Rye, one of the south coast's historic Cinque Port towns, has a long and colourful history of smuggling. And this week's restaurant is very much in the local tradition. Nothing about The Ambrette is quite what it seems. Chameleon-like, it hides behind splendid Georgian frontage on one of south-east England's prettiest historic high streets, looking as quaint and genteel as any of the area's myriad tea-shoppes. The name bespeaks generic Frenchified refinement.
But appearances are deceptive. The Ambrette is a modern Indian restaurant, with a mission to bring bold ideas and big flavours to this picture-perfect small town.
Chef/patron Dev Biswal comes to Rye from Calcutta, via London and Margate, where he launched the original Ambrette, recently named the area's best restaurant in the Taste of Kent awards. The sister restaurant in Rye opened last year, partnering with upmarket B&B White Vine House. On his website, Biswal waftily describes cooking as an art form with no rules, but he's clearly a canny businessman, judging by his restaurants' punter-snagging offers, including discount cards for senior citizens.
Rye – or Tilling, as devotees of EF Benson's peerless Mapp and Lucia books will prefer to think of it – was heaving with Bank Holiday shoppers when I scriggled into the Ambrette for a spot of luncheon with a young male companion, the Georgie to my Lucia. The restaurant was fairly busy, too – two of its three rooms filled with diners, not all of whom qualified for a senior citizens discount card.
We were seated in the smallest room, the Club Room, which holds just four tables, and feels both grand and rather snug. With its ancient, monumental fireplace, slate floors and floor-to-ceiling scrubbed oak panelling, it's a reclamation merchant's dream. But any resemblance to Miss Mapp's drawing room at Mallards is dispelled when the menus arrive.
This is Anglo-Indian food that Benson's Major Benjy wouldn't recognise. Breast of Kentish pheasant with foraged wild fennel and potatoes; spiced feather steak of Sussex beef with mango salad; chicken breast marinated in fresh pomegranate; Malibu-infused gram flour caviar. Even local pork makes an appearance, driving home the message that this is not your typical Indian restaurant.
The genre-bending promise of the menu wasn't quite fulfilled by our lunch, which offered consistent pleasures rather than thrills and spills. Biswal may boast that The Ambrette doesn't serve curries, but much of what we ate would be perfectly at home in a good-quality curry house. Take a starter of dosai – a crisp, paper-thin pancake rolled around a spiced mix of potatoes and onions – which was good, but pretty much as you'd find it in any southern Indian restaurant, albeit served on a much bigger, whiter plate.
Our second starter was more evolved, a crisp-skinned, spiced fillet of locally-caught gurnard partnered with a dense little fish cake and various chutneys and raitas. The knob of caviar which topped the dish off struck us as a redundant ornament, particularly given The Ambrette's unexpectedly low prices – at £14.95 for two courses, it is, as my friend pointed out, cheaper than Pizza Express.
If we hadn't known that The Ambrette doesn't serve curries, we would have described both our main courses as such. That breast of Kentish pheasant came diced in a tomato and ginger sauce that forensic analysis would surely reveal to be a close relative of tikka masala. South Indian-style beef stew, mild and aromatic, featured notably tender meat, but came with the same masala potato mix as made its debut in the dosai starter. Sides were good, including fresh, puffy naan breads, and crunchy 'chips' of fried Jerusalem artichoke.
Puddings were both a considerable notch up from your average Indian restaurant. We particularly liked the chocolate samosas, crisp little mouthfuls filled with melting chocolate of superior quality, and served with a cardamom-scented sauce. Passion fruit and pomegranate srikhand was blousily floral – imagine crème brûlée flavoured with Glade air freshener – but oddly moreish.
With a couple of glasses of wine each, our lunch was good value at £40 a head, and we enjoyed it well enough. But we really wanted to love The Ambrette, and couldn't. Something about the place doesn't quite add up. The elegant rooms, fancy plating and fine-dining adornments – complimentary dishes between courses, drizzled sauces, and scatterings of fresh pomegranate seeds – don't quite square with the perfunctory wine list, or the work-experience school of service.
Is The Ambrette worth making a special journey to Rye for? No. But if you live nearby, or are visiting Rye, absolutely yes. It may be sending out wildly mixed messages, but in a town famous for its fictional eccentrics, it certainly fits right in.
The Ambrette at Rye, White Vine House, 24 High Street, Rye, East Sussex (01797 222043). Set lunch: £14.95 two courses, £19.95 three courses; à la carte around £30 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
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