The sound of casual French conversation is the first thing to hit the ear when you walk through the door of Café Ça Va in Ambleside. It’s not just the customers, it’s the staff, led by the hospitable and effervescent Brigitte Rayé. Rayé is one-third of the new team that has turned Ça Va into what could possibly be the best French restaurant in town right now. The owner—Amin Sabounchi—approached her ex-husband, chef Alain Rayé, after the latter’s long-running restaurant, La Regalade, closed in 2015 and now the trio—Brigitte, Alain and Amin—operate the space in what seems like a platonic version of Jules et Jim.
The room is fussy, but in an appropriately Gallic way: ornate crystal chandeliers, marble-top tables and Louis XIV-style chairs, all surrounded by fancy blue Christian Lacroix wallpaper. But, in vast part thanks to Brigitte’s welcoming manner and the savoir faire of the servers, the overall vibe is cozy and comfortable. The rotating lists of hits from Nina Simone and Etta James that are gently piped throughout the room ain’t bad, either.
A goodly portion of the guests seems to be former Regalade habitués who have migrated over, despite the fact that only a couple of their favourite menu items made the journey. Yes, the beef bourguignon is still available, and it’s very nice, but this menu is a lot lighter and much more contemporary than what the old guard are used to. Think less sauce and more inventive seasonings.
Whole roast duck is cooked with lavender and cumin, and then served two ways. The duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms reduced to paste) in the first iteration are heavenly, with Chef Rayé’s son Kevin producing knife work on the mushrooms with almost frightening precision. Sardines are served in a ceramic “opened can” and lightly dressed with oil. They sit over a bed of eggplant caviar that is slightly bland but still a nice textural accompaniment to the fish.
The pâté en croûte is enormous, wrapped in a beautiful, silky piece of puff pastry and served with a trio of pickles, which become a hit at the table for their silky-soft texture and remnant of sweetness.
The winner of the night, however, was the soufflé, made with Chartreuse. Rayé whips his egg whites only three-quarters of the way, and then lets the oven do the rest. Lined in sugar and butter, the resulting sweet, fluffy, gravity-defying “puff of air” is inhaled with indecent speed.
Don’t be intimidated by all the French; everyone speaks English as well, and the wine list has some good rewards for those who opt to go by the glass (and punishes those who want a bottle of prestige Champagne). It’s a selection that, along with the food, is worth the short trek over a bridge.
The whole roast duck is divine, as is the classic soufflé. Wine prices are generally reasonable.