Inamo restaurant review - Pan-Asian dining where playing with your food is encouraged
This isn't the first time I've been to Inamo. In fact, it's the third. So what's different about this time? This is the first visit I've made where I've had to pay with my own cash.
In my day job, I occasionally get taken to bars or restaurants or hotels that I'd never normally go to - and sometimes to places I'd never normally be able to afford to go to.
Such was the case with Inamo: on the first visit, I'd gone to the Soho branch for lunch a couple of years ago. At the time, it was a quiet cafe-style place that you could quite easily walk past without noticing.
Not so the case with the St James branch, which I visited shortly after it opened last winter. It's a riot of bamboo, mirrors and low lighting. On my first visit, again on someone else's coin, the restaurant was filled with hip kids with undershaved hair and ironic glasses - the kind of clientele you feel Inamo really wants. As I wasn't paying, I had full run of the menu and indulged in the cocktails. Highly recommended they are too.
On this visit, the best part of a year after it opened, Inamo St James has had a bit of time to bed down. The clientele this time around, one early Saturday evening in August, were not hip kids - they were mainly just kids, carted in by their tourist parents doing the Whitehall/St James Park/Regents Street trawl.
I'd decided to make a return visit to Inamo after seeing a LivingSocial deal that offered £40 of food and drink at the restaurant for £20. I was tempted back to see how the experience as a paying punter - and a thrifty one at that - compared to that of my last two visits when there were no pennies being counted.
It didn't start off too well - making the booking I was told by the receptionist that they'd need the table back after an hour and a half. Funny - I was under the impression that you gave the table back once you'd finished your food and drink. Of course restaurant estimate how long diners will spend, to allow them to know when to make their next bookings, but to be told in a rather brusque manner that a clock would be set for our visit was rather annoying. What would have happened if we were mid-way through pudding when the egg timer ran down? Would we have been bodily hauled away, spoons pulled from our mouths?
But enough of the griping - what's the place like?
It has a nice, nighclubby feel - aided by the dim lighting and rather too loud music, black granite and bamboo decor.
Its shtick however is its computerised tables: menus are projected down on to your table top, which you navigate by means of a circular area indented in the table which acts the same as the touchpad on your laptop: drag your finger across the indent to move your mouse and tap to select something.
Hover over an item on the menu and a photograph is projected onto the tabletop. If you like what you see, send your order to the kitchen - no waiter or waitress required.
It's a fun idea - made more fun by the extras included on the e-table system. You can change your 'tablecloth' by selecting a new image to be projected down onto your table - after browsing through a few, we settled on an picture of a sunset. You can also use the tabletop system to play games with other diners - battleships was rather fun until I lost - or watch the chef at work via Chefcam, or get information on nearby tube stations, cinemas or bars.
All good entertainment - but what about the food and drink?
I opted for the plum wine (Inamo is after all a pan-Asian restaurant) after being unable, rather disappointingly, to find a sake option for under £16. There was also a rather interestingly option of sparkling rose sake but at £22, it too was shunned - oh, where was that expense account when I needed it?<
My other half went for a glass of Malbec and had nothing but good words to say about it. My plum wine was adequate and, served with a ton of crushed ice, quickly became watery.
Being on a budget, both I and my other half had gone for the vegetarian set menu - a combination of vegetable tempura, agedashi tofu, edamame beans, rice and miso soup.
Did the tempura have egg in it or was it vegan? I couldn't tell you - the waiter-less ordering system doesn't make it easy to ask these questions. I swapped with my veggie other half just in case.
The agedashi tofu tasted of a chef a bit heavy handed on the cornflour but was as light and crisp as I'd hoped. According to my other half, the tempura, for the veggies out there, was nicely cooked and lifted by a dusting of togarashi chilli and salt. Some veggies were more successful than others - the sweet potato could have done with longer in the fryer, apparently - but all in all, a thumbs-up.
The miso was suprisingly good, ditto the rice - well cared-for side dishes are a good sign.
At the end of the meal, two set dinners and four glasses of wine consumed, we racked up a bill of around £45 including tip. Thanks to the LivingSocial deal, that took £25 out of our wallets.
At that price we couldn't complain - we left with happy stomachs and slightly fuzzy heads (Inamo, bless it, isn't stingy on its wine) and the sort of contentment that comes from have spent £12.50 on a decent meal that comes with a free side of battleships.
Without the LivingSocial voucher, however, it would have been a different story - if we hadn't opted for the set menus (only offered for a few hours each afternoon) we would have easily racked up a far higher bill - a l. And, at £45, I've had some nicer meals for the same price, and those without being needle by being told my table time would be metered.
At £45, I'll leave it to the tourists with money and hip kids and expense account diners.
But if there's another LivingSocial deal? I'd happily be back for a set menu or two. The wine and food are decent, and the tabletop system means that I can play (battleships) with my food with impunity. At £12.50 a pop, that's a bargain.