Ametsa With Arzak Instruction; there’s a restaurant that’s just begging to be hated. It’s the first fine-dining export from the Arzak family (the current iteration being lauded father-daughter combo Juan Mari and Elena), who have owned restaurants in foodie Mecca San Sebastián since 1897.
Three Michelin starred Arzak is always there or there abouts in lists of the world’s best restaurants and now the family want to export some of that culinary cache, although not quite enough to call it Arzak London, which would have been a less messy and far less pretentious name.
Anyway, lo and behold, when it opened a few months ago (what can I say, I’ve been busy) in Belgravia’s The Halkin Hotel, people did hate it. Some loathed it. Well, either it’s improved a hell of a lot since then, or people have been knocking off points for that adjuncted name, because the food is brilliant.
It does itself no favours, though. In fact, it seems to go out of its way to put your nose out of joint. The dining room is a barren vacuum that looks like a disused restaurant furniture showroom. White tables hang in a wide, grey space, like lonely exhibits in a shuttered gallery. Test tubes filled with grey and yellow spices dangle from the ceiling. They represent ideas, apparently, and the occasional red tubes are the good ideas. It takes a lot of bad ideas for every good one seems to be the gist of it; I suspect the test tubes themselves may have been a yellow idea.
El Pye invited fellow make-up artist Leo to join us. I learned what “smizing” means: it’s what models do when they pout with their mouth but smile with their eyes. This might be what the staff were doing – they were certainly pretty enough to be models and nobody was smiling, at least until Leo told one of them that he looked “like a Bond villain” (he did, too: Christopher Walken’s character in A View to a Kill).
Leo, it turns out, is both the best and worst person to take to a molecular gastronomy restaurant. See, I’ll eat anything, but where’s the challenge in that? Leo, though: he’s finicky. The waiter was given an extensive run-down of the things he wouldn’t eat, including “most fish”, which is tricky in a Basque restaurant that pulls half of its ingredients out of the sea. The chef rose to the task commendably, crafting him a tasting menu of his own, while I went for the 11-course set menu.
First up was a selection of apertivos. Three parcels of scorpion fish mousse encased in wispy filo pastry were mounted on the spires of what looked like a piece of abstract art. It was deliciously pretentious, and also just plain delicious, with a satisfying contrast of textures. The rockfish mousse, which was sandwiched between two slices of crisped lotus root, was just as good. Chorizo mousse wrapped in thinly sliced mango flesh came, quite literally, on a pedestal; and rightly so – who knew that smoky sausage and sweet mango would make such a lovely couple? Only the tiny rectangles of foie gras on brioche fell short – overpowered by the cloying sweetness of stewed apple.
A Basque restaurant needs to get seafood spot on – Ametsa does. The standout dish was egg with squid “noodles” – long, tender strips of squid in rich black ink, with a breaded egg nestling in the middle. Once you’ve speared the egg, it’s a gloopy, opulent affair – a heavenly protein overdose.
Next came king prawns, spider crab and sweet corn, all squirreled away under a thick tangle of crispy noodles – well worth foraging for. A pair of divine scallops were served with a blood red balloon of cassava “soufflé”, which looked like someone had tried to sculpt a human heart out of poppadom and tasted of nothing at all.
By this stage, I was already approaching terminal capacity. Even writing this is giving me the sweats. I had nightmares about food last night, like the scene at the end of Requiem For a Dream where Jared Leto’s mum is being chased by her refrigerator. That’s the problem with 11 course tasting menus – it’s easy to be all gung ho at the start, only to realise you’ve gone through a month’s worth of calories and you’re not even at the meat course.
The tuna – the first of two “mains” – was a simpler affair: pink and well seasoned, although lacking oomph, even with the addition of a bilious green gherkin and caper sauce. It is, however, served with the best pickled onion you will ever eat.
The pigeon with “shot” was the most artistically presented and the least appetising of the evening’s dishes. Pink shards rose like icebergs out of the plate, orbited by purple, orange and silver globules, the latter of which spilled a mercury river when skewered. The duck was average, though: not terrible but not demanding of superlatives, either. Leo’s lamb came wrapped in a crisped milk and coffee gossamer, which he peeled off, because it looked like “a wing off the monster in Jeepers Creepers” (for decency’s sake I’m not going to tell you what he said about the test tubes on the ceiling).
Two desserts – pineapple ice cream with a toasted milk wafer and “moon rocks” of chocolate filled with liquid Cointreau – were OK, although by this point, I was forcing them down. They might have been the best desserts in the world, but food is a capricious beast and I’d have gladly swapped them for coffee and the cheque. I’d say you get your money’s worth, only I’m not convinced any meal is really worth £105 (excluding matched wine; £145 with), no matter how many courses.
Ametsa is fussy and extravagant. It revels in its own cleverness, occasionally – although, honestly, not very often – at the expense of making something that just tastes nice. But that’s the point. It does what it says on the tin – a tin made of toasted milk and dreams, which spouts dry ice if you try to open it. If you want to spend £15 on something drearily tasty, go to Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Ametsa is mercurial, unpredictable, a little slice of culinary genius. Unless you can afford to live in Belgravia, though, I’d opt for the set lunch (£24.50), which will at least leave you with enough change to feed the gas metre when you get home.
First published in City A.M.