Ile has the cooking needed to get punters over to Kensington. Tom Vaughan reports
A lot has been written about the interior at Ambassade de L'Ile in Kensington, west London - the shag-pile carpet, the purple and white colour scheme, the kitchen camera relayed through front of house - and one or two vituperative reviews have focused on style over substance.
But chef-patron Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex is unapologetic. He says: "I've been eating in London for five years and restaurants so often look the same. I wanted to create something different."
If there are those who are undecided on the interior, few can remain equivocal about the menu.
Ansanay-Alex is owner of the two-Michelin-starred L'Auberge d'Ile on Lyons's Ile de Barbe. His second outlet, on Old Brompton Road, is the culmination of a five-year search of the UK capital for a suitable site. Kensington not being a Mecca for the discerning diner, the location will need strong word of mouth to succeed. But already the 40-seat restaurant is full in the evenings and is doing a steady lunch trade.
With his London kitchen much larger than that in Lyons, Ansanay-Alex is able to flesh out his menu, with four starters, four fish dishes, four meat dishes and four desserts alongside a five- or seven-course tasting menu (£65/£90).
"The à la carte is the à la carte and the tasting menu should be something different - new inspirations from the chef," he says.
Ansanay-Alex is steeped in classical technique, and his food is marked by quirky plays with temperature and texture.
For example, a starter of full-bodied, deep watermelon gazpacho, served at room temperature, comes with a sweet avocado purée and meaty whole Scottish langoustines, and is as well-balanced and exquisite a starter as has arrived on the London scene this summer.
British produce is reinvigorating the Frenchman. He says. "I think your fish, your seafood, your meat is better, as are all your root vegetables. Even your asparagus is better than in France."
Among the main courses is the beautifully Gallic pike mousseline (£29), trapping in its midst a frog-legs blanquette and circled by a garlic nougatine. This dish was labelled peerless, "number one in a race with no other contestants", by AA Gill in the Sunday Times.
While many of the dishes have their roots in Lyons, they have been tweaked for the British market. Take the tasting menu dish of line-caught cod, marmalade ravioli and almond milk: a sweet, smooth dish epitomising the variety of the London restaurant scene - Britain's favourite fish meets French technique and Italian accompaniment. The lemon marmalade used in Lyons is replaced by an orange variety, "because of what the British eat every morning for breakfast".
Among the twists in technique that mark many dishes, there is also classic French fare, such as line-caught Dover sole à la meuniere with girolle beurre blanc (£66 for two), and sirloin beef and bone marrow with pommes anna (£69 for two).
The desserts, too, are steeped in the level of cuisine you'd expect from a chef with two Michelin stars, such as millefeuilles of white chocolate and raspberries, valrhona milk chocolate mousse (£18), royal puff pastry, fromage blanc mousse and wild fruits with vanilla sorbet (£16) and lime and wild strawberries soufflé (£19), while his signature dish of liquorice ice-cream in a gingerbread cone is guaranteed to be on the menu.
As summer fades, grouse, partridge and more autumnal treats are earmarked for a menu that changes with the months.
The restaurant may have been five years in the making, but its superlative French cuisine will surely pull punters away from their traditional haunts in Mayfair and Soho. With an excellent kitchen team, including 2007 Roux Scholar Armand Sablon, the chef-patron is relishing the challenge and is here for three weeks a month.
"I feel so alive in London," Ansanay-Alex says. "I like being in Lyons - all my roots, my friends, my regulars are there - but I feel alive over here. If Lyons is my old wife, London is my new young mistress."
What's on the menu
- Cornish sardines and brunoise ratatouille, olive oil from Baux de Provence, £19
- Duck foie gras "au torchon", toasted mousseline brioche, £48 for two
- Millefeuille of organic Scottish salmon and black radish, lime with whipped cream, £22
- King-sized Scottish langoustines simply roasted with herb-infused butter, £38
- Tranche of calves' liver, honey and red wine shallot confit, pomme mousseline, £30
- Duck breast and foie gras, cherry mustard marmalade and polenta cromesquis, £32
- English and French cheese selection, toasted breads and condiments, £16
- Assiette of sweet spiced melons, margharita granité, £15
Ambassade de L'Ile,117/119 Old Brompton Road, London SW7. Tel: 020 7373 7774