Ambrose Gloucester: Best You Ever Had





A review of Ambrose Gloucester.
By Sam Vasseril
11 min read.

rating: +71+x

Every Ambrose restaurant has a gimmick. This is a long held adage in the food critic world, passed between reviewers young and old alike. It has become somewhat of a rite of passage, an in-joke, a hallmark of more refined palates and those who have been around long enough to fully grasp the meaning of the phrase. One can always tell when it is faked - it is too earnest, eager, belying the truth of the fresh face behind the words.

Of course, very few critics have had the opportunity to review an Ambrose restaurant. Part of the gimmick, it should be said, is a noted distaste for critics such as myself. Small venues, inconsistent hours, pop-up locations - all done with a certain verve by Ambrose in a way that seems designed to stymie and frustrate critics. In all my years, I have only heard of one example where a critic was invited to an Ambrose establishment.

You may imagine my surprise, then, when I received a letter in the post informing me that I had been invited to the grand opening of Ambrose Gloucester. The specifics had been worked out with my editor at Waldon Studio, and it was agreed that I would be going in blind, as it were. I received the original latter from Ambrose for reference. It was a small and simple affair, with only the name - "Ambrose Gloucester" - an address, and a date.

I admit, my interest was piqued. I had not heard of any plans to open a location in Gloucester. It was an odd choice for a location, but not terribly far. Still, fortune favours the bold, and I was terribly curious.

More Road to Ride

I am detailing my process here because it is with this mindset that I approach my reviews. Most people, when imaging a food critic, picture an ego driven snob obsessed with French cuisine and eschewing anything priced less than a small fortune. I cannot even say that we do not deserve it!

But I think that such a laser focus on foods largely inaccessible to the public does a disservice to good food everywhere. There is, for instance, a small shop near my local train station that sells a sausage roll for fifty pence. It is greasy, cheesy, warm, and undeniably cheap. It is also one of the best things that I have ever eaten. The only real criteria for food is whether or not one enjoys it. Everything else is table dressing.

The morning of my visit was much like any other. I woke up at 6 AM sharp, and began to prepare my morning latte. I have always found the process of preparing a latte to be the perfect synecdoche for cooking. The quality of the ingredients is important, of course. But it is nothing compared to the care, the love with which the meal is created. I do not profess to have any deluxe equipment, indeed, my set up is quite modest. A simple hand grinder and lever machine. It is the handiwork and passion that make food worth eating.

I am reminded of this as I take each step in the delicate dance of cooking. Firstly, grinding the coffee to the perfect consistency. Not too fine, or the brew is bitter. Not so coarse that the water cannot fully absorb the complex flavours. I pack the puck, and listen as the heat and pressure build within the brewing masthead as the water floods in and begins to intermingle with the rich and earthy history of the grounds. It is a wonderful crescendo of music and flavours, and at last I pull the lever, releasing the espresso into my cup.

It is a bit bitter - I let it get to slightly too high a pressure.

But that is ok. It is wonderful all the same.

I watch the sun rise with my coffee, a quiet moment of serenity before I head out the door.

My trip to Ambrose Gloucester is uneventful. I take the train, listening to the quiet concert of people going about their every day lives. Some children are valiantly attempting to finish their homework, scrabbling for answers to simple arithmetic questions. A young man tries not to fall asleep.

I step off the train and into Gloucester station. It is a warm day, one of the first of the season, and a gentle breeze pushes through the open space. There are a few people scattered about, but I have slightly beaten rush hour. I head north.

On my way I contemplate what I know about Ambrose. I have mostly heard of their US locations. Some unfortunate incidents in California, but largely good things of their Portland location. Recently they have trended away from more traditional restaraunteuring. I recall the food hall in Los Angeles, and hearing rumours of a more personal affair in Vienna. I wonder what I shall be faced with. For some reason, I expect something large.

It is a 30 minute walk from the train station to Ambrose Gloucester. I pass into Severn Bridge, away from the sounds of motorcars and traffic. It is a quiet borough, crossed with small streets and the occasional park.

