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Basque dreams: Ametsa with Arzak Instruction

For some reason 2016 is turning out to be a great year for eating. I seem to have had more, more than usually exciting restaurant meals already and we’re only just over half way through the year. The three most thrilling to date, in chronological order, have been Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in London, Ekstedt in Stockholm and The Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds.

I’ll be reviewing them in that order, so today it’s, yes, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction. Much as I’d like to gloss over the daft-sounding, cumbersome name and get us straight to the real business, the food, you can’t ignore the name – and to give you the full horror, it’s Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at The Halkin By Como, and Como is written in capitals (but not by me). Ametsa means dream in Basque (allegedly). The Arzak bit refers to Elena Arzak, joint head chef with her father of the family’s 3* Michelin Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian in the heart of Basque Spain. Instruction refers to the fact that she’s not actually in the kitchen all that often, but, as luck would have it, she was there the day I went for lunch (cue: drum roll).

Name over, another thing to get out of the way is that I’m not a huge fan of eating in luxury hotels, except perhaps breakfast. I never find the atmosphere and decor very convivial (if decor can be convivial). I like things more relaxed/less achingly trendy, so I didn’t naturally warm to the Halkin’s bar or to the room with its test-tubes hanging from the ceiling and ice-white walls (below).

There’s yet another thing (hard to please? Me?): while I warmed to the idea of the website's description of the cooking as “the rustic, earthy flavours of Spain’s Basque region with modern surprising twists”, the photos on the website and sample menus suggested that “surprising” and “twist” might have got the upper hand. The dread phrase molecular gastronomy hovered at the back of my mind, as did the thought of chefs who are more concerned that you should be surprised or shocked than that you should actually like the taste and enjoy eating what they’ve created.

So, readers, I wasn’t won over before I started, but very soon I was bowled over, so much so that I’d eaten the appetizers – marinated anchovies and kataifi with scorpion fish – before I remembered to photograph them (ex-kataifi plate below). This was really exciting food. It wasn’t tricksy for the sake of it. The flavour combinations and textures worked. The cooking and presentation were slick and accomplished, as you would hope from someone voted best female chef in the world in 2012 and you hope to get, but don't always, from a restaurant with a Michelin star.

I wasn't going to give a blow by blow account of the dishes (yes, it’s a while back and my notes lack some of the clarity they seemed to have when I wrote them), but the menu is below and I find I can't hold back from going into a bit of detail about the dishes. Before I start I should say that this was a lunch hosted by Felipe Müller East, winemaker of Tabalí in Chile, and UK importer Boutinot Wines, so it was his polished, cool-climate Talinay, Payen and Roca Madre wines that were served – and they accompanied the dishes very well. I’ve written about these ground-breaking, frontier-extending wines here.

Now to the dishes:

Kataifi with scorpion fishcake (remains of, above)

The fishcake looked a bit like shredded wheat (kataifi is a sort of shredded filo pastry) but tasted crisp, fishy and delicious.

Scallops at home (below)

The scallops were seared with a little truffle oil and served on what I can only call a smear of plankton (to emphasise the "at home" of the name). Looking like a wave on top, and decorated with edible flowers, was a prawn cracker (green) that had been mashed, dried and deep fried. The sauce was passion fruit and goji berry.

Iberico pork with enverns (opening picture)

Ascuas means embers, so as far as I know enverns is a menu typo. Pink pork with an amarena cherry sauce and smoked olive oil served with Jerusalem artichoke coated in aubergine and squid ink and served on

coconut and sesame ash.

Cheese (below)

Manchego, a sheep milk cheese, needs no introduction. Payoyo from the Sierra de Cadiz is made from the milk of Payoyo goats and a smaller proportion of milk from a similarly local and ancient breed of sheep. Both are very good cheeses for accompanying red wine.

Menus: there are set lunch, lunch and dinner tasting menus and à la carte menus,

Ametsa with Arzac Instruction, The Halkin By Como, Halkin Street, London SW1X 7DJ.

All photographs by Joanna Simon

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