Tom Vaughan speaks to the team behind the new opening
Juan Mari Arzak is going to be late for his plane. But even if it means a sprint at the airport, the chef-patron of the three-Michelin-starred Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain, is going nowhere until he's sure I've firmly grasped one point about his new restaurant. "We haven't decided to open something outside of San Sebastian," he insists. "This is a different set up. We are consulting here. There is one Arzak and it is in San Sebastian."
Consultancy, sister site, daughter site: whichever way you choose to look at it, the new restaurant at London's Halkin hotel - Ametsa with Arzak Instruction - has the Arzak name in it, which has been enough to have had tongues wagging ever since its opening was first rumoured last autumn (Caterer and Hotelkeeper, 26 October).
But then again, when it is backed by two chefs with the calibre of Juan Mari and his daughter, Elena - who runs Arzak with her father and is currently in Spain looking after the kitchen - it's only to be expected that people will look past the operational details and straight at the name.
The deal to open the 70-cover restaurant was struck between Arzak and Como Hotels, the Halkin's parent company, last autumn, replacing the hotel's former Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, Nahm.
Since then, it has been a swift turnaround, with the hospitality industry as excited as the dining public by the prospect of a foreign arm of Arzak. "All the people that had worked with us and who were around London called us to see if they could work with us here," says Juan Mari. "So, there you see, for us that has been fantastic because they are familiar with our style, our way of working and they are now with us."
Ametsa, it must be clarified, is to be run by Arzak Instruction - a five-strong consultancy team made up of Juan Mari, Elena and Arzak development chefs Igor Zalakain, Xabier Gutierrez and Mikel Sorazu. The consultancy was set up three years ago when the final piece in the jigsaw, Sorazu, became available.
"Mikel was chef de cuisine at a family-run restaurant called Txomin in San Sebastian for 20 years," says Juan Mari, who is joined by Zalakain, Gutierrez and Sorazu in the Halkin lobby for our ticking clock of an interview. "We were waiting for someone like this who could be part of the team and travel the world, and when Txomin closed because the family retired I then started Arzak Instruction with the knowledge that we would not be able to move a great deal from there [San Sebastian]. We have a lot of work [to do], we have to be very focused, and Mikel will be the one who can go out and about. We will put the menus together and he will come in and put it all into effect."
Zalakain nods and interjects: "Even if we had wanted to do something like this before, we didn't have the structure in place for it."
That was the logistical reason for Arzak Instruction coming together at this late stage in Juan Mari's career, but what of the motivation? The diminutive septuagenarian had been rather blunt about the incentives for opening abroad in an interview with London's Evening Standard newspaper earlier this year, claiming it was "money and legacy" that were the driving forces - part and parcel of his mischievous, outspoken personality. Speaking on the phone later, Elena - who is more the "linear perfectionist", in Juan Mari's words, and he the "anarchist who drives everyone crazy" - is quick to put the record straight: "If it were just for that we wouldn't be here. Luckily, we are motivated by many more things than money."
For a team that has hardly been short of offers to open abroad over the years, the Halkin's proposal was certainly the most appealing, explains Gutierrez: "We get two or three phone calls a week, from Miami or Los Angeles or wherever, but always we have said no. But the conditions here - the kitchen, the dining room - were just right for us."
So the Halkin's offer was the most appealing, but was it the most lucrative? "No, no!" answers Juan Mari, perhaps keen to make up for previous comments. "We've had great offers before but this one is a question of the heart rather than money. London is a magical city."
In a city full of large, multi-restaurant five-star hotels, the Halkin's intimacy was a large selling point, continues Juan Mari: "There are a lot of similarities between how Arzak and the Halkin are run. The Halkin is a small family business that shows a lot of attention to detail. It is a very good fit for that reason."
Elena describes Ametsa as a "bespoke suit for the Halkin hotel", part of her desire to also reinforce the differences between their San Sebastian and London sites, saying at different points that "Ametsa is Ametsa and Arzak is Arzak - they are completely different from one another," and: "We want to think about Ametsa as a separate entity. It's not Arzak. It's Ametsa, Arzak Instructions, the Halkin, Como Hotels."
New dishes The creative driving force for the menu will come from San Sebastian, where Juan Mari, Elena, Gutierrez and Zalakain will work up new dishes for Ametsa, after which Sorazu will ensure they are recreated precisely by head chef Sergio Sanz Blanco in London. Nothing will be transplanted from Spain - in fact, such a notion is impossible, says Juan Mari. "This is a signature cuisine, it is unique and can't exist anywhere else. It has Basque genes, Basque DNA, that is very important."
