I visited Ametsa after it had been open only a few weeks, with little more than the reputation of its Basque consultants, the Arzaks, the father and daughter team behind the 3 michelin starredin San Sebastien (I didn’t see other reviews until after I’d been). I’ve decided to stay away (for the moment) from going into too much detail about all the plates of food here (there are some brief descriptions of some courses further down)or give ratings for the place, especially when I can spend time arguing about something far more exciting like the name of the place anyway.
There were plenty of things wrong with Ametsa, however unlike all the other reviews I’ve read, for me the name is not one of them. The full name is Ametsa with Arzak instruction and people seem to dislike it for being too long, cumbersome and seeming pretentious. Calling it too long seems like a pretty poor reason for criticism, especially since condensing it to Ametsa is hardly hard labour. And besides, it’s no longer than Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. Callum and Theo looked at me disapprovingly when I said this as if to say ‘why on earth do you care’, then on realising they had nothing better planned for the evening argued about it with me. Anyway, short of it is, they disagreed and informed me that I was wrong, and it was long and pretentious.
However the main reason I personally like the name is due to how honest (possibly unintentionally?) it is. The restaurant may have input from the Arzaks themselves, but it is primarily being run by senior chefs from Arzak rather than the father or daughter themselves, and therefore the name therefore seems a far more genuine representation of what is actually going on (unlike something like Dinner by Heston Blumenthal).
Before I get to the food (it is coming I promise)I didn’t think the dining room itself was an unpleasant space (and Callum and Theo actually agreed with me for once). It was fairly quiet when we went, but there was never a hushed atmosphere about the place. The place was clean and precise yes, but not ‘medical’ as some have suggested. All I can recommend is that people who didn’t enjoy the atmosphere of the place find some more interesting people to go out to meals with. The background noise at our meal was mostly just mum telling us to laugh more quietly because we were disturbing other people.
Anyway, to actually briefly discuss the meal itself. I do agree with the majority of the other reviews out there that have said that it didn’t live up to expectations. The exceptions however would be the mango and chorizo amuse bouche; The Monkfish with red onion, the red onion served as an intensly flavoured paper thin wafer; and ‘pigeon with shot’, the shot in this case being small silver balls holding vinegar. The rest of the family (yet again meaning Callum and Theo) were a bit divided about this one, saying that the vinegar completely overpowered the taste of everything else, but personally I thought it worked really well.
To quickly run through some of the other courses:
Fish mousse and rice cake amuse bouche was ok, but a bit bland.
King prawns with sweetcorn was again rather underwhelming with the prawns themselves failing taste of very much.
First dessert was called ‘strawberry bubbles’, but was in essence little more than an ordinary fruit salad with some bubbles created with nitrogen from something that tasted like little more than strawberry flavoured milk.
Toast with mango and coconut followed and was much better, although as with the amuse bouche, the plate it was served on was poorly thought out. Small ridges were dotted around at random on the plate meaning that scooping up food was very difficult.
I think ‘egg to chicken’ was the biggest disappointment for me though, as in principle I had high hopes for the dish. Various dehydrated elements (chicken skin, spinach) and a slow cooked egg yolk were presented, and then (a remarkably flavourless) chicken stock was poured over the whole thing at the table. The spinach flavour was non-existent once the stock was added, and the rest of the dish became little more than a rather messy soup.
Despite my negativity, I feel I should say that I felt a lot of the ideas had a lot of potential, and could be remedied easily enough (better scallops, better chicken stock etc), and although it’s not an excuse, it is worth mentioning that Ametsa is only in its second month, and it may just take a while for it to settle in.
The Arzaks had made it clear in interviews about the restaurant that rather than transferring the foods of the Basque region to London, the philosophy would be to apply their thinking and creativity to ingredients that could be sourced from England. An admirable idea, and so it was sort of disappointing that lots (though far from all) of Ametsa’s problems could have been lessened with better produce (the scallops we had and the king prawns spring to mind). And also, remove betcarotene from the menu. I don’t really know what to say about the stuff beyond why would I want to eat ‘a strongly-colored red-orange pigment abundant in plants and fruits’ that seems to taste of nothing and have an unpleasant texture.
I start Tante Marie today (or possibly tomorrow or yesterday depending on when I actually get round to pressing upload), so after that I’ll hope to update this every day or two with goings on from the Cordon Bleu course there.