Moro put Exmouth Market on London's dining map. The canary yellow painted Ambassador opened its door a few shops down from Moro, on the other side of the street.
The Ambassador is not often as busy as Moro. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it's because the chef hasn't published a very successful book. Or two. Self interested me would like it to stay that way - so I can continue to pop in and eat without waiting or booking.
Since moving to EC1 about 18 months ago I've eaten at The Ambassador quite often. Tobias Jilsmak's food is mostly exceptional - seasonal, strong flavours, not overworked and well priced. A bit similar to the cooking and prices at Arbutus, except here you can snare a table between 6pm and 10pm. You can also sit outside on a mild Summer night (didn't happen much this year) and eat sourdough and marmalade for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.
The wine list is carefully chosen by Clive Greenhaulgh, who also runs the front of house. There's lots of interesting wines at very reasonable mark-ups, which is a bit rare for London. The Italian reds particularly stand out - the 1997 Carobbia Chianti Classico Riserva is beautifully leathery and ripe (37 quid), the 2005 Elio Grasso Nebbiolo is a good value young nebbiolo with a bit of character (28 quid) and the 2000 Rocche Castamaga Rocche Dell Annunziata Barolo (43 quid) is a real star - see further below.
Clive and his off-sider Luke do hospitality well: friendly but not invasive, informal, super-relaxed yet attentive and very knowledgeable about the food and wines.
The Ambassador likes to source its ingredients and wines from small, passionate and purposeful suppliers. Farmer Sharp once sent some samples of its Galloway beef and Herdwick lamb to The Ambassador. Clive and Tobias were impressed and put it on the menu.
Farmer Sharp is a co-operative of small farmers in Cumbria, in the English Lakes District, that produce Galloway cattle and Herdwick sheep. Andrew Sharp is the public face of Farmer Sharp, a butcher whose family has been in the beef and sheep business in Northwest England for a while - about 400 or so years.
On Monday night Andrew demonstrated his butchery skills at The Ambassador. He unsheathed a razor sharp knife, a thick northern accent and a pretty quick wit on half a carcass of Herwick lamb, half a carcass of Herdwick mutton and 40 or so wide-eyed blood-lusting meat eaters.
According to Andrew, Herdwick sheep are the most hardy of all Britain's breeds of hill sheep - "they could thrive on green cement, they have a distinctive and unsurpassed taste, are tender and succulent and are renown for their eating quality." Andrew says that this is the result of both the sheep maturing slowly on the grass of the Lake District - as opposed to the modern breeds being quickly reared on grain - and the strict hanging process.
Andrew artfully cut his way through the two half carcasses, identifying the different cuts of meat and amusing us with curious detail about fat and spinal cords. The closest I've been to a butchery demonstration before this was watching Nigel at Meat City bone my leg of lamb. If I wasn't so hungry I wouldn't have wanted Andrew's demonstration to end.
Back to mutton, the unloved incontinent elderly of the sheep for meat world. What is it? Didn't they eat mutton in Fagan's den of thieves (which is, by chance, just down the road from The Ambassador)? Why was Andrew bothering to cut it up?
Experts generally agree that mutton is meat from sheep over two years old (lamb meat is generally from animals that have been reared for five months). There's then a bit of division between the traditionalists - who believe that mutton is always the meat of a castrated male sheep - and the modernists - who believe that mutton comes from a breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life. Farmer Sharp falls into the traditionalist camp and only supplies females.
The Mutton Renaissance campaign was launched in 2004 by the Prince of Wales to support British sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals. Guidelines drawn up by the Mutton Renaissance campaign aim to ensure that mutton is of consistent quality. These specify that the sheep must be over two years old, the animals must be females or castrates, the animals must have a forage based diet and the meat must be matured by hanging for at least two weeks.
In his River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a supporter of the Mutton Renaissance campaign, says: "The word about mutton is starting to get around. Smart chefs are already putting it on their menus, and a few enlightened butchers are beginning to market it as something rather special."
According to the Mutton Renaissance website some very respectable London restaurants are now serving up mutton to punters - the Ivy, Le Gavroche and Le Caprice.
Andrew falls into the category of enlightened butchers marketing mutton as something rather special. When asked about its reputation he blamed blind ignorance. "Most people just don't know what they're talking about when it comes to mutton", he said.
I regularly shop for lamb in London. Mostly at good to serious butchers - Meat City, Ginger Pig, Crosby & Sons, Theobald's and Farmer Sharp. I buy whole legs for quick roasting or boning and searing, ribs for searing and shoulders for slow roasting. I've never bought mutton before - always ignorantly considered mutton a bit inferior. No butcher has ever recommended it to me (except for Andrew on Monday night). I can't recall ordering mutton at a restaurant.
At the end of Andrew's demonstration I was keen to taste his Herdwick lamb, and particularly keen to taste his Herdwick mutton. Tobias' main course and Farmer Sharp special was my chance to do so - "Herdwick mutton and new season's lamb three ways with potato puree, curly kale and rosemary."
This dish comprised three or four good pinky-red slivers of seared mutton loin and roasted lamb top end and a small confit of lamb shoulder. The meat surrounded a few deliciously buttery bits of kale on a dollop of earthy potato puree. Both the lamb top end and the mutton loin were tight grained in texture but each delightfully tender and succulent. Despite being seared the mutton loin was just as tender and as succulent as the roasted lamb top end and the flavour of the mutton was more pronounced, more lamby and much more interesting. The confit was soft, sticky, full of flavour. But a close second to the victorious seared mutton loin.
I can't remember enjoying eating sheep more than this. Next time I'm at the butcher and feel like something lamby guess what's on the menu. There's a good chance that the mutton will be Herdwick, grass fed in the Lake District and hanged for at least two weeks. And there's a good chance it will be seared, not slow roasted.
The three way Herdwick main was served with a glass or two of the 2000 Rocche Castamaga Dell Annunziata Barolo. This was excellent - ripe red fruit, quite forward and soft, not too tannic though recognisably Barolo, full bodied, some licorice on the finish - and made me gratefully forget just how hungover I'd been earlier that day.