In the world of high-end gastronomy, one restaurant stands out from the crowd. It is a place that has its own rules, and does things in its very own way. L’Ambroisie is a bit of a legend in the foodie community, due to the quality of the produce used in its kitchens and the astronomic prices that are demanded here, L’Ambroisie is the kind of place that really fascinates.
There was a time when countless food bloggers embarked on a pilgrimage to the restaurant and told stories of its spectacular cuisine, thus creating a real hype around it. Now, more sexy restaurants have taken the limelight, and L’Ambroisie has gone back to being a very exclusive and mysterious restaurant of which one hears very little. This should not lead anyone to believe that this restaurant is not part of the world’s very best anymore. It clearly still is.
One of the reasons for the media silence perhaps is the fact that this is a restaurant that is far from being flashy. The service is discreet, professional and a little stiff, as you’d expect it to be, whilst the food is much less complicated than that of most other restaurants at this level. When a Dutch 2* chef wrote a book about his experiences, eating in all of Europe’s 3* restaurants, his worst experience was L’Ambroisie. For him, being served soft-boiled eggs with asparagus, watercress and caviar was not 3* food, but well prepared comfort food. There really are no fireworks here, no impressive constructions on fancy plates. No, here everything is simple, straightforward and quite tasty indeed.
If one accepts the fact that L’Ambroisie is not a flashy restaurant, it is already easier to understand it. The man who made it what it is today, Bernard Pacaud, is perhaps the least publicized chef in France, and yet he is the doyen of the profession. His creations continue to figure on the menu here, luckily so, and continue to be amazing. As with all masters of their craft, Pacaud’s classics are still timeless and hugely enjoyable, even though some of these dishes pre-date the diners eating them. What makes them so special and classical is the fact that the product quality used here is incredible. You will have trouble finding a restaurant in Europe that serves better produce than they do here. A great way to demonstrate this is the feuillantine de langoustines au graines de sesame et curry. A simplistic dish, only a few langoustines, some spinach, a few crackers and a curry sauce, and yet it is one of the showstoppers here. The crustaceans are of such quality that you can hardly get away from them. It is a lesson in products and careful cooking. It is a dish, in which all the elements complement each other, are perfectly balanced and deliver a true gastronomic symphony.
Another such masterpiece created by Bernard Pacaud is the sea bass with caviar and artichokes. Again, the dish is surprisingly simple, only featuring a handful of ingredients. Yet, what you have is sea bass of such fantastic quality that the divine sauce and artichokes are all you need. It is another one of those naked dishes that really shake you when it is prepared perfectly. Such dishes really stand the test of time, and continue to be relevant at a time when luxury is a banned word in Europe’s restaurants.
However, whilst these creations of the past undoubtedly are some of the finest dishes one can find in France these days, since Mathieu Pacaud started influencing the cuisine here and creating dishes, things have taken a slightly different path. Unlike the flavour-focused, bold dishes of his father, Mathieu’s food seems less mature, less focused and dare one say banal at times. His litchi and rose dessert for instance seems like a riff on a well-known idea that Pierre Hermé created a few years ago. The way it is presented with a few dots on the plate and that sugar ball seems out of place in a restaurant such as this one, where effects used to be banned. Whilst the presentation were no problem, would the flavours be there, in this case one has nothing but a soapy, fake taste of rose and litchi in the mouth. Compared to the classic desserts as the chocolate tarte for instance, this dessert seems most peculiar.
Why Mathieu Pacaud puts such dishes on the menu is hard to understand. They simply do not work with the rest of the food here. What strikes you with them is the way in which they somehow remind you of yesterday’s fashion, which Bernard’s dishes clearly do not. Hopefully the classics will remain on the menu for as long as possible, as they really are what makes L’Ambroisie a special place. They are the dishes that make it stand out of the crowd and make it a truly unique restaurant.
Thus, a first time visit to this restaurant should really feature some of the great classics of Bernard Pacaud. If you are prepared to spend a lot of money and have a truly idiosyncratic dining experience, L’Ambroisie will clearly deliver it. It is a place that up until recently was free of trends and cultivated its unique culinary language. Let’s hope that this exclusive little club will continue to remain exactly that.