Ambrose Gloucester is situated in a small and nondescript building across from a Wetherspoons. I cannot tell if this is a fortunate coincidence or a deliberate decision. Nothing encourages one to try new things quite like a Wetherspoons.

The door is tinted glass with simple lettering. It is quite difficult to see through, and squeaks slightly as I push. Other than this slight protestation, it does not budge. I step back, looking around the empty street. Am I early? I look back to the door, inspecting it a little closer this time.

Sheepishly, I pull it open and step inside.

The first thing that strikes me is the noise. There's a constant dull hum that permeates the room. It is not so loud as to be distracting, but insistent and strident in its business. The second is the smell. It smells ever so slightly of chlorine, a distressing and decidedly unwelcome scent for a restaurant.

The foyer is small but brightly lit, a white tiled affair illuminated with fluorescent lights. There is a small wooden end table in the corner, atop sits a single yellow flower in a glass vase and a conspicuous letter. The end table and flower suggest an unearned sense of coziness and optimism, which clashes with the rest of the decor.

I spend some time waiting, shifting my weight awkwardly from foot to foot. I am certain that someone will come to greet me, but I am met only with the empty room and a waiting letter. My curiosity gets the better of me.

The letter simply read:

The door on the left.

Indeed, there was one other doorframe, quite conspicuously lacking a door. I pocketed the letter, now quite nervous but a little bit excited. It is not often the life of a food critic is filled with this much mystery. Relishing my new role as an amateur detective, I stepped through the empty threshold and into a black tiled hall. Within, two doorways; one to the left, and one to the right. I am slightly taken aback, before realising that this leftward door was the one that was promised. The acrid smell of chlorine was mostly abated in the hallway, which curiously was unlit, light only coming through the empty threshold of the previous room. The humming was louder, more assertive.

Out of curiosity, I tried the door on the right, this time taking care to push and pull on the cool metal handle. It did not budge. So much for trying to game the system. To the left, the door was slightly ajar, and an inviting smell wafted from it. My senses not quite recovered from the chlorine, I could not place it.

I entered the leftward room - both the smell of chlorine and the humming noise had abated entirely. The decor of the room was a curious combination; deep and rich wooden floors matched with dark forest green walls, this time illuminated by several flickering sconces. There was a table and a single chair, both quite elegantly crafted and sturdy, but the centerpiece was the conveyor belt. I found the room to be both pleasantly agreeable and somewhat offputting.

It reminded me of the cheap conveyor sushi restaurants, if one could call them such, that crazed the nation a decade back. The delicate and complicated flavours of sushi with the speed and convenience of fast food.

The conveyor belt stretched lengthwise across the table and looked to be within easy reach of an occupant of the chair. It was unremarkable aside from its presence in the room, defiantly clashing with the rest of the decor. The entryways for the conveyor belt were large - approximately a meter high, and half as wide. It was quite curious, and its intentions and purpose were unknown. Nonetheless, my interest was again piqued. What might they be serving that requires such an unconventional means of conveyance? I tried to look through the dark portals, but the conveyor belt turned a corner shortly inside, and my vision of what mysteries lay beyond, obscured.

Having quickly run out of things to investigate in the room, and not knowing what else to do, I sat down.

The conveyor belt silently spun into motion, well oiled treads thrumming imperceptibly.

It appeared that whatever I was here for had begun.

In the Wind I Crunch, I Want

A single glass of water was carried to me on the conveyor. I picked it up. Perfectly room temperature, but not unpleasant. Some time passed, and I was starting to wonder if that was the sum of my Ambrose experience, before the conveyor sprung to action again. This time, a small metal placard:

Amuse bouche.

I pick it up, examine it. It is impeccably machined, cool and weighty to the touch. I place it down and watch the conveyor deliver upon the promise of the placard.

Amuse bouche. Three, to be precise. The first looked to be a careful arrangement of watermelon slices, sprinkled with seasoning and acutely garnished with small slices of leek. The second was a walnut, layered with prosciutto, fig, and gorgonzola cheese. The third amuse bouche was a celery soup, with carrots and jicama.

It was a curious entry, but a bold one. I had the sense that the chef was playing with me - a disparate but intriguing collection of appetisers, all delivered in a wholly unique way.

