Dining in London, but at Elena Arzak’s

A visit to the restaurant the Basque chef opened at The Halkin, where Gualtiero Marchesi and David Thompson cooked once

04-01-2017

A visit to Ametsa by Arzak Instruction, the restaurant Juan Mari and Elena Arzak opened inside the beautiful The Halkin five star luxury hotel in London, part of Como Hotels. Here’s our story, discovering a delicious Basque cuisine that here speaks a little English too...

First of all: those who, like me, have always been complaining about the lack of a high quality Italian chain of hotels, should not delude themselves: Como Hotels, a top range hôtellerie giant, with 14 palaces scattered between London and Bhutan, Indonesia and Miami, Australia and the Maldives, has nothing to do with the Italian town. Como is acronym that stands for its owners Christina Ong and Melissa Ong, mother and daughter from Singapore.

Second: according to the legend, Como Hotels was born when Christina Ong’s husband gave her (born in 1948) the first five star hotel as a birthday gift. Hard to tell if it’s true. For sure Christina Ong, equally elegant and reserved, is considered one of the richest and most powerful women on the planet: they call her the Queen of Bond Street (given how many properties she owns there). According to Forbes, in January 2016 her estimated net worth was 1.9 million dollars. Thanks to her connection with the Italian fashion industry, she was given the Italian Fashion Hall of Fame Award in 1995 and she’s even a Cavaliere del Lavoro della Repubblica, since 1990. In other words, chapeau.

Inside the beautiful restaurant

Inside the beautiful restaurant

Third: the two Ong ladies wanted the restaurant offer in their hotels in London –The Halkin and Metropolitan – to be no less so. At Metropolitan they created the first Nobu restaurant in Europe, which still works at full speed. At The Halkin, which most people consider the most elegant, exclusive and discreet hotel in town, there’s Ametsa, the only restaurant signed by Elena Arzak outside San Sebastian. Three Michelin stars non-stop in the Basque Country since 1989, one in the British metropolis, where the executive chef is Catalan Sergi Sanz Blanco, 37.

This is the story we’re about to tell, focused on the food, of course, but with a dutiful premise. The Halkin, in a calm road off Hyde Park Corner, a stone’s throw away from Knightsbridge and Mayfair, surrounded by the Belgravia embassies, has an impeccable Georgian facade, with bricks, Portland stone and arched windows. The interior, however, is contemporary Italian design from 1991, when the hotel opened, designed by a Milanese firm of architect, Laboratorio Associati, with a mural by painter Valentino Vago dominating the ceiling in the hall. Plus Giorgio Armani had a share in the hotel for many years. Even the kitchen spoke Italian at first: The Halkin used to be Gualtiero Marchesi’s London home; he signed the restaurant’s menu at the time – during the Nineties. The name was in fact Gualtiero Marchesi at The Halkin. Then, once the maestro’s consultancy finished, it was the turn of Stefano Cavallini who kept the Italian star they had already received, until a turning point: from 2001 to 2012, the kitchen was run by David Thompson with his Nahm, confirming the Michelin star and thus conquering the first laurels for Thai cuisine ever (now Nahm is in Bangkok, at Como Hotel’s Metropolitan. It was 37th in the 50 Best 2016, the eighth in Asia, after a third place in 2013).

Sergio Sanz Blanco, the executive chef at Ametsa (which means "dream" in Basque)

Sergio Sanz Blanco, the executive chef at Ametsa (which means "dream" in Basque)

For almost four years now, the debut was in February 2013, a third language has been dominating the kitchen at The Halking, after Italian and Thai: Spanish – or Basque, if you prefer. Which confirms the globetrotter soul of the Ong ladies. Ametsa by Arzak Instruction, the first and only restaurant by Elena and Juan Mari Arzak aside from the historic one in San Sebastian was thus born (read our interview here). The star was immediately confirmed.

As we mentioned earlier, there’s talented Sergi Sanz Blanco in the kitchen. He grew up in Barcelona though his father is Castilian and his mother Galician, and his training includes Ferran Adrià and Fermi Puig, while he’s now committed in enriching his profile – which is basically a mix of all of Spain – with the influence of the iconic Basque family, though in London.

At The Halkin they made a reasonable choice of offering a sort of summa of Iberian cuisine, but with a British appearance. Some time ago Sanz pointed out: «In Spain vegetables are in season for longer and there’s more choice. But here, for instance, game is fantastic. Like wood grouse, delicious and not too expensive; it’s a top range product and I can find it easily – this was a great surprise, I don’t have to fight with suppliers. Fish changes a lot, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s less so, but in general I’m very happy and always try to adapt to the market. If I don’t find a proper sea bass, I buy cod».

Two more dishes from Ametsa: Bacalao y Pétalos de Ajo and Presa Ibérica en Ascuas

Two more dishes from Ametsa: Bacalao y Pétalos de Ajo and Presa Ibérica en Ascuas

Our tasting confirms Arzak made the right choice in terms of style and Sanz’s skill: Kataifi con Pastel de Cabracho, a sort of rockfish pudding that can be enjoyed in all the regions overlooking the Sea of Cantabria, of which Juan Mari Arzak has always been a tireless promoter, was excellent; then came Tubos de Ensayo Ibérico, where “tubos de ensayo” literally means test tubes – they’re like small cannoli filled with fantastic Spanish ham; the Donut’s Sardina was a delicious Anglo-Iberian crossover.

The entrée was the beautiful and delicious Huevo Enhojado, egg in a leaf, classic Arzak technique, see the video. The Bacalao y Pétalos de Ajo, salted cod with garlic petals, was good, but what was truly fabulous – even just for the pork of the highest quality – was the Presa Ibérica en Ascuas, where ascuas means embers, cooked raw. A fair end with the Pan de Naranja y Espinacas, a sort of orange and spinach toast.


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