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29/06/2009

Gallery Mess, Chelsea, London

Gallery Mess

★★★☆☆

Good God, what a name. Gallery Mess. It sounds like a harbinger of Emin’s bedclothes, or a Hoxton installation of upturned bins and fox poo.

And there’s something weirdly, regressively infantile about the word ‘mess’. You don’t want it anywhere near food. When a child walks into the dining room and announces, ‘I’ve made a mess’, the only sound that follows is the icy tinkle of cutlery on china, knives and forks descending in unison to half-past-six. At best, the moppet means it’s flicked peas on the floor, spattered the walls with ketchup, or smeared Petits Filous across the small, fat face of its high-chaired sibling. At worst, it means… a lot worse. Mess and food go together like surgery and LSD.

Actually, it’s ‘mess’ as in ‘officers’’ – the Grand Old Duke of York once kept his precisely numbered men on this flat section of the King’s Road. I went with limited expectations. The menu has a pussy-footed predictability: burgers, ‘pasta of the day’, ‘chargrilled chicken breast’ and the dreary like. The specials are much more interesting (Thai beef salad with snake beans, duck salad with watermelon) but weirdly don’t appear online. These days, every restaurant that changes its menu should update its website simultaneously; perhaps, on this score, Gallery Mess is a work in progress.

The space is clinical and cold, with the white monotony of a Brian Eno track. A few wildly expensive sculptures are dotted about tastefully. Chris and I sat outside, in the almost gladey courtyard, with strollers strolling past and the sun shimmying behind the planes. We had a pretty long, pretty good lunch.

Gazpacho comes with cucumber and sun-blushed tomatoes at the bottom of the bowl. Annoyingly, inexplicably, you pour the soup yourself. As you know, this can be a truly great dish, but the version here is just passable. Over-oiled and timidly flavoured, it tastes sort of deflated, with the sun-blushed tomatoes clearly blushing out of embarrassment at their unwelcome acidity. A salad of lamb’s lettuce with duck and watermelon sounded horrendous – which is, naturally, why I ordered it – but proves delicious, with splashes of carmine fruit given body by a south-east-Asiany peanut dressing. It’s possible, though I could be wrong, that the duck was leftover from yesterday. If so, all to the good: such frugal creativity is welcome these days.

A saddle of lamb is chewily overcooked, though its couscous is intelligently spiced and the dish looks delightful. Salmon poached with sauce vierge is excellent – rosy and tender, bathing in extra virgin and speckled with capers. A knickerbocker glory is bizarrely constructed with peanut brittle and bashed up crème brûlée, though its fruit bleeds juicily within. Rhubarb crumble lacks that gooey glory when fruit has surged into crust – instead, the ’barb lies morosely at the bottom of the dish, and the crumble is dusty and raw.

Overall, though, Gallery Mess is ideal for a spot of lunch after a morning shopping on the KR. Its product is far better than you’d expect in a gallery caff. If that sounds condescending, it shouldn't: most food in museums, or any other public building, is like the Taxidermy Section crossed with the Rocks Room. The staff were smiling and enthusiastic, and seemed as happy to be in the sunshine as we were. Not really a mess at all, then.


Gallery Mess Café/Bar, Saatchi Gallery, King's Road, London SW3

Tel.: +44 (0)20 7730 8135

See on the Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £40

www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/gallerymess

24/06/2009

Le Vacherin, Chiswick, London

Le Vacherin

★★★★★

If ever they come for me in the middle of the night – figures round the bed, door in splinters, torchlights red on sweaty face – I know what I’ll fight them for. I know what’ll get me wriggling and writhing, the thought that’ll fling me out the door, unshod, to curses and flurry. (Admittedly, as this blog continues, the only part of me capable of producing any movement is my bowel, but that’s beside the point.) What is it?

Bistro.

Richer, tastier, bistro best. The elemental warmth of lobster bisque, the saucy soul of coq au vin. Pork baked in milk, clafoutis pocked with cherries, a benchmark moules - I’d fight them on the beaches for it.

