Sunday, February 1, 2015

RESTAURANT L'AMBASSADE, BEZIERS - A REVIEW

When I was writing restaurant reviews professionally in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, I would take copious notes. How was the room furnished? Did the acoustics allow for comfortable conversation? Crisp linens? Sparkling glassware? Was the service attentive, professional? And I would carefully describe every dish - visual presentation, aroma, texture, taste, ingredients, derivation. All grist for the mill. I was being paid to eat and I was determined to give my employer and the reader their money's worth.

I now live in the south of France, in the land of the Impressionist artists who taught us that beauty is not always best expressed through strict attention to photographic detail. It's possible, perhaps desirable, to simply sketch the outlines and let the imagination of the viewer fill in the forms. I'm certainly not in the same league on the printed page as the Impressionists were on canvas, but you get my meaning. My style is not as precise as it once was. You'll have to get to know me, to trust me, and to read between the lines.

Why have I spent so much time explaining my current process? Because I have just finished the best fine dining experience that I have yet to have had in France and I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time on the details. The details would only fuzz up the experience rather than sharpen it. There are those who would disagree, who would demand every jot and tittle. Fine. Enjoy a lunch at L'Ambassade. (And you WILL enjoy it.) Write your own revue. But think of me as the Rod Serling of restaurant reviewers. Are you familiar with the customary opening of Twilight Zone? Rod would face the camera, perhaps smoking a cigarette, and say, "Imagine, if you will, a world in which..."

Imagine...

L'Ambassade is directly opposite the train station in Beziers, not the toniest part of town. With an unprepossessing facade and simple, adequate, but almost pedestrian interior furnishings, L'Ambassade doesn't strike any poses.

The service is attentive but not intrusive. Informative without being overbearing. Timed to our pace rather than demanding that we conform to theirs. Nearly three hours at table and we never felt either rushed or neglected. (You read that right. Three hours. For lunch.)

An assortment of amuse-bouches presented us with a kaleidoscope of tastes and textures. I particularly enjoyed a test-tube portion of creamy mussel soup sipped through a straw (my table mates found it a bit too briny) and a tiny bowl layered with custard, sauced mushrooms, and a lobster froth. About six different such tidbits were presented to us on two rectangular plates, one plate for each side of the table, enough for the seven of us to have one of each of the bits.

The starters were diverse and unusual, for this Yank anyway. I had the masque de cochon, pig snout for the uninitiated, with a skewer of fried offal. Calm down. If you are a meat eater in a culture that adheres to the 'from tail to nose' philosophy, you should be prepared for a little tail, a little nose. The thin circles of tender snout were quite tasty and were accompanied by green lentils that were prepared in such a way, and in such a creamy sauce, that completely changed their typically beany flavor. Cathey had an off-menu velouté de champignons (mushroom soup) that spanned the gamut of textures from solid bits of mushroom to foam. She described the soup as essence of mushroom.

We were offered several such off-menu items, by the way. We all chose from the 30 Euro menu that, in print, featured two choices for starter and three mains. In fact, we were offered about twice as many choices. Our host, a new foodie friend of ours here in France, is well known in L'Ambassade. Since he dines there often enough to have run through the seasonal menu, the chef provides an alternative or two for him when he books a reservation.

I chose ris d'agneau (lamb sweetbreads) for my main course. I am not a particular fan but the other three choices - two on menu and one off - were each seafood and none caught my fancy. Simply grilled, on a bed of rizotto adorned with truffle shavings, and with a couple of hearty chunks of fresh girolle mushrooms, the sweetbreads filled the bill. But they did point up another curiosity, perhaps French, perhaps just L'Ambassade. Think about it. Four choices. Three fish - monkfish, sea bass, and baccalao (salt cod) - plus sweetbreads. From my point of view, a bit restrictive. Speaking of the baccalao, that was Cathey's choice. Perfection.

Before dessert, a shot glass of citrus mousse with almond slivers cleansed the palate. Then wondrous desserts. Several choices. I had chocolate ice cream in a ganache cup sitting atop a chocolate 'brownie' (but so much more) encased in ganache, with a shot glass of chocolate syrup on the side. Wondrous is just the right word for French chocolate. Cathey had crepes Suzette, an add-on of a couple of Euros, prepared at table side. Without the dramatic pyrotechnics that sometimes accompany the dish, but perfectly executed just the same.

A word about the wines. We all drank white throughout the meal, a fine, full-bodied four-grape white, primarily chardonnay and viognier, from the Domaine Castelneau a bit east of us. I think that given my menu choices, my pairings-conscious host would have preferred that I shifted to red. But the viognier gave the white enough of a boost to work with my choices and I saw no reason to change from the excellent vintage. At the finish, and in honor of our host, we were treated by staff to glasses of a sweet Banyuls from Catalan country.

And, of course, coffee.

With a bit of a gratuity, 50 Euros a head. An afternoon of exquisite taste at an incredibly low price for the quality of the fare. If you are a true foodie and you find yourself anywhere near the train station in Beziers, you owe L'Ambassade a visit.

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