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London becomes world’s culinary capital

The UK capital has become the city of choice for some of the world’s finest restaurateurs, from Juan Mari Arzak to Keith McNally, to launch their first ventures abroad.

Juan Mari (far right) and Elena Arzak and their team at Ametsa

WHILE MANY of us are still feeling the pinch, London is swiftly emerging as the culinary capital of the world, and the city of choice for acclaimed international restaurateurs looking to start their first franchise abroad. In the past six months, three of the world’s most highly regarded restaurateurs from different corners of the globe have announced London ventures. Self-proclaimed “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung opened Bo London in Mayfair in October, while London-born, New York- based restaurateur Keith McNally opened the hotly anticipated all-day brasserie Balthazar London in Covent Garden last month, and this month sees the arrival of father and daughter duo, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak’s London outpost Ametsa at The Halkin hotel in Belgravia.

Already the holder of two Michelin stars at his Bo Innovation flagship in Hong Kong, Brixton-born Leung’s desire to extend his Bo brand to London has been bubbling away for nine years. His dream finally came into fruition last October, when £1 million venture, Bo London, opened its doors on Mill Street in London’s affluent Mayfair district, which is proving bulletproof from the recession. Going against the grain of the casual dining trend currently gripping the capital, Bo London is geared around fine dining, but with a signature Leung twist. Shunning the terms “molecular” and “fusion food”, Leung is a pioneer of “X-treme Chinese Cuisine”. While inspired and informed by centuries-old Chinese recipes, Bo London’s dishes are exciting, exotic and envelope pushing in the extreme.


Bed & Breakfast Bo style

Headlining on the menu are creations like Dead Garden, made with morels, green onion, lime and caterpillar fungus, and Cloud, featuring black sesame, ponzu, mackerel, ginger and rose. In a hat tip to both his British roots and Bo’s London location is Bed and Breakfast, crafted from smoked quail egg, crispy taro nest and oscietra caviar.

Proving fine dining and a sense of humour are not mutually exclusive; Leung also offers Sex on the Beach as his signature dessert. Composed of an edible pink condom made from tapioca and yam filled with a white fluid made from a mixture of honey and ham lying on a bed of sand made from powdered shiitake mushrooms, with each pudding purchased a donation is made to Elton John’s AIDS foundation.

Meanwhile, Bethnal Green-born father of five Keith McNally’s long-awaited Balthazar London finally opened its doors in the Flower Cellars building in the old Theatre Museum next to Covent Garden Piazza last month. Originally used as a storage space for Covent Garden’s flower sellers in the late 19th century, in keeping with the zeitgeist, Balthazar London offers all-day dining in a relaxed, informal, French brasserie-inspired setting dotted with antique furniture sourced by McNally. The original Balthazar opened in Spring Street in downtown New York in 1997.

Focused on providing exemplary service and an appealing menu of French brasserie classics, Balthazar quickly became a destination bistro frequented by the likes of director Woody Allen and novelist Jay McInerney. Rather than deviate from a winning formula, McNally intends to keep Balthazar London as true to the original as possible. Taking an egalitarian approach, Balthazar offers breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and brunch at the weekend with signature dish steak frites with béarnaise sauce making it across the pond. In addition is an abundance of fruits de mer and classic bistro dishes such as French onion soup, foie gras terrine, steak tartare and moules frites.

New York restaurateur Keith McNally
New York restaurateur Keith McNally. Credit: Eric Ray Davidson

As with McNally’s New York flagship, the 150-seater Balthazar London will boast a boulangerie next door offering freshly baked breads, homemade pastries, salads and sandwiches to go. That McNally turned down million-dollar offers to open elsewhere in the States, including at the famous Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, choosing instead to open his second branch of Balthazar in London, speaks volumes about the elevated position the city has raised itself to on the international culinary map.

Having moved with his family to the capital three years ago, the idea for Balthazar London came about when UK restaurant giant Richard Caring, owner of the Caprice group, which boasts Le Caprice, The Ivy, J. Sheekey and Scott’s in its portfolio, approached McNally about Balthazar after beating The Wolselely owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King to the desirable Theatre Museum site. Flattered by the offer, after much coercing, McNally eventually said yes.

While Bo London is something of a lone star focused on pushing the creative boundaries of Chinese cuisine, Balthazar London is entering a saturated market with its brasserie approach, and will have to compete with the likes of Corbin and King’s Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly, the Delaunay in Covent Garden and Café Colbert in Sloane Square. In a recent interview with GQ magazine, McNally was candid about the competition he faces for business: “It’s a big concern, and I’m not sure it’s going to work.