Was this the gimmick? If so, it was a low-key one.

I decided to start with the walnut. My palate was clean, and I had always had a soft spot for a nice gorgonzola.

I bit in, expecting the richness of the prosciutto to be complimented by the creaminess of the gorgonzola, the soft textures tempered by the crisp of the walnut. I found this, but what I did not expect was the subtlety of what I can only describe as tasting Shostakovich's Festive Overture. The warmth of the violins, proudly crescendoing into the triumphant fanfare of the brass section before the playful back-and-forth solo between the first chair flautist and clarinetist. I tasted all these things and more, with a depth and texture that I had never experienced before. I sat back, quite certain that someone was playing music in time to my meal. But there were no speakers, no way that what I was hearing could be mimicked by something so rough as speakers. I finished the first amuse bouche, plunging back into the works of Shostakovich.

I had found the gimmick of Ambrose Gloucester.

I eye my celery soup, reminding myself to go slowly, to taste and savour the experience, before diving in to Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals - VII. Aquarium and the first time I saw the moors.

Slate grey clouds swim slowly, imperceptibly overhead. Where their migration takes them is no doubt some purpose beyond my young understanding. I stand in the pallid light, boots squelching slowly into the bog below me, watching the cloudwaves of piano notes gently plink, shifting with comforting assurance. The moors stretch further beyond the horizon, threatening to overtake me with their endless patience. Its purpose was set in motion long before, and I am small and alone beside it. It is the first time I realise how much there is to the world that is outside my understanding. My parents bid me forward, coaxing me with soft platitudes - there lies nothing underneath the peat.

But I do not act on this. I am afraid.

It takes me a moment to remember that I am sitting alone in a room in Severn Bridge. I try to sink back into the memory, but it is fuzzy and vague. I surmise that the vividness of whatever wonder the chef has crafted makes my own recollections paltry and distant in comparison. Remembering my role, I pull out my phone to take some pictures; but as suspected, the low lighting precludes photography that Waldon Studio would be proud to show. A travesty, but my work is not yet done.

Curious, I went for the watermelon next. Only one of the pieces was a perfect cube - the rest were various polyhedra. The chef was trying to tell me something, and it was my job as the critic to piece together this mystery. The first bite was crisp, well structured and light mouthfeel. The seasoning was a combination of salt and szechuan pepper, lightly numbing the tongue. It would be quite refreshing on a hot summer's day. But it was Vivaldi's Le quattro stagioni, Concerto 1 - Spring - that enraptured me.

Savouring every moment, I closed my eyes, and found my mind wandering back to the spring of my 12th year. It had been an especially cold and long winter, and I had not seen the sun for some time. We had been turned out onto the field behind the schoolyard, which was a verdant green and blooming with dandelions and daisies. Taylor and I were separated from our peers, having walked and gotten lost in conversation even at our young age.

I was nervous. At that tender age, I had begun to think about Taylor frequently, confusing thoughts and emotions that I did not yet understand. I recall the distinct feeling of wanting to punch them, but also wanting to make sure no harm would ever come to them. With every peal of laughter my face would blush crimson, and I would try to distract myself from my thoughts.

Struck by the urge to reach out and hold their hand. I resist, mired in what must have seemed at the time a complex tangle of desires and anxieties.

But I do not act on this.

A soft touch breaks my reverie - our hands, not of my accord, now intertwined.

I look up and met Taylor’s eyes. We smile.

At the conclusion of the appetiser, I knew two things for certain. That I had never before seen such passion in cooking, and that I was palpably excited to know what else was waiting for me.

Almost as if the chef could read my mind, the empty plates were whisked away by the conveyor.

In its place came another placard.

Steak au poivre.

This time, the conveyor does not stop, carrying the placard away and delivering in its place the steak au poivre. It is topped with a cream pan-sauce that smelled of shallots, rosemary, and whiskey. The steak itself was marbled and the pan-sauce sept through the cracks of the perfectly caramelised exterior. My knife moves through it like butter; I take a bite.

