Ametsa review: Dreams of the Basque Country

A Michelin-starred restaurant combining Basque and molecular cuisine proves a welcome experiment


Ametsa sounds intimidating, initially. Not because of the Michelin star - that was only exciting - but because of the full name: Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at Como The Halkin.

To deconstruct that, Ametsa means "dream" in the Basque language; Arzak Instruction refers to the guidance the kitchen receives from world renowned chef Elena Arzak, who runs a three Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastian, in Northern Spain, and Como The Halkin is the boutique London offering of the Como hotel group.

From the sound of it, we were expecting something austere. Thankfully, Ametsa - we will shorten the name for ease - is that breed of restaurant that conjures up epic new culinary experiences without any pomposity and plates are accompanied with an enthusiastic explanation of what each element is.

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Ametsa received its Michelin star in 2013 for its modern blend of Basque dishes and molecular cooking. Its tasting menu is the best way to get a feel for what that means.

We began with "aperitivos", which arrived like a modern art display - a lightly spiced kataifi and scorpion fishcake, sobrasada chimneys, prawn gyozas and a shot glass of pumpkin soup came arranged across metal skewers, miniature platforms and ceramics. Each was inventive and built anticipation of what was to come.

For the starter, we devoured a trio of scallops. The hemp seeds accompanying them made for an odd clash of textures, from the smooth, fleshy crustacea to the brittle, dense seed, but it went down well, nonetheless.

It was the seared tuna that got us hooked. My knife glided through the two slabs like butter. Alongside it were beads of rhubarb puree and a sprinkling of edible flowers, with an (inedible) dyed-purple corn husk for decoration. Not just tasty, but pretty to look at, too.

But the sea bass on banana - for all that sea bass and banana was a welcome fusion - failed to thrill having not been cooked long enough, with none of the crispy skin I hoped for.

However my partner had no complaints about his tender Iberian pork (charred on the outside and pink in the middle) with poached peach.

Our dessert option was charred sweets, a name that gave nothing away about the curious plate that arrived. White clouds of smoke billowed around a web of spun sugar inside a bell jar. Underneath lay what looked like charcoal rocks, but the chocolate casing opened to reveal a soft vanilla filling. Technically, they looked galactic. The surprise was the smoky taste that came from the bell jar vapours which, along with the creaminess of the filing and the jagged sugar strings, made for a peculiar dish - not the most heavenly dessert, but certainly one of the more exciting.

Beyond the beauty of the food, the restaurant interior ties in with its modern, artistic cuisine. The room is stark white and muted greys, except for the ceiling, which is studded with suspended vials filled with mahogany and golden spices. In truth, it isn't the sumptuous design you might desire when embarking on a three-hour tasting menu. The metal-frame chairs are more befitting a cafe and there's nothing wildly out there to get excited about.

But the restaurant came alive thanks to the service. Our waiters were beyond welcoming and held no pretentions. This was haute cuisine with no airs and graces.

So what's in a name? Ametsa shows it's what's inside that matters.

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