Review: Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, The Halkin Hotel, Halkin Street, London
Saturday 30 March 2013
The full name of this week's restaurant, it pains me to report, is Ametsa with Arzak Instruction. Yes, really. And it's housed in a hotel which calls itself The Halkin by Como. I only get 800 words per review, so from here on in I'll just call the place Ametsa, although it's the Arzak element that has got the foodies all excited.
Regularly ranked near the top of those Best Restaurant in the World lists, Arzak is a family-run restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain's gastronomic R&D department. In the hands of three collaborative generations of the Arzak family, it has grown from modest taverna to crucible of modernist, molecular cooking. Even by the fantastically high standards of San Sebastian, it's a place of pilgrimage.
Hence the pre-launch excitement about this London spin-off. The joint venture with Belgravia's discreetly luxe Halkin Hotel has been masterminded by Elena Arzak, recently hailed as the best female chef in the world. She isn't cooking at Ametsa, but has apparently been heavily involved – hence the 'Arzak Instruction' (a subtitle that carries the unfortunate echo of those cards placed in phone boxes by discipline-minded ladies).
When I last visited the Halkin, back in 2002, it was to review the newly opened Nahm, which Ametsa replaces. I never returned, because, brilliant though the food at Nahm was, the room was completely atmosphere-free, and felt like a basement even though it was on the ground floor. Well, the news is, the room is still frosty, and a redesign which has lined the ceiling with suspended golden test-tubes has done little to warm it up.
Cool, minimal, and overwhelmingly white, it's the very last place you'd expect to experience the 'earthy flavours and techniques' of New Basque cuisine, as promised on Ametsa's website. Arriving for lunch early, and – as I realised in those lightbox conditions – shabby, I felt decidedly out-of-place, like someone in the 'before' sequence of a TV makeover show waiting to see the cosmetic dentist. The staff, all of them slender, immaculate young beauties, are generally friendly, or at least friendlier than they look. One even offered to bring me a newspaper while I waited – the FT or the Herald Tribune. Yup, it's that kind of place.
The science-lab association of all those dangling test-tubes is reinforced by a menu which hints at exciting molecular adventures to come. Starters include 'quick-changing squid' and 'scallops with Beta-carotene', and there are playful offerings called things like 'from egg to chicken'. But immaculate and rarefied as our lunch was, the promised thrills never materialised.
That quick-changing squid looked amazing; four glossy black parcels which turned dramatically orange when a black bouillon was poured over them, revealing that they weren't, as they seemed to be, squid ink ravioli, but – ta da! – butternut squash parcels filled with diced squid. But the impact was primarily visual. And the Beta-carotene with those simply seared scallops? A floppy vegetal tower, like a chef's toque made out of raw carrot, filled with baby leaves and herbs. Good-looking, certainly, but weirdly bland and underdressed – a supermodel of a dish.
Main courses were characterised primarily by their tininess; this was molecular gastronomy only in the sense that you could count the molecules in each dish. A lozenge of sea bass with garlic emulsion and little crisps of fried root veg was perfect in its unremarkable way, and gone in about four mouthfuls. "No wonder rich people are all so thin!" snorted my outraged guest, as she foraged for her £32 morsel of lamb in a baggy skin, allegedly flavoured with milk and coffee, though we had to take our waiter's word for that.
The most outré dish of the lunch was a dessert called 'moon rocks', chocolate-coated pebbles of freeze-dried orange and Cointreau, on a grey 'sand' of powdered black and white sesame seeds. A bit like the lunar mission, a lot of technical expertise had gone in to it, but to no real point. Chocolate fondant, served with piquillo ice-cream, was more traditional, "like a Gü pudding" as my friend said, not disapprovingly.
The Arzaks have apparently incorporated the best of British ingredients at Ametsa, rather than just importing local produce from San Sebastian, and it may be that dishes that sing and soar there just don't work quite as well here. We expected to be introduced to a new culinary language, but something has clearly got lost in translation. We came away from the Halkin feeling we'd eaten anonymous, expensive food in an anonymous, expensive hotel – surely not the outcome that either party in this collaboration intended.
Ametsa with Arzak Instruction The Halkin Hotel Halkin Street London SW1 (020-7333 1234). Around £75 a head before wine and service.
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is optional 12.5 per cent. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: The reign in Spain
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There's no booking tables at this enduringly popular Soho tapas bar, but the food is worth queueing for. Try a plate of succulent jamón señorio de Montanera.
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