Scallops with beta-carotene

The culinary heart of The Halkin Hotel in London’s well-heeled Belgravia, Michelin-starred Ametsa with Arzak Instruction showcases inventive New Basque fare amid clinical décor, says Jonny Payne.

First impressions

Immediately after entering the low-key lobby of The Halkin Hotel, I’m led through a perforated wooden door that’s reminiscent of a large-scale pegboard from an OAP’s shed. As I’m directed to my table in the far corner, I pass underneath 7,000 ‘test tubes’ filled with the yellows, browns and reds of spices. But the ochre colouring of the ceiling and the woody tones of the oak floor draw my gaze between, to the starkness of the white tablecloths, white mesh chairs and white walls – it conjures up not too fond memories of school science labs, and with it lung dissection, unfathomable chemical equations and oversized white coats.

Ametsa entranceEnter through Ametsa's intriguing doorway in The Halkin Hotel
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From my table in the corner, the whole room is in front of me. To the right are banquettes with strips of red leather; in the middle are round tables seating four to six; and in front are tables for two. The windows are covered with blinds, causing mild claustrophobia from where we are – as my partner immediately notes, having to face a white wall ahead and a white blind to the right. I peek outside, and although fairly dark, there is a garden that would provide a welcome diversion if lit.

As its rather long and uninspiring name suggests, the restaurant is under the tutelage of the Arzak family; a dynasty that’s helped to elevate San Sebastian to one of the world’s foodie capitals with their New Basque cuisine offering at Arzak. Heading the ‘instruction’ is Elena (Veuve Clicquot female chef of the year for 2012, no less); while her three Michelin-starred father Juan Mari also lends his expertise – both apparently pop in from time to time to keep an eye on things.

Ideal for…

Visitors and locals looking for inventive Basque fare without having to shell out for a trip to San Sebastián. It also suits those in search of cutting-edge cuisine without complete immersion in molecular gastronomy.

Ametsa roomSit beneath thousands of spice-filled tubes
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The restaurant’s lack of intimacy would not suit a first date, but it’s certainly a place to impress on a special occasion. It’s also definitely not somewhere to take the kids – the complexity of the dishes would be lost on the little ones, plus you may need to remortgage.

Best table?

If in a party of three, four or a couple, snag one of the banquette tables that have mirrors above and a slightly warmer feel. Or, if in a larger group, aim for the round table in the middle, farthest from the entrance.

The food

We opt for the tasting menu with a wine pairing as we’re told it showcases the best range of cooking from the ‘Arzak school’. However, dishes among the à la carte options, such as lamb with macchiato (£32), also sound very tempting.

We’re soon served a quartet of appetisers: soft chorizo with mango that comes shrouded in dry ice; oaky Ibérico ham; crisp, wing-like rice flakes emerging from a body of rich salted fish mousse; and kataifi with scorpion fishcake on a lollipop stick. The latter is by far the best. Balanced on what looks like an artsy clamp stand, the light, Shredded-Wheat-like kataifi gives way to the wonderfully soft and pungent scorpion fish filling.

Ametsa startersInventive appetisers set the tone for the tasting menu
WTG / Jonny Payne

The waiter takes time to explain the starters as they arrive. First, we’re served juicy Scottish scallops with gelatinous beta-carotene, and then king prawns with a delicious sweetcorn sauce. But the highlight is the cleverly named From Egg to Chicken. A near translucent egg that has been blanched for 30 minutes wobbles below a thin film of seaweed. Underneath is a swipe of mojo (green sauce made from garlic and herbs) and tiny pieces of chicken skin. A chicken broth is poured on top and I’m recommended to mix it all together gently, which creates deliciously different taste combinations with every spoonful – each with a lovely lingering saltiness.

This leads nicely to the first main course of melt-in-the-mouth monkfish served in generous chunks. These sit alongside dehydrated onion that looks like a crumpled piece of bright orange tissue paper – positioned as if we’re supposed to wrap the fish as a gift. Deliciously sweet, the onion clings to my mouth adding a tang to each bite. This contrasts with the side dish of shallots cooked in beetroot juice that are limp and lacking in flavour.

Ametsa mainsSample pigeon with 'shot' and monkfish with dehydrated onion
WTG / Jonny Payne

The standout for me is undoubtedly pigeon with ‘shot’. Two tender pieces of pigeon breast are dribbled in a rich pigeon jus. Alongside, are individual balls of potato, butternut squash, and a sublime mix of silver powder and vinegar that unleashes a sweet and sour explosion as it bursts in your mouth.

After a pre-dessert of ‘moon rocks’ (chunks of chocolate filled with a zingy orange liquid), the desserts arrive. A bubbling strawberry milkshake served over caramelised fruit is nice but not noteworthy, but the French toast with mango and coconut is delicious. The small piece of brioche has been soaked for 24 hours in vanilla and cream, covered in mango that has been lightly caramelised, and served with a sumptuous coconut cream.

The drinks

The Spanish sommelier is very approachable and explains each wine in detail. Unsurprisingly, given the homage the Arzaks pay to their homeland through their cuisine, each of the paired wines is from Spain. But there is also a good selection of French, Italian and New World options on the extensive wine list.

Among the best we taste are the light Raventós i Blanc de Nit 2010 cava, the wonderfully dry La Gitana Hidalgo manzanilla (Spanish cherry) and the robust Pétalos de El Bierzo 2010 that works particularly well with the gamey juices of the pigeon.


Ametsa moon rocksTry the signature 'moon rocks' dipped in sesame 'sand'
WTG / Jonny Payne

Accommodation and restaurant packages are available: The Ametsa Experience at The Halkin Hotel includes a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar, tasting menu, an overnight stay and breakfast (from £690 per night including VAT for two people sharing a Deluxe Room). Private dining is available for up to 30 guests.


The Halkin Hotel by COMO,
Halkin Street,
London SW1X 7DJ,
United Kingdom
Tel: (020) 7333 1234.
Prices: Seven-course tasting menu plus appetisers: £105 (£145 with wine pairing). À la carte: around £100 per head for three courses.

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