The Arzak’s ‘dream’ in London, Ametsa offers a taste of their innovative Basque cooking. Befitting the offspring of a restaurant that not only holds three Michelin stars but has maintained them since 1989, the food is imaginative and sophisticated in equal measure.
Despite over a thousand calls for reservations on opening day, Ametsa (strictly Ametsa with Arzak Instruction) has slipped quietly into town. It was the owners of the COMO Group, the conglomerate behind the understated Halkin, whom we have to thank for this collaboration. They became friends with the father–daughter team, Juan Mari and Elena, and the restaurant emerged from there. Ab Rogers Design, who’ve had a hand in everything from Heston’s Popham Little Chef to the Tate Modern, have created a strikingly simple space. It’s all very serene: expansive, plain white walls; unusually large and well-spaced tables draped in thick, white cloths; and contemporary metal armchairs. Colour comes from the undulating mass of yellow, orange and red spice-filled cylinders dangling from the ceiling.
The front-of house team seem genuinely excited about the food they’re serving, even if the same can’t be said for Belgravia’s haughtier diners. Aside from the senior management, the same staff remain from Nahm, now thoroughly schooled in the Arzak approach. Everyone at a table is served at the same time, rather than the rather outdated ladies first system, and you’ll catch the odd cheeky smile as they deliver their favourite courses from glinting silver trays.
A few dishes are carbon copies of the San Sebastian originals, while others are adaptations or new creations. All showcase the delicate presentation, complex flavours and unique use of texture that Arzak is known for. The main change has been to create a more accessible menu of a la carte dishes (starters around £15; mains around £30; desserts £12.50) alongside the ten-course tasting menu (£105 or £145 with wine pairings). One of the Arzak signatures, jelly or paper-like coverings that mysteriously melt away, appear throughout. Astonishingly, however, they’ve managed to source ninety percent of the ingredients in the UK.
Amuse bouches arrive on Arzak’s original serving dishes. Crunchy lollipops of scorpion fish wrapped in kataifi (the shredded-wheat like pastry) give a taster of the menu’s light-hearted side, while cartoon-like cut outs of ‘cheese puzzle’ disguise unexpectedly complex flavours of goat's cheese and turmeric.
Three different ‘entrantes’ follow. Small, sweet scallops are served with peppery herbs in a plastic-like wrap of betacarotene gel. Foie gras with figs and grapefruit is a lesson in balance: just enough acidic grapefruit to cut through the satiating foie, while the figs pep up the dish with sweetness. ‘From egg to chicken’ adds a little theatre, as chicken stock is poured through a translucent sheet onto a gloopy slow-cooked egg and tantalising morsels of powdered chicken skin.
Monkfish with what appears to be crinkled tomato peel is the standout of the meal; the peel is red onion concentrated into a sticky-sweet paper that melts on touch. Lamb with café cortado is also exceptional. Perhaps more British than Basque, it’s accompanied by minute parsnip slivers, a few pieces of red cabbage and a crinkled brown casing that dissolves into the tongue-furring flavours of crispy roast lamb skin.
For dessert, there’s an intense mouthful of mango French toast and another San Sebastian signature, the ‘piedras lunares’. This moonscape of gritty, bitter sesame powder, red wine jelly craters and chocolate moon rocks which burst into a mouthful of syrup is the only plate that’s not entirely enjoyable.
The wine list begins with a clever page of Spanish alternatives to old and new world classics. If you’re a fan of Marlborough Sauvignon, they point you towards the Malagan Aryanas Moscatel Seco. Left bank Bordeaux more your thing? Then try the 2008 Tabula from Ribera del Duero. There’s also plenty of fizz, from cava to Cristal, and a Spanish-heavy selection of interesting reds and whites (many £30–£40). If you’re not pairing wines with the tasting menu, try the Aesop-inspired ‘La Libre y La Tortuga’ Albarino (Rias Baixas; 2011). Translated as ‘the hare and the tortoise’, it’s a crisp, peachy example of this increasingly popular grape.
The Last Word
Ametsa’s food is creative yet subtle and magical without being gimmicky. Unlike so many new openings, it feels like a labour of love rather than just a calculated business venture.