So far, I’ve spent most of my year lurking happily in London’s proliferation of Prohibition-style bars, so it was nigh upon surreal to step into the glowing, neon landscape that is Inamo St James. I use the word landscape advisedly, as with brightly lit clumps of bamboo and a garden growing up the back wall there is a pronounced outdoorsy feel to the design.
This is the second branch of the oriental fusion restaurant and although the menu is more or less the same as the original in Wardour Street, it differs considerably in decor. The main change is that the bar area seems very much part of the restaurant and unless you can bagsy a bar stool, its seating hardly encourages a prolonged stay (see photo above).
Which is a shame as the drinks list is certainly worth staying for, even if it errs a little on the fruity side. On my first visit we had a Tokiwa (Tokiwa rice Shochu, lychee juice, lychee liqueur, passion fruit, Kings Ginger) and Eden Gimlet (fresh strawberries, Tanqueray gin, St Germain, lime cordial, twist of orange). The Tokiwa was one of the nicest lychee concoctions ever to pass my lips but I found the Eden heavy on the girly flavour and light on the liquor (which was perhaps the point).
As we were also dining, we then moved on to Inamo Mules (Kiwi and lime muddled with Santa Teresa Claro Rum, Japanese syrup and ginger beer) which went very well with our meal. This is not a food blog so I won’t go into details but the dishes we ordered were all good especially the kelp marinated sea bass and oysters with lemon ponzu, fresh kizame wasabi and spicy tobiko.
I’d heard this place can get very expensive but not being overly hungry we ordered only a few small portions of sashimi and sushi each. This kept the bill from being too prohibitive especially as we ended up too full to try any of the (ridiculously) pretty desserts. If value for money is an object, my suggestion is do as we did: avoid a three-course blow-out, and order from the small dish menu. As the cocktail menu is comparatively good value, starting at £6.50 for house specials, this makes for an affordable night out.
My next visit was purely to test the bar out. First off, the barman not only recognised me but remembered what I’d drunk last time. Freakish skills perhaps but ones that made me feel very welcome. This time we kicked off with an Inamo (mandarin puree muddled with spring onion, Smirnoff Black, chilli syrup and Mandarin Napoleon) and a Wasabi Cooler (Tanqueray gin, Akashi-Tai Honjozo Sake, Kings Ginger, lemon, apple juice, honey syrup, fresh ginger, wasabi). That cooler sounds like a heckuva lot of ingredients but was not only very well-balanced and would complement the food perfectly, it’s also one of the few long drinks I’d consider ordering to drink by itself. The Inamo was designed to appeal to the average palate so my request for extra chilli was then balanced with extra sugar – just too much sweetness for me.
As we were seated at the bar, my friend and I got to chat to Stefano, the barman, as he worked. On each of my visits staff were very sweet but particular praise must go to Stefano for his great hosting skills. Based on our conversation he suggested our next drinks: an aromatic Perfumer (Tanqueray gin, Grand Marnier, coriander, red pepper, honey, lemon juice and apple juice) for my friend and, in a gesture that always makes a customer feel valued, a work in process for me. This consisted of Lavender powder, St Germain, Shochu, apple juice and Yuzu. It’s not on the menu yet but was a light and luscious mix so hopefully will be at some future point.
Mention must be made of Inamo’s USP: its electronic table menus. These are projected on to the table and you select your dishes (and your tablecloth) with an in-built mouse. Usually hi-tech gimmicks equal tackiness, and although there is a trashy element to the concept, the quality service, food and drink balance it out. And you know what? Tacky or not, it’s kind of fun. Though I warn you, if you go on a date here avoid the green e-tablecloths, unless either you or your date has a predilection for witchy complexions.
I found the lighting (bright yet not unflattering) very cheering but had to ask is the British public ready for serious drinking to take place in anything but a murky twilight? I don’t think so. And over and above this, the main impediment to the bar being a destination in itself is its small size, layout and hobbit height furniture. However if you’re a small group and in the area, to it’s a more than decent option for kicking an evening off with a well-priced and well-made cocktail.