Sunday, 14 April 2013

Ametsa with Arzak Instruction


San Sebastian is a foodie mecca that’s been on my radar ever since I learned to appreciate gastronomy, which coincidentally was when I first visited Fat Duck almost 9 years ago. This little seaside town houses two of San Pelligrino’s list of top 50 restaurants and both in the top 10—Mugaritz (No. 3), Arzak (No. 8) Word spread last year that Arzak was opening a restaurant in London this year and naturally, I was excited. From what people told me, Arzak was one of the best meals they’ve had, ever. So when I read that Arzak was opening in March, I made my reservation straight away, expecting it to be booked up within hours of its reservation lines opening.

Arzak interior- test tubes filled with spices and empty tables
A week before I was due to visit, I was told that there was a very unfavourable review of the restaurant in the Metro (http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/21/ametsa-restaurant-is-too-clever-and-expensive-for-its-own-good-3551471/ ) (a free newspaper in London). The reviewer gave it 2 stars out of 5, described the tasting menu as “uninspiring”, phrases like “a bit so what”, “all starts to go wrong”, “really disappointing” and “hardly groundbreaking” jumped out at me and filled me with doubt. “Can it be true?”, I asked myself, I found it hard to believe that a restaurant “with Arzak instruction” could be anything but brilliant, so though I was a bit dubious, I kept my reservation.

The chaos on the menu cover gave me a sense of foreboding
We arrived at 6:30 to find the restaurant empty. We ordered wine from the Basque region (which was pleasant enough) while we studied the menu. Having read that the tasting menu was “uninspiring” I asked if I could order A la carte while my friend ordered the tasting. “We’ve never had that request before, let me check”, a few minutes later “The portions of the tasting are really small, it really won’t be too much”. I politely pointed out that I wasn’t very hungry and would rather just order a starter, main and desert. Again the manager walked off then came back saying “No we can’t do that because it would affect the rhythm of the meal”, to which I replied saying that my friend and I were good friends and that we didn’t mind. He insisted saying “we really can’t do that because it would be really boring for you to watch your friend eat”. I just looked at him in disbelief and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If I wasn’t with a friend who was eager to try the place, I would have walked out at this point, but I yielded because I didn’t want to make a scene. The manager did say we could change anything we didn’t like on the tasting to other dishes on the a la carte. Referencing Telegraph’s review of the restaurant, I replaced the scallops with the squid, and the monkfish with seabass then just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.


The amuse bouche arrived, out of the three only the Katafi with Scorpion fishcake was interesting, the other two could have been served as canap├ęs at a C list party and would still be untouched.
Katafi with Scorpion fishcake is on the right: light and crispy
Rice with Fish Mousse- boring 
Chorizo with Mango- nothing special
Then came the “Quick Changing Squid” which I had ordered to substitute the scallops. Two parcels covered with squid ink arrived, then the server poured some soup which washed away the squid ink and “voila!” the squid has “changed”!? I mean wow, it changed colour and everything! I took one bite and was greeted with chopped squid that was lukewarm and an utter non-event, I put my fork down and didn’t touch it again.



Quick Changing squid- More like Quick Change my plate!
My server noticed I wasn’t touching my dish and offered to change it to something else, so I picked Beef with Native Oysters. Two tiny mounds of beef tartare came with raw oysters. This bordered on disgusting, the oysters didn’t taste that fresh and the combination just didn’t work for me. On the other hand, I sampled the scallops that my friend had and while it was a bit tasteless, at least it wasn’t offensive.

Beef with Native Oysters- Vom
Next up was the King Prawns with Sweet Corn. I thought the dish looked good until I moved the deep fried bundle of crispy rice noodles aside which revealed a king prawn cut up into small pieces, seemingly just thrown into the pool of sweet corn soup that tasted like it came from a can of Campbell’s. The presentation was so bad it made me chuckle. Why did they feel the need to cut the King Prawn into little pieces? Surely that’s what my knife and fork is for.


King Prawns with Sweet Corn-- Why?
From Egg to Chicken was another laughable dish. A poached egg sits in some chicken broth and bits of chicken skin. It was too salty with no depth in flavour whatsoever. But the biggest “?” about the dish was that sheet made from chicken broth, which we were told by the server that it wouldn’t taste of anything and that made me think “What is it doing there then??”

From Egg to Chicken-- Lame
Seabass with Garlic Emulsion and Fried Vegetables was next and it was dull. The chips were done beautifully though, as were all the fried stuff that came on the other dishes. The chef working the fryer definitely deserves praise, too bad the deep fried components were more of a garnish.

Seabss with fried vegetables -- yawn
When I asked what Pigeon and Shot was at the beginning of the meal, they explained that it was a dish that would represent a pigeon that’s been shot by bullets. Surely enough, the pigeon came with balls of veg (one of which was purple potato) as well as metallic coloured balls that were filled with balsamic. The pigeon was cooked beautifully and the flavours worked well together. This was the best dish of the night.

Pigeon with Shot- Finally something I could finish
I love a bit of magic when it comes to food and one of the most memorable meals I’ve had was Heston’s Fat Duck. His scientific approach to food and the theatrics of the meal were truly eye opening and I have since been interested in gastronomy, believing that food doesn’t have to be so basic or serious, it can be fun and playful! I’m sure this is what Ametsa thought they were delivering with their dessert, Strawberry Bubbles, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. A lovely plate of fruit was completely destroyed by the gimmicky froth that erupted like a science experiment. It tasted artificial, like something concocted in a test tube.



Strawberry Bubbles- Crucification of Fruit
French Toast with Mango and Coconut was average, why they would call that thin slice of whatever “French Toast” is beyond me.

French Toast with Mango and Coconut- Lost in translation, neither "French" or "Toast"
Petit Fours-- the square thing on the left had the texture of a left over pastry layer that's a few days old, Bravo to the chef making the macaroons because that was the best dessert of the night. 
All in all, I would say it was the worst meal I’ve ever had in a fine dining restaurant. For 105 pounds, it was completely over priced but in hindsight, I wouldn’t eat there even if it were free. I still couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t let me order a la carte, when we ended up having the restaurant to ourselves for 45 minutes before another table of 2 arrived, and also we’re a table of 2 not a big party of 6, the excuse of not wanting to “break the rhythm” was completely unwarranted. My friend and I joked that the restaurant may have had “Arzak instruction” but they had no skill in execution. I did wonder whether the restaurant and its food was someone’s idea of a practical joke on unknowing diners. Maybe this is an experiment-- how long can a restaurant situated in an expensive area (Knightsbridge) last serving bad food and charge sky high prices if associated with a famous brandname (Arzak). The standard is so terrible that I can say I’ve had better meals in McDonald’s. Judging by the number of tables occupied when we left (4 in total), Ametsa won’t be around for long, at least not with the current menu or kitchen. If you’ve got a reservation, cancel it quick!

Ametsa with Arzak Instruction on Urbanspoon

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