But that’s the French for you. Whatever barnacle-nosed colonels harrumph into their port, the French are better than the English at everything. Their cities are more beautiful, they’ve got beaches and ski slopes and space, they’ve got Zidane and we’ve got Rooney, they’ve got a national cinema and we’ve got Richard Curtis. They’re better looking, they work less, and they live longer. And we all know they eat better. Britons survive on curly fries, Frijj and unsweetened apology: the French eat brioche. Don’t talk to me about service, either. For every supercilious garçon I’ve done battle with, I’ve faced two nose-ringed trollops dropping the plates and flobbing in the minestrone.

Now London has some decent British restaurants, most of which suckled at the teat of St. John. (Which is not a phrase you’ll read in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.) For the most part, though, our cooking is a stay-at-home girl, shredding her suet by the whisper of the Aga and the fart of the Labrador. Like everything in Britain, the best and most interesting food remains aspiced in class, primly reserved for metropolitan sorts who’ll eat a Mrs King pork pie or pay seven quid for bone marrow and parsley salad. In France, it’s different. There’s self-assured pride – often mistaken for arrogance – in a national granary of dishes, which everybody knows and which you can eat throughout the country. Food remains the bottom-up, bottoms-up bedrock of their culture, and they’re richer for it.

Le Vacherin – for all that its chef is British – is proof enough of French superiority. It’s an outstanding restaurant serving considered bistro fare with panache, confidence and honesty – clubbable, composed and as unpretentious as a skip. I took my friend Cargy for a long lunch, unaware that on Sundays, it’s prix fixe only. (A bizarre policy – I’m invariably coaxed in by set lunches but veer onto the à la carte within moments of arriving.) It’s in Chiswick, which sounds like it might as well be Vladivostock, but is only an anvil’s throw from Hammersmith.

£19.50 gets you three courses. I start with a junipery morteau sausage with lentils, the pig given life by the pulse (droll, that one). It’s rustic in a polished sort of way. Cargy has a stellar pork rillette, the lightest I’ve ever tasted. There’s a lid of set fat which she detaches to limit her lard intake – though I finish it – and some cornichons to bring vital acidity. Rabbit in mustard sauce is faultless – toothsome clumps of bunny falling from spindly bones. A green salad crunches with endive, bitter as Al Gore, and there’s a firm, pearly piece of sea bream, cloyed by a slightly over-rich lobster sauce. For puddings, a haughty île flottante, the whites not dissimilar to candyfloss, in a custard haunted with vanilla. Last, an exquisite apple tatin to share, the pastry flaked with jammy gooeyness, the prim fruit carrying just a little, welcome bite.

Now it’s true that I’ve only been once, for the lunch deal. And if I’d come for a midweek dinner, and spent £18 on lamb navarin with boulangères, I’d have judged the place by different standards. But I ate what I ate here, and I paid what I paid – and on that basis, this was my best London meal so far this year.

We took our wine outside, as people bronzed on Turnham Green and the sun stood poised in the evening sky. It’s wrong, two-and-two-is-five-wrong, to dismiss or patronise Le Vacherin as a neighbourhood restaurant. If it were in Chelsea, it would be more famous and the tables would be harder to get. But it isn’t, which is why you can get three delicious courses for 20 quid. And that’s the reason you should go there this Sunday.



Le Vacherin, 76-77 South Parade London, London W4
Tel. +44 (0)20 8742 2121

See on the Map


Sunday lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £39

Le Vacherin on Urbanspoon

www.levacherin.co.uk

18/06/2009

Abel & Cole Organic Box [Review]

Abel & Cole Organic Box

Abel & Cole recently sent me a free box of fruit and veg. In case you’ve not come across them before (the company, that is, not the fruit and veg. I mean, you'd hardly be reading a food blog if you didn’t know what fruit and veg were, would you?) – they sell edible good life to people who might see two sheep a year. On the website, Keith Abel smiles beatifically from some blossomed idyll; and I’m sure Paul Cole is a merry old soul. The site is as lush and wholesome as Zac Efron. It’s a hymn to bucolic lolling, to dappled, arcadian days of Château Peyraguey and strawberries. There’s no mud, dung or flies in this countryside, just meadowsweet, flopsies and H. E. Bates. Their byword, repeated like a mantra, is ‘values’. Values are valuable to them, except value for money.