So will the food at Ametsa similarly take on the personality of its location - in this case, London? "The cuisine we have in Arzak will be different from here," says Juan Mari. "But Arzak is the root of it - it is where we live and where we think. When we come to England we have to think through the eyes of the English and look at what produce is available in the markets. Ninety per cent of what we use here is English."
I pick up the topic later with Elena, who explains that while the exact cuisine of Arzak can't travel, its roots can: "The first thing that we did when considering this project was to visit the markets in London to be sure that we would be able to find the raw materials we need and from there begin to conceive the menu design and the dishes. We have a lot of experience with English and other international clients in our restaurant and they like our style. The Basque palate is something that appeals to a wide range of people."
Early dishes include the idiosyncratically named "Changing squid" - parcels of squid wrapped in ink that vanishes when hot stock is poured over - and "Beef cheek with vanilla" - dense, giving portions of slow-cooked beef cheek, flavoured subtly with vanilla and presented with a confit potato designed to look like Swiss cheese. All of this comes in a minimalist space of white walls and furniture, grey blinds and a ceiling made up of test tubes of coloured spice undulating across the room.
These are early days and Juan Mari insists the food will evolve "in situ". Whatever personality it develops, Ametsa's arrival is a coup for both the Halkin and the London dining scene. Few chefs hold the aura of Juan Mari and Elena Arzak. Even their history is compelling. They are the third and fourth generations to run their San Sebastian restaurant - which was originally built by Juan Mari's grandparents as a house in 1897 - and the site has held three Michelin stars since 1989. For a restaurant with such longevity, it is all the more remarkable that it maintains its position at the vanguard of gastronomy, regularly cropping up in lists of the top 10 restaurants in the world. It is, in Juan Mari's words, "a research-based cuisine, an evolutionary cuisine and it's the cutting edge".
While Juan Mari was responsible for bringing the restaurant into the major league, these days it is Elena - a brilliant female in a male-dominated industry - in the limelight. She describes her working relationship with her father as a "tandem", but Juan Mari proves far more effusive on the subject: "Elena and I spend the whole day discussing and arguing, but we have never got cross with each other. The cuisine we have here today, without Elena it would also be nothing. We have a sort of connection between us, and we have been lucky enough to follow the same path, the same tastes and the same philosophy."
After a sly glance at his watch from Juan Mari it's clear that, in order to spare him that airport sprint, things need to be wrapped up pronto. Time for one more question: would the team be surprised if Ametsa became more celebrated than Arzak? Zalakain, Gutierrez and Sorazu all look at Juan Mari who puffs his cheeks then answers quickly: "It's going to be different so I wouldn't be surprised. It would be great for Ametsa to have its own personality."
And we say our goodbyes. I think he made his flight.
Scallops â¨in Olive Oil
For the juice of beta-carotene 250g carrot juice
50g olive oil
5g sherry vinegar
10g truffle juice
3g soy sauce
25g liquefied tomato
Reduce carrot juice to 100g then leave to cool.
When the juice has cooled, add all the remaining ingredients together cold. Season and set aside.
For the scallops 3 medium-sized scallops per person
Clove of garlic
Season the scallop with the garlic clove and a pinch of chopped parsley. Heat a pan with a dash of olive oil. When hot, add the scallops and sear on both sides.
For the beta-carotene sheet 200g beta-carotene carrot juice
Mix both ingredients, boil and then spread very thinly on to a tray. Once it has gelled, cut in sheets of 12cm â¨x 12 cm. Store them on parchment paper until use.
For the salad and vinaigrette (Enough for eight)
50g groundnut oil
8g sherry vinegar
15g truffle oil
3g sesame oil
Red chard, tatsoi, arugula sprouts, mustard sprouts, shiso sprouts, purple shiso sprouts, salt, black â¨pepper
To prepare the vinaigrette, mix cold groundnut oil, sesame seeds, vinegar, truffle juice, salt and â¨pepper.
Dress, at the last moment, a pinch of each of the plants that make up the salad.
Ametsa with Arzak InstructionOpened 8 March
Consultancy team Juan Mari Arzak, Elena Arzak, Igor Zalakain Xabier, Gutierrez and Mikel Sorazu
Chef de cuisine â¨Sergio Sanz Blanco
Example dishes Scallops with betacarotene; Changing squid; From egg to hen; Unexpected Dover sole; Beef cheek with vanilla; Basque toast with mango and coconut; Moon stones
Price £105 for the tasting menu; £60 Á la carte
Address Halkin St, SW1X 7DJ
Telephone 020 7333 1234