I’m not sure people are going to see it as anything but a reproduction of something that already exists in London,” he admitted, adding, “If it doesn’t work I’d feel quite humiliated.” Despite his concerns, McNally’s English roots and London base coupled with London’s thirst for casual dining outlets will surely stand him in good stead. His main aim for Balthazar is to create somewhere with a palpable buzz and sense of excitement mirroring the electric atmosphere of his New York original. Rather than overseeing the site remotely, McNally will be actively involved in Balthazar London’s evolution and has no plans to expand further at this point, despite a flurry of rumours suggesting otherwise.


Along with Balthazar, also getting us drooling in anticipation are the culinary world’s finest father and daughter duo, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, with the opening of their first franchise outside of Spain, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, a sister site to their eponymous, three Michelin-starred San Sebastián original, Arzak. Set to open at The Halkin hotel in Belgravia on 8 March, Ametsa, which means “dream” in Basque, will replace former Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Nahm, the first Thai restaurant outside of Thailand to gain a Michelin star, which opened at The Halkin in 2000.

Lobster at Ametsa
Lobster at Ametsa

Joining 70-year-old Juan Mari and 43- year-old mother of two Elena, who was voted the world’s best female chef at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards last year, will be a trio of experienced chefs from Arzak: Mikel Sorazu, Igor Zalakain and Xabier Gutierrez. “It’s a dream to open a kitchen beyond our frontiers and an exciting development for us,” says Elena. Ametsa’s approach will be rooted in the traditions of “New Basque” cuisine, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients from the land and the sea.

Arzak has remained in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the past seven years, having held onto its three Michelin stars every year since 1989. The restaurant’s roots run deep – the Arzak family has been serving food at the same site since 1897, and third generation Juan Mari is credited with inspiring Ferran Adrià of El Bulli’s signature style, dubbed, much to his dislike, “molecular gastronomy”. Using a number of similar cooking techniques, from smoking to liquid nitrogen, Arzak’s dishes are more recognisably food than Adrià’s: the meat looks like meat and the fish reassuringly like fish.

Juan Mari is blunt about his reason for opening Arzak’s first foreign venture in London: “To capitalise on our brand and make more money,” he says. Elena, meanwhile, takes a more romantic view. “I’m very fond of London. I had my first professional training at Le Gavroche in 1989 and have been back as a tourist more times than I can count. I love how cosmopolitan the city is and yet how it preserves clearly defined brushstrokes of Englishness. I love the mix of ancient and modern,” she enthuses. A major reason why the pair chose London was the city’s openness to cuisines from all over the world.

Bo London Alvin Leung
Self-styled “demon chef” Alvin Leung

Drawn to The Halkin’s boutique size and affluent location, before teaming up with Como, the hotel group that owns The Halkin, along with hotels in Bangkok, the Maldives and Bali, both Juan Mari and Elena wanted to make sure the company was as serious about quality and attention to detail as they were.

Holding up their end of the bargain, during research trips to the capital, the duo’s three assistant chefs paid visits to every major London market, from Borough and Brixton to Smithfield and Leadenhall, and were pleased with the freshness, quality and diversity of the produce they found.

“Ametsa will develop its own personality over time. The cuisine of Arzak in San Sebastián can’t travel, so Ametsa will have to work to create its own style,” says Elena, who cites her father as her greatest inspiration.

While Ametsa will very much have its own identity, in homage to Arzak, dishes will be modern in execution and made from locally sourced ingredients, offering diners painterly plates with a sense of fun, brightened by the use of edible flowers and other similarly vivid garnishes. “As at Arzak, at Ametsa we are keen to build a dialogue with the diner,” Elena explains.

On the wine front, on going to press the finishing touches had yet to be made to the wine list, but Spanish sommelier Alvaro Prieto Martín hinted that the selection would be heavily weighted towards France and Spain. Unlike McNally, both Juan Mari and Elena will remain based at Arzak and consult for Ametsa, visiting often and observing the kitchen with an eagle eye. All of Ametsa’s dishes will be created in a laboratory kitchen at Arzak, with half of Ametsa’s Spanish- dominant workforce expected to be Arzak alumni.

While both Juan Mari and Elena are keen to brush off talk of Michelin stars, with their combined expertise, their success in San Sebastián is sure to be repeated in London, shining a spotlight on the capital.

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