I knew something was up. Lunch was booked for Saturday, and on Wednesday I rang from London to reconfirm. ‘OK, but you’ll have to call again on Friday to make sure. And we need your address in Paris. Oh, and your British mobile is no good – we have to have a French number.’
These demands were unexplained. Perhaps their phone uniquely can’t call the UK, or maybe they wanted to make sure I wasn’t dossing in the Tuileries, and would turn up looking like the lovechild of Bill Bailey and the Wicked Witch of the West. Anyway, one thing being another, I didn’t call, and neither did they. Yet when Charlie and I arrived, they sat us down without a word – which makes me wonder what was the point of all that nonsense about French phone numbers. And there's something else: the restaurant was half-empty all through lunch.
This is a place, Oh my Best Beloved, so indigestibly excessive, so bloated in its fripperies, so amputated from the purposes and pleasures of eating, it’s reached a state of parody. Its dishes are concocted around a curt list of expensive ingredients, its menu dictated by an infatuation with show-off luxuries, by pathological ostentation, wincing crassness, fetishised vanity and suffocating gloom. It is an emperor parading with his tackle out. Calling itself - with blistering arrogance - 'ambrosia', the food of the gods, it stands as an example of what Joyce Cary called a tumbrel remark – an utterance displaying such pampered insensitivity, it can rouse a rabble to violence. Its target customers are Bourbons, sheiks and oligarchs who, to tweak Wilde’s aphorism, know the price of nothing and the value of nothing. It is. Simply. Awful.
There are three rooms at l’Ambroisie, with (hilariously) a hierarchy to them. The first is windowless and dark, sagging with oppressive tapestries and spotted with squat, expensive side-tables. It’s the plebs’ room and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s where they sat us. Diners in the second-class room are generously permitted a window, and the smallest chamber (in which, I’m told, even the dizzying likes of Gérard Depardieu have sat) is at the back. The diminutive, unsmiling sommelier is probably 50ish, but looks 90, a cross between Ronnie Corbett and Sir Patrick Moore.
The menu, printed on bizarrely cheap cardboard, is a box-ticking Michelin shopping list. At every turn, there’s lobster, foie gras, caviar: each extravagance as soullessly predictable as the last. Of course, I love all those things, and in a three-star on the Place des Vosges, I expect to pay for them. But so baldly obvious is the calculation behind them, so inevitable their inclusion, that an air of lazy apathy hovers above the menu. It certainly doesn't inspire; and the prices, as we'd anticipated, are guppy-mouth horrifying. But I’d saved up for months, and I was here for the hautest classics of haute cuisine. I thought the meal had the chance of being the best I’d ever eaten, and I was ready to face it.
The ‘amuse’ is a slab of red mullet with tapenade. I invert those commas because it's not an amuse at all. In a big meal, the first tastes should refresh and enliven, prepping the senses for what’s to come. This is a stingily-portioned main course, and the tapenade is so cold it makes your teeth hurt.
Charlie starts with a spectacularly horrible dish of snails and rocket sauce. Reptile bogeys in blitzed pond. For some reason, it’s got mashed potato all over it, and the parmentier has the grittiness of overcooked tuber. I have the signature, langoustines with curry sauce. They’re tender, and the sauce has a spicy depth, but this is jumped-up, self-deluding prawn balti.
A dish of sea bass with artichoke and caviar is fully representative of l'Ambroisie. The bass is mushy, and the artichoke (hardly an orgasmic vegetable, but at least expensive) tastes of artichoke. Most of all, though, the sauce is a tragic, vulgar waste of caviar. I like the eggs on their own, or at least with minimal faff. Here, their delicate briney savour is swamped in fatty sauce; they add nothing, not a single thing, to what could have been a pure and delicious dish of bass in old-fashioned sauce. They’re included, of course, to justify the frankly ludicrous price. Stewed lobster is a Bushtucker trial, the tail carrying the texture of kangaroo penis. No doubt they’d try to tell me the French enjoy rubbery lobster, that only my rosbif ignorance leads me to believe otherwise. Nonsense. The langoustine wasn’t overcooked: the lobster is. Its sauce is salted diarrhoea.