It is a hot and sticky summer day. I am seated uncomfortably at a concrete bench, fruitlessly trying to coax the dead air into a breeze. I try to distract myself, looking at the passersby - but each is a suspect, laughing at me under their breath.

I see Alex, as arresting as the day we met. The lovers motif cuts through the brass and stagnant air, mocking and cruel. I know why we are meeting.

How long have I known? Since I asked Alex when they were last happy.

I already know what Alex will say. I have heard it repeated in every silent morning, its absence in every goodbye. I know it in every unsaid thing.

Small talk. Each word is a stabbing violin, an unbearable, simmering heat that builds without resolution or relief. The steak is tender and juicy. The pan-sauce is without compare.

I do not love you anymore. The words land flat on my ears, and for a moment it is quiet, the heat forgotten. The rosemary complements the shallots quite nicely.

A bell tolls somewhere. The Dies Irae begins. The sadness has long burnt out. Insistently, angrily, the trumpets answer the tubas. Explications of how I had fought, how I had toiled - the orchestra builds in a righteous anger and justified fury. The words build in my head, a perfect cosmology of our failure. An original sin, at their feet.

I meet Alex’s eyes. The violins fall gently, like a leaf on the wind.

I could fight for us. The impulse to preserve what we have, to pay off sunken costs, spins in my mind.

But I do not act on this.

The trumpets lash out in anger, but it is not enough. The brass demurs, fading in resignation as the memories of what I had done creep back in.

I could have reached out before this. I could have told Alex how I feel, tell them that I forgive them and that it was my fault, too. I could have fought for us.

But I do not act on this.

I am back in the depths, where I belong. I sigh and swallow the last of the steak au poivre. The moment is lost. My own private Symphony Fantastique, concluded.

I sat for quite some time in the room, contemplating what I had experienced. I had rediscovered my passion for food after that breakup. Despite the turmoil and the circumstances, it had been a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to re-evaluate and rediscover my passion for life itself. In every tragedy, an opportunity to improve, a path to happiness.

This is what I told myself, at least.

I found the silence comforting. I did not know what game the chef was playing, why they had chosen this song and awoken this memory in me. My image of a playful trickster was upended. Now, a Machiavellian puppeteer, flexing their knowledge and prowess. I did not know what next to expect.

No Place to Hide

The final course provided some insight into the construction of the room. The choice of such a large entry window for the conveyance of food had been puzzling, but the arrival of what would be the final placard was silent answer to my unaired question.


The large conic section of profiteroles glided in shortly after.

But with the croquembouche came more questions. Was this room constructed with the profiteroles in mind? What game was being played? Who was behind all of this?

Nonetheless, duty came first. The assembly was impeccable, the tower delicately draped with gossamer thin gold wire. The wiring was not a touch I had seen before, but its inclusion afforded the tower a certain weight, a gravitas. Each individual profiterole shone in the flickering light with their own crispy, glazed exterior, lightly dusted in caster sugar.

But the art of the croquembouche is as much the stability as it is the presentation. I plucked a profiterole from the center, waiting and, I must admit, slightly hoping that the entire assemblage would collapse, and with it, any further obligations.

It did not.

The glaze stuck slightly to my fingers. A thicker sort than expected, but a clever method to ensure the structural integrity of the croquembouche. My profiterole was coated with glaze, a sign that the chef had individually rolled each individual piece before assembling. Great care was taken here, as had been the case for every dish so far.

At ends, I bit in. The crispy shell, fluffy and cakelike in the interior, gave way to rich and luscious cream, dappled with hints of maple and strawberry notes. A gentle breeze of soft, deliberate guitar washes across me.

This memory was not mine. I felt a voyeur, an intruder into someone else's innermost thoughts and desires. But I was also excited, titillated at what I might find there.

Few images came to me. Emotions and ideas began to trickle in at first, gradually building in intensity. Hope, the rolls and crashes of cymbal thunder far above the deep highland tracts. High-hat stars pierce the bass fabric of clouds, shining cold and clear.

I do not know how long I walk, how much I consume before I notice any change. The wind has picked up, the thunder more insolent in its cries. The bass becomes more layered, murky sevenths and half resolved chords blending back and forth. I wonder what happens to the clouds when they are gone.

