"Techno-meal has novelty value, but the food is decent"Review Rating: Reviewed by Matthew B
I nearly walked straight past the St James branch of Inamo. It’s pretty low key from the outside, which to my mind was a good thing and a change from your normal mini-chain that does everything it can to scream its presence to the passer-by. But taking its inspiration from Japan, and intending to be a ‘sanctuary from the city’, this spa-like exterior is appropriate.
Prodigious use of woods and bamboo throughout combined with the clean lines of the furniture gives an airy and modern feel, with a big nod to the tradition and emphasis on nature that you often get in Japan; there are water features and a vertical garden. It’s quite large, but doesn’t feel so as areas are separated by partition screens, with private dining spaces to boot. The necessity of overhead projectors for the ordering system has resulted in a nifty hi-tech honeycomb-like 3D ceiling.
Ah yes, the ordering system, or ‘E-table’ as it’s called. This is definitely Inamo’s selling point, and still a novelty in London. This is ordering for the iPod generation. An overheard screen beams onto your white table an ‘interactive ordering system’, whereby you can select and scroll through the various food and drink menus, selecting those items and dishes you wish to order. Then, as if by magic, your food will appear sometime later. Although Inamo haven’t quite managed to completely out the role of the waiting staff, they still need to prepare your food, mix your drinks and bring them to the table.
But if you like minimal human contact and like to order as you go along rather than in one go, then you may love the E-table system. On reflection, it was a little bit like a hi-tech version of a sushi bar with a conveyor belt, except you are looking at electronic pictures of your food rather than taking them directly off the parade trundling past your table.
Sounds great in theory then, but does it work? Basically yes, but it can be a bit fiddly. When our food started arriving the first plate was set down over where the menus were projected, so some re-jigging was required so we could continue to peruse and see the pretty photos of the dishes. And unlike a traditional card menu, where you can see everything, there was a certain amount of re-scrolling through all the menus to find a dish you liked the look of. ’Where was that cod dish again, was it a starter?’ scroll scroll.. ‘Oh hang on, there’s another three screens’ worth of mains that we haven’t seen!’…scroll scroll.
In addition there are settings you can tinker with, changing the ambient mood of your table; you can play a game of battleships, there’s a ‘chef cam’ and some fairly poor ‘what’s in the local area’ type maps. But ultimately, this gadgetry is all smoke and mirrors if the grub is not up to scratch.
We took advantage of a few of the new summer dishes available, selecting pork Fuji apple steamed dumplings, and sea bass and green mango sashimi from the small dishes menu. The pork and apple combo so beloved of an English roast dinner worked well in dumpling format, while the sashimi had a spicy zing whilst not overpowering the taste of the fish.
When dining ‘a deux’, these smaller dishes came in odd serving numbers, so if you are both equally hungry you may end up fighting over that fifth or third item on the plate. In fact, we didn’t choose anything from the mains menu at all, preferring to mix and match and a number of smaller plates. There was a such a lot to choose from it seemed a shame to restrict the selection to the mains, thereby overlooking the likes of the black cod, the most expensive thing on the card (£16.95) and signature dish at high-end joints such as Nobu.
One advantage of the ordering system is you can feel your way through your meal, rather than under or over-ordering on arrival. You can also keep tabs of your slowly escalating bill, handy if you tend to get carried away. With that in mind we added a few more bits: soft shell crab maki rolls had a touch of Captain Birds' Eye fish fingers about them, but in a good way. The most spicy dish was a Thai crispy beef and mango and coriander salad, perfect for getting a bit of a summer sweat on, proving that paradox of why hot countries often indulge in spicy cuisine.
Two of our favourite selections were sides; an unusual bamboo salad and an unexciting but well executed bok choi in oyster sauce. Asian desserts don’t normally do it for us but we were persuaded to try the sorbets, which were good and a decent foil to our imminent emergence from the cool air conditioned restaurant on to the streets (yes yes, it was a freakishly hot day).
There is also a dedicated bar area with an extensive cocktail list, many with an oriental slant. As it was hot I opted for a ‘Wasabi Cooler’, a gin-based long drink that was pretty feisty.
The menu is reasonably fish and seafood heavy, so if that’s not your bag this place might not be the best place for you. But there is enough choice for those preferring meat or vegetarian options. Prices are £5 and upwards for smaller dishes and around £13 for a main, so the bill can creep up if you’re not careful. Ours came to £58 for two including a cocktail each and a shared dessert; not excessive but it was a lunch visit and we didn’t gorge ourselves.
Whether the novelty will wear off only time will tell. As long as they serve decent food, this should ultimately see them through.
Matthew B reviewed Inamo on Tue 14 Aug 2012