Basque Michelin Dining in London – Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at The Halkin:
I’m in the process of planning a trip to San Sebastian and the Basque region. It’s a part of Spain well known for a concentration of excellent restaurants and bars – including Arzak – a three-star Michelin restaurant.
In the meantime and with some serendipity, I got an invitation to visit Ametsa with Arzak Instruction – a unique collaboration between Elena Arzak, her father Juan Mari Arzak, and Mikel Sorazu, Igor Zalakain and Xabier Gutierrez. Executive Head Chef, Sergi Sanz trained with Arzak in Spain after starting his career working under Ferran Adria at the El Bulli Hotel Hacienda Benazuza in Andalucia. At Ametsa, the menu is an innovative display of fine dining with clear references to both Spanish heritage dishes and to molecular gastronomy. The restaurant is based in The Halkin hotel, a discrete, luxurious place in a quiet road just off Hyde Park.
Our charming host, restaurant manager Ednor Pronjaj suggested that we tried the lunch tasting menu with matched wines. Who would dare to contradict such a fine suggestion?
Along with a glass of classic Spanish Cava, El Celleret we enjoyed three aperitivos. First, ham test tubes, tiny cork-sealed glass tubes filled with a roll of spiced stuffed Iberico. Very delicate and very moreish.
We had to ask how the ‘Onion Rock’ was made. It looked like a tiny volcanic rock, topped with a piece of marinated anchovy. Apparently, dehydrated onions coloured with squid ink create the ‘rocks’.
A spectacular construction held two scorpion fish pastries – each mouthful a soft, pink fish paste wrapped in what I believe was a shredded phyllo dough.
The first of two entrees arrived, the curiously named ‘Scallops at Home’.
We learnt that the cracker was made from plankton and king prawn. Designed to look like the sea-bed, underneath hid a second beautifully cooked, tender, caramelised scallop. Wine pairing for this and the aperitivos was Palo Cortado Delgado Zuleta Jerez-Xérès sherry. Complex, rich and intense it worked brilliantly with the salty fish dishes.
On paper, our second entree was the kind of dish that strikes fear into my heart. I am really not an egg lover – and the idea of ‘Flor de Huevo’ was not the kind of thing I’d naturally have picked on a menu. But, for those who pick their way through tasting menus, asking for ingredients they believe they don’t like to be removed I say you miss the point. When a tasting menu is designed, the Chef creates a structure that takes the diner on a culinary journey. Miss out one component because you think you don’t like it and you might just find that what follows is compromised. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend someone with a genuine allergy or intolerance trying dishes…but, if you have ANY faith in the skill of the kitchen, please leave your food pre-conceptions behind when you try a tasting menu.
Here’s a great example of that strategy paying off. I LOVED the dish – an egg which had somehow managed to be poached so that the white was firm yet not rubbery while the yolk was perfectly liquid, topped with yet more egg yolk and served with crumb and a chistorra (sausage) paste. Now if every egg was like that, I might just convert…
Our pairing for this and the next fish dish was was valdebonita, a white wine made from 100% albillo grapes, from the Duero valley. Toasty, fresh and nutty it was delicious and mine vanished rather too quickly.
Next a fish course – Sea Bass with ‘Celery Illusion’.
‘I can’t tell you what the illusion is until you’ve tried it’ – we were firmly told.
The sea bass, a neat cutlet of fish, arrived served with a walnut crumb and what looked to us like a celery stick. Two crisp, dehydrated celery leaves were unmistakable, but we both were completely mystified by the ‘celery illusion’ which had the texture of a cream cheese but a slightly fruity taste. I was SURE there was celery in there somewhere.
I did spot the apple – one component. But, I’d never have ‘found’ the other ingredients – potato, leek and pineapple. Not only did it look stunning but it was a perfect pairing with the sea-bass.
Next carne – beef fillet with green tomato. By now we knew the drill – the beef fillet would be served with something that looked like a green tomato but wasn’t. And, we’d try to guess and fail. Actually we did pretty well here – we DID spot the avocado, though failed to pick out lime as the second ingredient. And the creamy white sauce was, apparently, yoghurt. A glass of Bastión de la Luna accompanied the meat – a red wine from the Rías Baixas, fresh and expressive with lots of ripe fruits and spices.
Pre-dessert was more of a kind of rocky creation, this time small mouthfuls of something with a custard like filling. We learnt it was a sea buckthorn cream in a cocoa butter shell with peanut crumbs and beetroot powder, quite delicious and very light.
The main dessert was a pretty dish of chocolate and fruit marbles with an oregano custard. With both we enjoyed a glass of Arima by Gorka Izagirra, a late harvested sweet wine from vineyards near Bilbao. A fitting way to bring the meal to a close.
Finally, coffee was served with some tiny spiced ‘grapes’ made from chocolate, cardamon and cinnamon.
I was thrilled with lunch at Ametsa. The food genuinely exceeded my expectations and the ambience of this stunning restaurant was perfect. Sitting looking out over the pretty garden courtyard of The Halkin hotel was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Ametsa with Arzak Instruction
The Halkin by COMO
Disclaimer: I dined as a guest of The Halkin Hotel. All views are my own and I was not obliged to write a positive review./