Although the food at French restaurant L'Ambassade de L'Ile was well received, the ostentatious interior wasn't, so the owner relaunched it in a much simpler guise, as Bistro K. Janie Stamford reports.
When Jean-Michel Aulas decided to close the doors on the flamboyant French fine dining restaurant L'Ambassade de L'Ile after just one year of trading, it was with a view to reopen in a much simpler guise. While French chef Jean Christophe Ansanay-Alex's food had been generally well received, even gaining a coveted Michelin star, the ostentatious interior of the South Kensington restaurant failed to hit the mark with the critics.
The promise by French entrepreneur Aulas of a reincarnation was delivered less than four months later in the form of Bistro K. Where once were shagpile carpets and mirrored walls, there are now elegant wooden floors, whitewashed walls and a fireplace that runs the entire depth of the dining room, courtesy of French interior designer Fabrice Bolenor. Gone is the purple and white colour scheme, as is the suburban 1970s nightclub vibe. The red brick Edwardian building is now unmistakably a restaurant.
Head chef Armand Sablon, a former Roux Scholar whose CV includes Orrery in Marylebone and Mayfair's Galvin at Windows, was sous chef at L'Ambassade de L'Ile. He explains its transformation into a deluxe brasserie: "It was very intimidating before. We had to change the concept to make it more accessible and give value for money."
Uncomplicated bistro ingredients are given a contemporary makeover and while the dishes are intrinsically Gallic, the produce is predominantly British. Sablon says all the fish on the menu comes from the South Coast, the lamb is from Somerset and the scallops and beef are from Scotland.
"There's no Argentinian beef on the menu. Scottish beef just tastes better," he says.
Sablon plans to change the menu four or five times a year, "because seasonality is as important as provenance". But these menu attributes do not form the restaurant concept. That's just what happens at Bistro K and the chef chooses not to shout about it. "I'll just put it on the menu for the people who want to know," he says.
The 100-seat restaurant also houses a private dining room in an impressive wine cellar. It features a treasure trove of originals for aficionados to go giddy over, including the largest stock of Romanée-Conti in London. Situated not far from the French Chamber of Commerce, the wine list has proven a particular draw for the large French community in South Kensington.
Open from 9am to 10.30pm, Bistro K runs four separate services as well as bar tapas from 3pm. Breakfast is a continental affair, with the choice of express (£2.55) or deluxe (£12.55) as well as a selection of sweet and savoury brunch dishes such as French toast with cinnamon butter, and eggs Benedict, which are served before the lunch service begins at midday.
Veal cheek with shallot purée and boulangère potato is included in a two- or three-course set menu (£15.10/£20.20 for lunch, £25.10 for three courses at dinner).
However, the restaurant's most popular dishes are on the à la carte menu. The Scottish scallop, leek etuvée and black truffle jus for £14.05 and the Scottish beef fillet served with French fries and a Béarnaise sauce for £27.55 both contribute to the average customer spend of £55 per head.
Starters include confit duck ballotine with quince purée (£12.55), celeriac velouté with a soft poached egg (£8.95) and a light and creamy goat's cheese tart served with red onion marmalade, which at £10 is noticeably the only item on the menu to be priced at a round number.
Sablon's signature dish, which he describes as the "new pork belly", is also proving a hit with diners: lamb belly braised for eight hours, with soft polenta, and a tomato and chardonnay vinegar sauce (£18.15).
"People are unaccustomed to lamb belly, but they love it," the chef says.
In addition to a selection of artisanal French and English cheeses (£11.80), Bistro K offers a range of desserts that reads like a checklist of French bistro classics. Outstanding examples include a fruity apple tarte tatin with Calvados crème fraîche (£6.90) and a rich, indulgent chocolate fondant served with vanilla ice-cream (£8.95).
Since the restaurant's reintroduction to London as a chic yet unfussy eatery, it has laid claim to a growing roster of regular clientele.
"Some visit two or three times a week, when they only visited L'Ambassade once," Sablon says proudly. It seems his ambition to make his guests feel at home has already been realised.
117-119 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3RN
Tel: 020 7373 7774
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Assorted plate of charcuterie, £13.75
- Feuilleté d'escargots, £13.05
- Pan-fired foie gras, pain d'epices, £19.60
- Cornish cod mouclade, mussel tartar, £17.15
- Roast sea bass, pumpkin purée, £20.20
- Chicken breast and black truffle, £26.35
- Ginger crème brulée, £6.90
- Raspberry soufflé, £7.95
- Vanilla buttermilk panna cotta, £5.90