Tuesday, 29 June 2021

INO Gastrobar, Soho

All the game-changing restaurants in recent London history have a certain thing in common. Watever culinary fireworks or technical expertise are on display over the course of the menu at large, there's usually one "wow" moment that grabs the imagination and writes the headlines, a single dish (or combination of dishes) that stands as a flagship symbol of everything the restaurant is about. Think about the West Coast burger aesthetic demonstrated by MeatLiquor's Dead Hippy, or the East-meets-West fusion genius of Dishoom's bacon naan. These things have rightly gone down in London food history, but crucially still stand as shorthand for the restaurant, encapsulated in one dish. They're also, most importantly, still on the menus to this day.

I got as far as the very first dish at INO Gastrobar when I began to get that long-forgotten feeling of being a part of something rather special. There have been plenty of exciting new restaurants in the last year or two - astonishingly, considering that most will have been closed for a good proportion of that and those that have opened are struggling with Covid-necessary social distancing, temporary shutdowns and Brexit-forced supply line issues - but through all this somehow the creative food types of the city still manage to adapt and improve, and take the restaurant experience to new and exciting places. And there are few places as exciting, right now, as INO Gastrobar.

The dish in question, by the way, is this. Called "Kakavia", it's part deeply flavoured, extravagantly buttery fish broth, part serving of top-quality seabass (I think) sashimi, and you are instructed to dip the raw fish into the soup one bit at a time, before finally polishing off the rest of the liquid with one satisfying gulp. It's obviously brilliant, both imaginitive and genuinely (at least to London eyes) innovative but also, despite the 'sashimi' element presentation, recognisably Greek, a deconstruction of a traditional fisherman's soup still holding true to the flavour profile of the inspiration whilst pushing in exciting new directions. This is how you should start any meal at INO Gastrobar.

From here on, it was clear that everything that came out of the kitchens would be exquisitely presented, and full of summer joy. Perhaps it was a little bit unimaginitive to go with two dishes both using the catch of the day, but this carpaccio was absolutely worth an order, with nice big thick slices of raw fish and topped with "Greek salad aromas", little chunks of feta, neatly sliced cherry tomato and dried oregano.

The house bread was "hand-stretched" pitta, a neat little thing with a nice smoky crust, seasoned with herbs and salt. It's strange - and often frustrating - that restaurants still regard breadmaking as some kind of ancilliary activity when it's something they'll be serving to 90% of their customers. I'm thinking particularly of even the most well-regarded ocakbasi in town that all get their cardboardy flatbread from the same supplier. But anyway, this was very good.

Tarama was superb, an arrangement of piped star shapes topped with salty bottarga and a slow-cooked yolk to bind it all together. With the warm pitta bread it made an irresistable combination, the roe soaking into the soft of the bread like fishy butter. It didn't last long.

Next a kind of broad bean mousse thing (sorry I'm pretty sure that's right) studded with an interesting collection of miniature onions (again...), various herbs and - wonderfully - chunks of chargrilled eel. Eel is a fish you rarely see outside of specialist Japanese and Chinese restaurants, so to see it presented like this, with confidence and care, in a Mediterranean context is quite thrilling. The "fava stifado" and the onions were lovely, definitely, but the star of this show was the eel, and as soon as it was finished I wanted to order it all over again.

Charred okra, tomato and feta was a little bonus from the kitchen and though perfectly pleasant, didn't really dazzle in the way that everything else had up to this point. You can't really go wrong with feta and tomatoes, but there's not really too much to get excited about here either. Still, appreciate the effort.

Seftalies were much more my kind of thing. Minced beef kebabs wrapped in caul, I had previously only read about these things in publications such as Pit Magazine and by chefs like Big Has so was delighted to finally get to sample them. They didn't disappoint - the beef was loose and richly flavoured, and a deft touch on the grill had got them bronzed without being charred, just the right texture.

The only dish I wouldn't order again is the "funky burger". It didn't really fit well on the menu, it was way too small a mouthful of food for £6, and - most importantly - it just didn't taste of much, not in the least bit "funky" and with a strange sausagey texture suggested it had been seasoned a while ago and left to sit.

But let's not dwell on that because "wild mushrooms" was yet another absolute triumph. Hen of the woods is one of the more remarkable foraged fungi available on these isles - dense and meaty, with a satisfying squeaky "bite", if it's not one of your favourite wild ingredients then you haven't tried it, simple as that. Here the natural faintly chicken-y flavour of the mushrooms were lifted by a lemon and oregano dressing, which gave the whole thing an entirely new dimension. This is a restaurant that knows good ingredients, and how to treat them.

For such ingredients, and the knowledge to make the most of them, you of course do pay. But with 4 glasses of wine between 2 people, a negroni, more than enough bewilderingly good food, a final price including (brilliant) service of £65pp is not anywhere near unreasonable. In fact, looking at the bill again now, I'd say I would have paid a lot more for that meal and it still would have felt like value. The amount of effort, and style, and skill that had gone into all the dishes was quite something to behold.

Halfway through the dinner it suddenly occurred to me where that weird niggling feeling was coming from as I tucked into the Kakavia earlier. It was that the fish broth, refined and complex and beautiful in its own way, reminded me of the beef soup at Bao back in the day, itself a minor work of art. Back then, in 2015, I'd suspected that this buzzy new restaurant was about to change everything about the way we thought about Taiwanese food, and in the end it sort of did. Here on Newburgh Street, with its similar attitude to sourcing and meticulous presentation of small plates for not very much money, INO Gastrobar is about to do the same for Greek. And it's about bloody time.


1 comment:

'tis me again said...

Another cool review. Keep em coming especially as I'm feeling safer about traveling. We have "Mambo" coming to town on Friday via uber cool "Exploding Bakery", can't wait :) I had a second visit to Core on my last visit to London , as expected amazing, but I cant drink like I used to (the wines were superb). The full wine tasting is no longer an option:)