Posted on Friday, 6th September 2013
Note: Ametsa was awarded a Michelin Star in September 2013.
As the name suggests, Ametsa by Arzak Instruction draws its culinary inspiration from the famous three-Michelin starred Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain. Arzak made its name by introducing Nouvelle Basque cooking to the world. By taking the traditions of this fine food region and overlaying it with an inspired modern touch, the imagination of Arzak caught the world’s attention. In 1989 it attained its three-Michelin star status, an accolade that it continues to hold to this day.
And so it is that the philosophy behind Ametsa is also one of ‘New Basque Cuisine’, a matching of the traditions of the Basque region with modern techniques. It opened in March 2013 at the Halkin Hotel, taking over the space that was once occupied by David Thompson’s Nahm. A quintet of chefs from Arzak consulted on Ametsa including Mikel Sorazu, Igor Zalakain and Xabier Gutierrez, and most notably the famous father and daughter pair of Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak who was recognised by the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards as the World’s Best Female Chef of 2012.
No expense was spared on the interior and it looks expensive. The most eye-catching aspect of Ametsa’s décor is the ceiling that was created from 7,000 dangling glass receptacles filled with spices. It’s impressive, but the overall feel of the restaurant is quite cold with whitewashed walls and furnishings that give it a rather stark effect. In some respects, it was difficult to warm to the atmosphere of the restaurant.
The tasting menu is priced at £105 (£145 with wine pairings) and is what the restaurant suggests you try to get the best sense of the overall Ametsa experience. The menu begins with a selection of four appetisers consisting of lotus root with fish mousse, chorizo with mango, kataifi with scorpion fish cake and foie gras with apple. The mousse was good and had been sandwiched between two thin and crispy lotus roots slices. Less appealing was the chorizo with mango. The texture was a little too soft, and the mango overpowered the taste of the chorizo. As for the kataifi, it was crunchy and worked well with the fish cake. And the foie gras, the pairing with the apple was a nice match, but I would have preferred more foie gras for a punchier, richer flavour.
The scallops in our first course of scallops with cassava ‘soufflé’ were nicely cooked, but were a little soft and not as flavoursome as they could have been. I liked the originality of the ‘soufflé’, which texturally resembled a puffed up cassava crispbread. The sauce was a ‘red mojo’ prepared with scallop coral, breadcrumbs and nuts which paired well with the scallops.
Lobster and white olive oil was nicely done with the lobster being sweet in taste and firm in texture. The white olive oil accompaniment came in powder form and was light and fluffy, giving the lobster a touch of airiness. For garnish, there were some crunchy frisee lettuce leaves to complete what was both a conceptually interesting and delicious dish.
King prawns served with a sweet corn sauce were sweet and tasty. The sweet corn worked beautifully with the prawns and was wonderfully smooth and creamy, but a greater concentration of sweet corn flavour would have led to an even better dish. The use of crispy noodles as topping was an interesting choice and provided a nice textural crunch.
A crumbed deep-fried egg with squid noodles boasted of a lovely, crispy coating and a delicious runny yolk. The egg was scrumptious although a touch more seasoning was needed. The squid noodles, being thinly sliced pieces of squid were very tender, and to complete the dish was a skillfully made squid ink sauce that brought the flavours together.
The two of us asked for alternate fish courses so that we could try an additional fish course. Starting with the grilled tuna with black ‘mojo’ – this beautifully seared tuna, medium rare, was served with an interesting sauce of capers and gherkins. Accompanying the tuna were some soft shallots filled with sweet cantaloupe melon that provided a nice counterpoint to the dish. The black ‘mojo’ was a drizzling of black sauce made from squid ink and tuna skin. I appreciated, rather than enjoyed this dish.
Sea bass with a garlic emulsion and ‘fried’ vegetables was unfortunately a little bland. The fish needed more seasoning, and a crispier finish on the fish skin would have been preferable. The ‘fried’ vegetables were dehydrated red onions, purple potato and potato that dressed the dish with colour. There were some interesting concepts but this fish course did not deliver on flavour.
There was some inconsistency in the cooking of the grouse. My companion’s version was quite rare, whereas mine was perfectly cooked to a medium pink finish. The seasoning was nicely done and there was a decent flavour coming off the bird. Accompaniments included a spinach paste, some fresh fig and grapefruit segments, and a lovely rich grouse jus that completed the grouse nicely.
To pre-dessert, and a Cointreau liquor with orange juice and chocolate, served on a bed of sesame seed powder and red wine jelly was extremely sweet. As a palate cleanser this didn’t work as it lacked for that refreshing touch.
There are two desserts in the tasting menu and again we chose alternative desserts to allow us to try four different ones. These were the highlights of the meal with the French toast with mango and coconut being the best course of the day. It consisted of a custard and vanilla soaked brioche wrapped in mango, some caramelised pistachios, coconut puree and mango ice cream. The textures and flavours came together like a dream, and the freshness and creaminess of the mango ice cream complemented the toast in the most delightful way.
A clove custard delightfully tantalised with its silky flavours. The accompanying puff pastry with almonds added a lovely crispy texture and a pineapple ice cream provided a zingy freshness. To round of the dessert was some crispy toasted milk skin.
Similarly a ‘passionate’ dessert was fabulously fresh and zingy, and consisted of a passion fruit cake with crunchy milk and a cheese ice cream. A chocolate fondant was also delicious, gooey and delicate. An accompanying piquillo ice cream worked a charm by accentuating the fondant with a hint of fire to round off a pleasant experience.
When Ametsa first opened, the press reviews were not entirely complimentary. And perhaps what let it down was that it tried to be too smart for its own good. Take the name for instance, ‘Ametsa by Arzak Instruction’. It’s a long-winded one if I ever heard one. And the dishes – the unusual combinations were perhaps conceptually a little difficult to understand.
But conversely there were some creative ideas and good flavours as well, and the desserts were excellent. So contrary to much of what has been written, I found myself enjoying this meal. And concepts aside, at a technical level the cooking technique was resoundingly solid. I mean, Head Chef Sergio Sanz Blanco can cook. Yeah, there were a few minor glitches, but on the whole the technique couldn’t be faulted. I also think the tasting menu gave us a fuller taste of the Ametsa experience as we got more variety than three courses from the a la carte menu.
So my conclusion is this: where Ametsa might divide opinion is down to a question of personal taste. I appreciated it for what it was rather than what one might have wanted it to be, and that was that Ametsa was an interesting experience that wasn’t par for the course. The service was lovely too.
Food rating: 4/5
Desserts rating: 4.5/5
Service rating: 4/5
From £54 to £81 for three courses from the a la carte menu. £105 for the tasting menu. Excludes drinks and service.