They started small and are getting bigger, and therein lies tension. Capitalism – greedy, grubby, vital – destroys the pastoral. It scythes the tree and tarmacs the valley, it stains the water clear. You can’t sell your vegan cake and eat it, and the wellied virtues of environmentalism sit uneasily with cold-blooded corporate self-interest. The bigger an eco-co. gets, the tougher it is to brand. Some, like Dorset Cereals, are fronts for huge conglomerates, ruddy-cheeked masks glued to the face of Uncle Sam.

So Abel & Cole faces a dilemma. As it evolves from flogging a few tatties to vanning shower gel round the country, its founding ethos necessarily becomes harder to live up to. Food miles mount, margins tighten, quality control goes out of control. A new link in a restaurant chain always weakens the sum of its parts: witness Subway, whose product is inedible, or Strada, where the food declines as inexorably as the outlets mushroom. Abel & Cole’s relentless expansion into organic Lebensraum cannot be without consequence.

I’ve experimented with box schemes in the past - both in Edinburgh, where I grew up, and down here. My difficulties with them are personal and threefold.

First, and most importantly, they made me waste huge amounts of food. I’d get a big bag of potatoes every week (as well as turnips or marrows or endless bloody squashes), which would form a soiled, accusing heap in a corner of the kitchen. Eventually, the potatoes would cover themselves in sprouty protuberances, like victims of some terrible skin disease. Or it would be onions, onions, onions, and I’d find myself making endless tarts (often this sublime one) and wintry soups. Lacking as I did a compost heap, a pliant pet or a handy tramp, a lot of it wound up in the bin.

Second, and related, is the emasculating loss of control. I realise that some people relish the treasure-chest effect, and treat their weekly delivery as a sort of mini Christmas. But I enjoy choosing what to eat. Just as I don’t do a ‘big shop’, planning every meal days in advance, I resent having to mash Jerusalem artichokes once asparagus is in the shops. It’s one of the reasons I live in the city; and, anyway, I already eat with the seasons.

Third, I go out too much.

But free food is free food, and the box duly came. Most of it was in good nick, though spring greens were as yellow and floppy as dead smoker’s fingers. A small watermelon was delicious, one of the best I can remember. Nectarines were weeny, but juicy once they’d ripened. What can you say about a raw onion? At least these haven’t sprouted. The apples were zombies: soggy wool with Babybel crusts. Their season is still months away.

It would normally have cost 16 quid, which may or may not sound reasonable. But it means that for a year's worth of weekly boxes, you'd shell out nearly a grand. For a family of four, with different commitments, I'm sure the system works well. It’s a noble, worthy idea, but it’s not currently for me.

Abel, of course, was Eve’s son, murdered by Cain. The message of that old story, as of this one, is to leave the apples alone.


Abel & Cole
Tel. +44 (0)8452 62 63 64
organics@abelandcole.co.uk

www.abelandcole.co.uk

15/06/2009

The Salisbury, Fulham, London

The Salisbury


★★☆☆☆

Of all the innumerable, pointless edicts of so-called good manners, the ‘clear your plate’ rule is undoubtedly the worst. Parents torture their children with it, forcing them to finish each last incinerated scrap, every mushy morsel of overcooked veg. It’s just cruel. And – like so much tabletop etiquette – no-one has ever offered a coherent justification for it. ‘Think of the Africans!’ shriek the bearded finger-waggers. Do they really believe it makes a difference to starving people whether diners tens of thousands of miles away stuff themselves till they explode or just eat until they’re satisfied? Of course not. The hungry want to fill their own bellies: they couldn’t care less about yours. I’d rather hear someone say ‘Give me your wallet’ than ‘Finish your plate’.