They are trying to tell me something. I do not realise this till later. I do not notice this, nor that the clouds slowly occlude the starlight. A few drops of water splay across my face.

In time, it is raining. The wind has picked up greatly now, shrill violins screaming past me. I pick up my speed, unable to shake the feeling that something has gone wrong.

A shout cuts through the violins and wind. I feel the ground beneath me, solid and firm in the heather moorlands. I break into a run, stumbling, feeling my feet crash into the ground in tilted staccato rhythm. The shout again crests the storm, and I see the source in the dim twilight - a figure, half visible and mired deep in the peat. It cries for help.

The wind batters me. Thunder rumbles, close by and with unfathomable rage. The music built, swelling in anger and passion and sadness, battering me in a great and terrible storm.

Across the bog, the figure pleads. It screams, sinking further into the quagmire, begging to be rescued, but its words are ripped from its throat and lost in the maelstrom surrounding us.

A choice. It is not far. A mere 100 meters, an impassable expanse that stretches beyond my comprehension. I only need to take the first step, to lose myself in the moment and for once take action without consideration.

I look at the figure, and I ran. I did not know where I was or what would come of it, only that I had witnessed something horrible.

The bottom half of the croquembouche was salty and wet. I do not know why.

As I choked the final profiterole down, the storm faded and the final chord resolved. There was no great revelation. The room had not changed.

I was alone, as I always had been. I wiped the tears from my cheeks, newly conscious of how much my body had been fighting me. I felt bloated, incapable of movement, but I knew that I had to leave that room. It was silent, unchanged yet unrecognisable.

Outside, the rightward door loomed. I knew that it was unlocked, and that behind it lay answer to my questions. I listened to what I hoped was some refridgerant unit hum.

We have so few opportunities to exercise our free will. Humans are so embroiled in a miasma of implications, consequences, opinions that no decision we make is ever truly free. We try to effect change, but we are tossed and shaken in a hurricane of noise that drowns out any meaningful improvement. Our reverberations do not go far. It is a pig-circus, planned and ordained well before we are even conscious of the the decision that we made. But in the small hallway, alone in Ambrose Gloucester, I had the singularly meaningful opportunity to do something. To drag myself out of the quagmire of indecision. To make a decision that was mine and mine alone, that would change me forever.

I could have opened that door and found every answer.

But I do not act on this.

I suspect whoever, or whatever, was on the other side of the door belt knew what my decision would be. I wondered how it knew. I did not want to ask.

I left Ambrose Gloucester, but did not take my eyes off the door.

My trip from Ambrose Gloucester is uneventful. A weak sun provides little warmth outside. I look around and take stock of my surroundings. Severn Bridge is a rote little hamlet, forgettable and bland. It is not even interesting enough to be distasteful.

I walk back to the train station, the incessant sounds of motorcars giving way to the dull roar of crowds. The soaring heights of Gloucester station are cluttered with people. They say nothing meaningful.

When I enter my apartment, I am accosted by the smell of stale coffee that has permeated the roots of my living room rug. I sit and wait for the day to end.

I Wish I Could Tell You a Lie

I could not say what was taken from me in that small room. I have written and rewritten this review several times, trying to find the right words to express how, exactly, I changed. It is becoming clear to me that I may never be able to fully express what happened. Only that it is gone, and no matter what I do, it is never coming back.

No part of my life has drastically changed since I visited Ambrose Gloucester. The sunrise looks quite the same, but I cannot quite shake the feeling that the real sun has been secreted away and replaced with a pretender. The birds sound thin and distant. I wonder about the chef. Did they ever have any passion for their work, or are they simply going through the motions and waiting for the day to end? Perhaps one day I will be able to put to words this feeling.

Perhaps one day I will learn why this was done to me.

I expect this will be my last food review. The passion I felt for food, the delight for tasting the symphony of flavours and smells has faded. I simply do not have the appetite for it anymore. In the past week I have eaten one meal - douhuafan, an old favourite of mine. It was quite bland.

Overall: A life changing experience that I would not wish upon anyone. Four stars.

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