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.
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.
|Arzak interior- test tubes filled with spices and empty tables|
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 canapés at a C list party and would still be untouched.
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.
|Katafi with Scorpion fishcake is on the right: light and crispy|
|Rice with Fish Mousse- boring|
|Chorizo with Mango- nothing special|
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.
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.
|Beef with Native Oysters- Vom|
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??”
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.
|From Egg to Chicken-- Lame|
|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.
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.
French Toast with Mango and Coconut was average, why they
would call that thin slice of whatever “French Toast” is beyond me.
|Pigeon with Shot- Finally something I could finish|
|Strawberry Bubbles- Crucification of Fruit|
|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.|