And if it’s not that, leaving anything behind is an ‘insult to the host’. What drivel. Cooks deserve to know if their food is terrible: otherwise you condemn all future guests to the same horrible experience. ‘I know my clam bake with Marmite may sound a touch odd, but it always goes down a treat.’ Dinner parties become lugubrious ordeals, dissolutions of happiness, exorcised of pleasure. All the love and generosity, the richness and giving, the great purring glow of sheltering and nourishing, vanish before bad food. I hereby launch a campaign for us, as Britons, to leave what we don’t want, and to complain loudly and embarrassingly whenever the food is bad. Restaurants and dinner parties are equally kosher. You heard it here first.

The Salisbury appeases both plate-clearers and nibblers, basing half its menu on the emetically conflicted pairing ‘English tapas’. Lots of restaurants seem to be doing this nowadays, doubtless prompted by the great R-word. The menu here is good, with a raft of interesting and exciting dishes. You have no problem ordering.

It’s a former pub not far from where I live. You can tell it was once pretty grotty, but now it’s lightly, brightly revamped, skylit and blue. It’s a pleasant dining room, actually, albeit with a slight museum caff vibe; my mum took me on one of her sadly infrequent visits from Auld Reekie.

When the food arrives, I realise The Salisbury offers the gastronomic equivalent of The Crying Game. It all looks great until… aah. One tapa is a ‘veggy Scotch egg’. Why anyone would conceive of such a thing is completely beyond me. It’s a hardish-boiled egg in breadcrumbs on a puddle of capery oil. (There’s a similar recipe in the most staggeringly pointless cookbook in living memory, but at least the author doesn’t call it a ‘veggy Scotch egg’.) Not five minutes’ walk from The Salisbury is the peerless Harwood Arms, where Stephen Williams’s venison Scotch egg is the best bar snack in London. The version here, presumably included to plump up the menu for herbivores, is a terrible idea, distractedly executed.

Chipolatas are bog-standard, their chutney unpleasantly tepid. A salad of pea shoots with feta and balsamic glaze is excellent, though: crisp and green and summery, with fresh cheese, though the vinegar does nothing for it. ‘Pete’s curry’ is tasty, smoothed with coconut milk and smoky with cumin. Gnocchi and smoked chicken are scalding globules with clumps of string. Ten quid says they came straight from the microwave. A side bowl of cabbage is faultless, basking in melted butter and spiked with infant roundels of chive.

Amongst the mains, a pie of pork, apple and cider is good, with a big honk of piggy knuckle, sealed by pastry flaking in filigrees round the edges. Mum has a crab tart with a couple of prawns. It’s steep at £12, and the tart, though well flavoured, is grossly undercooked, leaching onto the plate (an annoying wooden plank) in a slow vomity puddle. Pudding is a deconstructed strawberry cheesecake: a clutch of Elsantas with a bit of cream and some soggy Digestives mixed with butter. It looks like a rat run over by a lawnmower in the snow.

The Salisbury has a great big problem, and it’s not the food, the service, the décor or any of the other things that vex chefs and owners. Its problem is The Harwood Arms. In every imaginable respect, Williams’s incomparable pub trounces the more recent opening. And that’s a shame, and it makes my flinty heart twitch with pity, because they’ve tried hard here and they clearly mean well. But I’d cross London to eat at The Harwood Arms – and because of that, I’d think twice about crossing the road to eat here.


The Salisbury, 21 Sherbrooke Road, London SW6
Tel. +44 (0)20 7381 4005

See on the Map

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £60

Salisbury Tavern on Urbanspoon

Sorry about the photos this time – I forgot my camera. Proper pictures will resume in the next review.

08/06/2009

The Wine Theatre, Southwark, London

The Wine Theatre

★☆☆☆☆

Here’s the winner of the monthly TFYS award for Most Boring Menu. It reads like a species of dilute Jamie Oliver, a sleepwalker’s wander down a well-wandered path. Hazily Mediterranean, Brit-friendly staples: carbonara, garlic bread, lasagne. It’s food so sterile it’s had a vasectomy, ideal for diners with the itchy-footed adventurousness of paranoid agoraphobes. How I wish the chef had enough self-respect to include just one thing with a bit of interest, a dish to snag the eye and pique the senses. I don’t know, a bottarga maybe. Or a nice piece of liver.

