Restaurant review: The Ambrette Canterbury
PUBLISHED: 15:54 07 May 2019
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Award-winning chef-patron Dev Biswali on the joys of southern Indian cusine and expanding his Kentish empire
Perched on endearingly named Beer Cart Lane, The Ambrette is less than a five-minute walk from Canterbury Cathedral and a short detour from the high street.
However, if dedicated chef-patron Dev Biswali secures the right site, there will be another, even more central Ambrette in the city this year, but one offering more casual dining so that it complements rather than competes with its big brother – and with a different name.
Dev is closing his Sussex branch, The Devil in Rye, to concentrate on the most recent member of the group, which opened to acclaim at a new site in Margate last June – and to refocus attention on Canterbury.
While the Ambrette remains very popular among locals, and is invariably packed pre- and post-theatre on key nights when there is a major production at the nearby Marlowe (“War Horse was very good for us”), Dev would like to see more Kent-wide customers.
“People from Whitstable and Faversham still go to Margate and this is much closer!” he laughs.
And go you should. I enjoyed the most delightful lunch on a sunny weekday, quietly pleased it was pleasantly busy rather than every table filled (this is a very popular choice for large groups after events such as graduation days). The spacious ground-floor dining space can hold 104; there's also a private dining area.
Forget any 'curry and a pint' stereotypes that still linger about Indian food in some parts of Kent – The Ambrette is a restaurant for celebrations, where discerning diners order from the à la carte or try a tempting tasting menu.
The latter was unheard of when the original Ambrette in Margate became the first Indian restaurant in Kent to offer a tasting option when it opened in 2010.
It also featured 'exotic' meats you won't find on the menu in these more enlightened times. “It's goodbye zebra, hello jackfruit now,” says Dev with a rueful smile.
And his diners want fine wines that the friendly, knowledgeable staff are happy to advise on to accompany their seafood, pickled samphire and wild salmon caviar, their wood pigeon smoked with cloves or perhaps quail marinated in fresh turmeric and cumin.
Always a cuisine that delivered well on the vegetarian front, more and more vegans are flocking here for the excellent choice – including the humble but oh-so-tasty dosai that is my starter of choice.
While Dev is a master of subtly spiced, artistically presented dishes of the highest quality, he always strives to showcase the variety and complexity of regional Indian cooking he grew up on.
For example, he learned to make southern India's most popular dish (“dosai is what people eat in their day-to-day lives at every meal, it's not a fancy dish at all”) when he became an apprentice to a street food vendor.
These days, his head chef Natraj Narayanan ('Nana') is the 'Dosai King' and made my delicious rice pancake stuffed with Masala potatoes and accompanied by sambar (spicy lentils and vegetables) and coconut chutney.
I go a bit more 'fancy' with my main course – one of the many dishes Dev's customers won't let him drop from the menu – a giant black Tiger prawn weighing in at a mini-lobster size 300gm.
With a flavour-packed Kerala coconut sauce, paprika fenugreek potatoes and spinach with red lentil, the vibrant reds of India are balanced by a crisp green tangle of stir-fried peashoots, broccoli and mange-tout. Heavenly with a glass of zesty Scenic Ridge Pinto Grigio.
To finish I have one of Dev's unmissable desserts – again not a description one would have expected to use about an Indian pudding 10 years ago, with their reputation for over-sweetness.
But this trio of rosewater and vanilla crème brûlée, white chocolate encasing a dark chocolate and a saffron-scented lemon bavarois is simply too beautiful, too delicious to miss.
In further exciting news for this small but evolving restaurant group, Dev is now offering cookery classes in one of the two upstairs kitchens here in Canterbury. So you can join a fish, seafood and spices class, try your hand at new vegan and vegetarian dishes, and even learn how to prepare wild game in a Kent-southern-Indian fusion style.
Count me in, Dev!
What: Modern Indian restaurant where local produce is used in authentic southern Indian dishes
Where: The Ambrette, 14-15 Beer Cart Lane, Canterbury CT1 2NY, 01227 200 777
When: Lunch: 11am-2.45pm, dinner: 5.30pm-9.45pm Mon-Thu and 5.30pm-10.15pm Fri-Sun
How much: Tasting menu £49.95, with matching wines £69.95, sharing platters for two £15.99-£17.99, trio of vegetarian street food £6.95