Milk-fed lamb is like gnawing teat. For an ingredient this prized, it’s shockingly tough. Infant sheep is unadventurous, expensive snob-food, celebrated more for texture than flavour. Here, timid and chewy, it’s served in a sauce almost identical to the lobster. Charlie has a veal sweetbread slightly larger than a brick, and with about as much flavour. It’s a wretched thing: sweatily cloying, with the texture of the mould that grows between bathroom tiles. On the side - I'm not exaggerating - a bowl of two dozen morels. As you know, a few of these funghi, haunted with the forest, can raise a dish to glory. Chomping them one after another, like olives, over-eggs their wonderful pudding – in both senses, it’s tasteless. Despite the fact that we’ve been swapping plates each course, even between us we can’t finish the sweetbread. And for boys of our appetite, that’s saying something.
I don’t want cheese, but Charlie does. Rather than watch him munch away, I ask whether I can have something lighter. ‘Sorry, but the kitchen’s closed.’ Oh. Does that mean we can’t have pudding? ‘No, you can. But nothing savoury.’ Right, so the kitchen wasn't closed, then: it’s not like they have two. Anyway, I want something sweet, and they bring a fresh-tasting strawberry sorbet with some raspberries. Charlie’s cheese is in good nick. The sorbet turns up on the bill at €34.
Pre-pudding of milk foam is frothed sick. I order chocolate tart, because they’re supposedly famous for it. It’s raw. Raw cake mix on a biscuit base. That’s clearly the point, but so what – it’s still raw, and it's awful. They insist we order rhubarb tart. It comes with the same sorbet I’ve just been served. Even though they knew we were swapping plates, so I would have to eat the sorbet twice, they whacked it out again. The rhubarb is undercooked and stringy, the dish effortfully forgettable.
Towards the end, I order a €9 coffee, and (as always) ask for a little cold milk on the side. The manager’s eyebrows rise as if I just exposed myself. ‘No, no, that isn't a good idea. You see, our coffee is 80 per cent arabica and 20 per cent robusta. You shouldn’t put milk in it after a meal.' Riiiiiight. Then some bought-in chocolates arrive. We eat a couple, leaving perhaps four or five in the bowl. I ask if we might take the remaining ones away with us. ‘Er, no. That isn’t possible.’
To this, I append no comment.
This was one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten. Not because the food was bad (though it was), but because they ignore or spurn here so much that is vivid and enriching about restaurants: the physical and metaphysical joy of being welcomed, fed, wined, pleasured. Everything about l’Ambroisie is terminally depressing and blood-boilingly vulgar. The vacuous elitism, the studied snobbery, the sheer Scroogean shudder of the place. All the familiar criticisms of Michelin – that it’s staidly effete, joylessly elevated and wedded to empty extravagance, sound as clearly here as the bells of Notre Dame. And oh sweet Jesus, the cost…
For the first time on this blog, I’m not going to say what we paid – to do so would almost itself be a tumbrel remark. But to give you a flavour: for the price of the sea bass, that one plate of deeply disappointing food, we could have eaten an eight-course tasting menu at Gordon Ramsay’s three-starred flagship, and got our change in notes.
That night, reeling and speechless, we ate dinner in an anonymous bistro in the 2nd. I had escargots à la Bourguignonne and an entrecôte with frites and green salad. Charlie had bouillabaise, then choucroute garnie, and we shared a crème brûlée. The meal cost a twelfth of our lunch at l’Ambroisie, and was exactly 384 times more enjoyable. In fact, it was wonderful. And as I swooshed the salty chips through the tarragon wobble of béarnaise, and saw the pink beefy juices glistening under my fork, heard the incomparable clack of the brûlée’s caramel and savoured the rolling, oaky richness of the claret – I realised, with greater clarity than I’d ever known, that in food there is no correlation at all between price and pleasure.
L’Ambroisie, 9 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris
Tel. +33 (0)1 42 78 51 45
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