The Wine Theatre opened recently on an ugly road in Southwark, far from Borough's madding crowd. When I showed up, it was bleakly deserted, and a pretty waitress was reading the Metro. ‘I’ve booked for two,’ I proffered, rather redundantly. She lifted an ambitiously large reservation book and opened it at random, to a page joyfully bereft of writing. She studied this intently, apparently scanning through hundreds of bookings. ‘Yeeess… What was the name?’

I told her, and she looked up, throwing a long gaze round the room, as though overwhelmed by the heaving bodies, bustling staff, clinking crockery, kitchen cat-calls and scraping chairs, as she searched for a tiny corner to squeeze us in among the hubbub. I looked around the empty space, which has the optimism of a dentist’s waiting room, and asked if we might sit outside. ‘Um… I think that should be fine.’ No-one else showed up.

In a breathless preamble to its menu, The Wine Theatre makes much of its ‘philosophy’, the ‘aperitivo’. There’s a great deal of branding puff around ‘aperitivo’, as if it were the most radical gastronomic concept since Theophanu, the tenth century Byzantine Empress, popularised the fork. From what I can gather, ‘aperitivo’ consists of a free nibble with your drink. Hardly the Shock of the New.

I went with Robert McIntosh, who writes Wine Conversation. He chose a deliciously light and supple Barbera d’Asti, perfect for lunchtime. Which was just as well, because this was some of the blandest food I’d eaten in ages.

Robert’s starter reeks all the way from the kitchen. It’s a noisome dish of pastey sardines and overcooked onions spattered with raisins, like fishy muesli. I have a revolting salad of squid and olives. The squid is pre-frozen and cut into stumpy fag-butts, surrendering all pretence of flavour. The olives are sliced, and straight from a tin. At what point, do you think, does someone decide an olive would taste better sliced? Do these people lie in the bath and say to themselves: ‘Olives are a perfect size to pop in your mouth. Humans have grown them for as long as they’ve grown anything. We have machines nowadays that stone them if you can’t face spitting out the pip or putting your dentures in. So the only way we can improve on this is by cutting them up into meanly astringent little slices, like caustic Polo mints, and steeping them in horrendous vinegar’?

I can’t understand the logic. Why would anyone, anywhere in the world, want to eat a sliced olive? Chopped into tapenade I well understand; stoned I can just about handle; but these are pocked, mutilated monstrosities, an insult to the noble name. The best thing about the dish is the griddled ciabatta on the side, though it makes Jadis look warm.

My main course is slightly better. ‘Fettucine with prawns’ turns out to be a clump of coldish pasta with two anaemic prawns on the side. It comes with courgettes (the menu promised rocket) which were cooked ages ago and are bracken-brown and slimey; and some chunks of cat-food tuna. The prawns weren’t prepped properly, and each carries a streak of intestinal waste down its back. Robert has a lasagne which I strangely forget to taste, though it doesn’t look bad. I finish with an amaretto crème brûlée, which had sounded interesting. But rather than spiking it with Amaretto liqueur, which I’d hoped for, they’ve crushed amaretti biscuits into the custard, a terrible idea. The soggy crumbs give it a mouthfeel like a frog spawned in it. I don’t finish it.

Some might argue that, because the restaurant has the word ‘wine’ in its name, I should make allowances for it. The drink’s the focus here, they’ll say: it’s wrong to concentrate on the food. Well, this is a food blog, and The Wine Theatre is a restaurant. Its solitary waitress is friendly and amenable, its wine list is sound, and its loos are spotless. To use a technical term, though, its food is pants. I give it six months before it’s curtains.


The Wine Theatre, 202-206 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7261 0209

See on the Map

Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £75


The Wine Theatre on Urbanspoon

www.thewinetheatre.co.uk


All pictures mine except the exterior shot, courtesy of the London SE1 Community Website

01/06/2009

L'Ambroisie, Paris [Review]

L’Ambroisie

No stars

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


See on the Map

www.ambroisie-placedesvosges.com