The demise of Nahm has made room for a new restaurant at The Halkin hotel. It is the first overseas venture for the father and daughter team of 3 Michelin star Arzak in San Sebastian, though they are firmly on a consulting basis rather than cooking at the stoves here. What they could have perhaps considered is running the name past someone with English as their first language: “Ametsa with Arzak Instruction” sounds surreal, and as if they are hedging their bets by keeping some distance from the new venture in case it bombs. Ametsa means dream in Basque, and certainly there is plenty of Arzak instruction in the kitchen. Some long-time Arzak chefs have been brought in to head the team in London. Xabier Gutierrez was the head of the development kitchen on the top floor of the San Sebastian restaurant before moving to London. Mikael Sorazu, also from the development kitchen, is the chef de cuisine at Ametsa and Igor Zalakain was sous chef at Arzak. The style of cuisine is very much the same modern Spanish style. At lunch a short tasting menu was £52, but £105 for ten courses in the evening. We went à la carte.
The wine list had examples such as Ostertag Sylvaner 2011 at £40 for a wine that you can find in the high street for around £13, Alvaro Palacio vi de Villa Gratallops 2008 at £85 for a wine that costs £33 retail, and Clos St Hune 2005 at £325 for a wine that will set you back around £140 in the shops. Mark-up levels do not appear to taper off much at the higher end of the list, with Vega Sicilia Unico 2000 at £610 compared to its market price of around £258.
The dining room was quite bright with white walls, oak floor and a view onto some gardens to one side. Its ceiling was covered with 7,000 dangling yellow glass tubes filled with spices. The menu tended towards enigmatic titles for its dishes, as we shall see, which I found less than endearing. To get away with this sort of thing, at the very least you need waiting staff that can eloquently explain the names, rather than ones who just list the main dish components.
Nibbles were a rather odd pairing of a little piece of goat cheese with turmeric (described as “cheese puzzle”), and mousse of rockfish on crispy rice. The cheese had little flavour and seemed merely puzzling as a nibble, the crisps were pleasant, the rockfish mousse decent (13/20 for the rockfish).
“Quick changing squid” consisted of parcels of butternut squash that had squid ink soup poured over them at the table. I have no idea what was supposed to be quick or changing about this, but the soup could have had a lot more intensity of flavour, the squash bland (12/20). The unappealing sounding “scallops with betacarotene” (£14.50) had a trio of small, remarkably tasteless scallops, served with a little salad wrapped up in a parcel of carrot jelly. Although cooked competently, the scallops entirely lacked sweetness and just seemed to be of low quality, while the salad leaves needed more dressing (11/20 at best).
Sea bass (£29) was cooked properly but was watery, served with a garlic emulsion and dried vegetables. The emulsion needed bolder flavour and some of the vegetable crisps were, well, not crisp (12/20). Hake (£27) was also soggy, the fish having very little taste, an odd state of affairs for a fish that in Spain is regarded very highly, and so presumably should be well understood by the kitchen. This was served with a parsley and olive oil sauce that was a little metallic, and a little confit potato (11/20).
“Moon rocks” (£12.50) were just chocolates filled with a liquid centre of Cointreau and orange, harmless enough though I wasn’t taken by the chocolate used (13/20). French toast (£12.50) with mango and coconut was just odd, a little burnt in places, the tropical fruit flavour not coming through enough (12/20).
Service was friendly. The bill came to £76 a head at lunch with just soft drinks. In the evening, with a modest wine, the bill would weigh in at about £100 a head, much more if you had the tasting menu. This represents dismal value for money for what was put in front of us today. For £52 today I could have eaten lunch at Le Gavroche, including wine, water and coffee. I know where I would rather have been. Perhaps, on balance, the Arzaks were wise to keep their name at something of a distance from this establishment. Far from a dream, I suspect that in due course Ametsa will become merely a distant memory, for all the deep pockets of its backers.