Every dish ’ beautiful-looking plates of decorative food – all have merged into one in my mind. Very little stood out
Last week’s sensual awakening, that revelatory eating experience, that game-changing dinner at El Celler de Can Roca had me, you may recall, performing a reverse ferret, an about-turn – change, but not for the sake of change – on my view of tasting menus.
The Mohammed of my food criticism was taken to the mountain of Girona. And such was the momentous success of it all that I ceased my battles against tasting menus and, while I was in that forgiving spirit, ended my ban on morris dancing and called for an amnesty on chocolate orange.
So it was a slight coincidence that this week another foodie mountain actually came to Mohammed. El Celler de Can Roca is just one of a smattering of ground-breaking and celebrated Spanish restaurants credited for starting the molecular gastronomical revolution. As Tony Turnbull noted in The Times this week: ‘Half a dozen restaurants in the northern regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country have come to dominate the world stage.’
El Cellar is one of them, Akelare is another (in San Sebastian), as is its neighbour Arzak. The latter is run by a man feted in Spain, if not the world, called Juan Mari Arzak and this week he opened a restaurant in the Halkin Hotel in Belgravia, a mere hop over the wall of the Buckingham Palace garden.
It has a name that doesn’t exactly trip of the tongue: Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, sounding like they’ve put the original Spanish through Google translation tools – going through Portugese, then into Greek, back out in Hungarian and then into English (try it one day with something you’ve written, it’s an amusing game for a rainy day).
Pictured above: The dining room of Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at the Halkin Hotel
So this was my opportunity to try the food of another Spanish legend. And my opportunity to have a tasting menu – this time with around ten dishes.
AND IF I’M honest I can barely remember any of them and that’s not because I don’t speak or read Spanish. It’s just that every dish – beautiful-looking plates of decorative food – all have merged into one in my mind. Very little stood out.
When the helpful, keen bright and happy waitress told us to expect ‘explosions in the mouth’ they just didn’t happen. The red skin sardines, with the deepest, blood red colour, a real work of art, didn’t taste much different to the green and black mackerel.
It all just looked and tasted too similar, there was no punch, no amazing flavour moments, nothing to write home about. The room was always dull when Nahm was here: it was still boring, with just a load of upside-down dildos installed on the ceiling.
Pictured above: A colourful dish from Ametsa with Arzak Instruction
Perhaps some magic disappeared on the way from Spain. Every dish looked perfect, was presented with confident aplomb and no doubt was crafted with great expertise in the kitchen, it just didn’t taste of anything.
At least the Albarino was delicious, the table really comfortable and the bread was good. I can remember the bread: big crusty, chunky and fresh. But I spoke about that aspect of tasting menu last week.
PERHAPS I CAN go back and have a three-course dinner that has flavours I can rave about. I’d hate to write this place off so early given the extraordinary reputation it comes with.
There was a great deal more satisfaction with the simply perfect scrambled eggs and smoked salmon that I ate at Fortnum and Mason’s Fountain restaurant the following morning. So often scrambled eggs are disastrous when ordered away from my own kitchen, but not this time.
And to be frank I don’t think I deserved an amazing dinner at Arzak, because the lunch I had eaten at the Jugged Hare in Barbican was so good, maybe I’d had enough luck this week.
Their home-smoked, chunky salmon was rich, flaky perfection, their dressed whole crab creamy, utterly faultless. Monkfish with caviar and cockles so deeply delicious. And my mouth didn’t just feel full of butter and nothing else as it had at Arzak.
Pictured above: The dining room at the Jugged Hare in Barbican
If you haven’t tried the Jugged Hare, go now. It’s a meat lover’s heaven – especially when they do their Friday suckling pig special – and for part-time Lent-only veggies like me, their fish is so expertly cooked that I could happily avoid meat for ever.
Now I’m sure the techniques used at Arzak are horribly complicated and involve such skill – freeze drying ingredients, using scientific methods to create powders or transparent yolks, but if it doesn’t taste of anything what’s the point?
So away with tasting menus, morris dancers can no more sleep safely and chocolate – stay the hell away from orange.
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