Once upon a time, my social media feed was a delightful mix of cat photos, baby photos, and witty status updates.
These were the halcyon days – the days before Facebook and the like became little more than a means to batter people over the head with smug updates about what you eat, where you eat it and – crucially – photographic evidence to boot, just in case they were doubting your good fortune. Add a vintage filter of some sort, a hashtag or two, and hey presto! The world can marvel at your on-trend, hipster dining habits.
Of course, I’m guilty as hell of all the above. As a food writer it seems to come with the territory, and I do make a concerted effort to break the monotony with a cat picture every once in a while. But I feel as though there’s really very little need to actively encourage such pursuits, especially in the presence of other diners more focused on actually eating their food than they are preserving it on camera to ‘hashtag’ later. So when I heard West-End ‘fusion’ restaurant Inamo were using their tables (yes, more on that in just a tick) to browbeat diners into participating in this irksome trend, I’m honest enough to admit our relationship was already getting off onto the wrong foot.
As I arrived at the St. James branch of the restaurant, cold, wet and desperate for a stiff drink, I was prepared to put my reservations aside. Besides, the crowd looked reassuringly normal – this place is no hipster playground. Instead, a casual cross section of your typical West End demographic (suits, tourists and Time Out readers) half-filled the tables, and the interior was pale and clean: no industrial lighting or salvaged furniture in sight. Concerns assuaged, my companion and I installed ourselves at the bar and settled down to the serious business of procuring a drink. A cursory glance at the cocktail menu left me, simply, bewildered. The drinks list was more TGI Fridays than chic Pan-Asian joint, and I was at a loss to work out how anywhere could charge £10.50 for a cocktail that proudly lists Smirnoff Red as its primary liquor. Ever dedicated, I ordered it, anxious to discern something in the glass that could justify the price tag. Sadly, I can say, it remained nothing more than an overpriced, oversweet disco drink. I hoped for better things with the ‘Inamo.’ Surely the brand’s flagship cocktail would have more to offer? Toted as ‘VERY spicy,’ the capitalisation spiked my hopes. I’m a chilli-whore, and hold any union of hard spirit, chilli and lime in much the same way as I do salt and caramel, a coupling of culinary genius, if ever there was one. So, this should have been a safe bet; as far as I was concerned, anything with a kick would have kept me happy. Alas, nada. Not even a tickle. And keen to establish that my palate hadn’t been wrecked by years of Scoville-abuse, I asked my more timid friend to sup on it too, and we agreed: this was mild enough to offer to a two year old, assuming you have no moral objections to supplying a two year old with alcohol. However, all of this is entirely besides the point, because the one thing you really ought to know about this particular cocktail is that it had a bloody great lump of spring onion in it. I consider myself quite familiar with the quirks of molecular mixology and have, over the years, sampled some truly bizarre cocktails. But none that have come adorned with slices of spring onion. It certainly provided an interesting element to the drink, and I’m prepared to say – tenuously – that it wasn’t that bad. If you’d rather play it safe with a nice bottle of wine, then come on pay day. Most hover somewhere around the £30 mark.
To serve Asian food in this neck of the woods, you have to be exceptional or cheap. For anyone other than the most clueless of tourists, there is no easily forgivable middle ground. On the whole, the food was half decent, but with a couple of spectacular screw-ups: the baby pork ribs were pleasant, if a little dry, and the nigiri selection was delightfully delicate. The cod tartare was exceptional, and swiftly ordered in duplicate. You’d think the salmon and tuna sashimi would be tricky to cock up (given the lack of cooking involved), and once I’d liberated them from the nuclear, stroke-inducing smears of wasabi paste they’d been coated in, I could actually taste the clean, fresh fish I’d been looking forward to. I like wasabi immensely, but it really is a ‘less is more’ kind of ingredient.
The Berkshire Pork Neck was hugely disappointing. It was probably my fault; I’d harboured such high hopes for the slow-braised, chocolate and chilli-laced dish that came in at a rather hefty £14.50 (‘hefty’ when you consider we were advised by our waiter to have two ‘larger dishes’ per person). It was bone dry – an achievement, given the beautiful marbling of fat that runs through the cut – and coated in a gloopy, over-reduced sauce in which I could discern very little in the way of chocolate or chilli. Just sugar, or molasses. My impressions of the dish were no doubt compounded by the fact that it took nearly an hour to reach the table. The death knell for the food was probably sounded by the arrival of the Malaysian-Spiced Noodles, which tasted of… nothing. Literally, nothing. Except perhaps coconut milk. There was no whiff of spice (Malaysian or otherwise), and the noodles had been boiled to the point that they barely managed to make it to my mouth, before disintegrating entirely into a tasteless grey pulp. Frankly, it all made me quite sad, especially when I caught myself thinking wistfully about the shellfish noodle broth on offer just around the corner at Old 1997s.
However the last word on the restaurant really ought to go to the touch-screen tables. They are, presumably, the gimmick upon which Inamo are relying on to mark themselves out from the hundred or so Asian joints within a mile radius. I do enjoy a waiter, but only when they’re charismatic and efficient. So at the very least these guys are removing any danger of disappointment on that front. And as much as I wanted to detest this complicated, interactive furniture, I actually found the tables rather novel. Fun. And very, very dangerous. You can order on a whim, and before you have the chance to forgo the ill-considered third portion of soft-shell maki- whoops! It’s here, along with that second bottle of thirty quid wine you accidentally ordered with your elbow. But there’s a whole host of other things you can do with your tabletop besides racking up a crippling bill… you can change the ‘wallpaper’ to something that reminds you more of the Spring we seem to have been cheated of (I chose Hyacinths), you can visit the ‘What’s Next’ application- a handy interactive map with local points of interest, and if you’re feeling particularly brave, you can watch the ‘Chef Cam.’ As someone who spent years working in a busy restaurant kitchen, the very idea gave me the sweats. But there’s no ten-second rule here, just a few comedic dance routines from the kitchen porter. There are, of course, games to be played too and, had I brought my husband, I would have grown quite resentful as the evening had progressed. They all seemed to be single-player, and a sure-fire way to kill off any danger of a romantic dinner for two. Luckily, I brought along a girlfriend well-versed in the art of conversation, not one-player Pac Man.
So, a game of two halves, I suppose. And if it seems as though my views on the food come as somewhat of an afterthought, then perhaps that’s because the food itself seems to be, too. And so long as it’s photogenic (it was), what does it matter? Inamo is a gimmick to the last- but I’ve endured worse. Besides which, I’m quite fond of Pac Man…
For more information on Inamo restaurant click here
words Aimee Hunt