Ask me outright if there’s any need for yet another Mediterranean small-plates restaurant in London and I’d say no. But for Ino Gastrobar, I’m prepared to make an exception.
Nestled on cobbled Newburgh Street, just off Carnaby Street, Ino is a fashionable but unpretentious place, with warm lighting, wood panelling and exposed brick. While there are a few tables hidden at the back, the action mostly happens at the bar, where diners can sit and watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen, where they use hot charcoal to prepare most of their ingredients.
Like its sister restaurant, Opso in Marylebone, Ino serves classic Greek dishes that have undergone – cue ‘MasterChef’ soundbite – a modern twist. So. you’ll find refined takes on gyros and souvlaki, as well as the spinach-and-feta pastry pie spanakopita.
Ino’s modern spin, which is nothing like the dense slab you find in local Greek bakeries, consisted of two thin, cracker-like shards encasing a heap of buttery, just-cooked spinach and crumbs of cool, sharp feta, which is shipped over from Greece.
You’ll want seconds – who am I kidding? – thirds of the warm, pillowy pitta bread that accompanies it too
And forget that pale pink tile grout you find in the supermarket masquerading as taramasalata. Ino’s orange-tinged, feather-light whipped bottarga (salted and cured fish roe), finished with a soft egg yolk for extra richness, is the real deal. You’ll want seconds – who am I kidding? – thirds of the warm, pillowy pitta bread that accompanies it too, which is also imported from the homeland.
Less traditional offerings come in the form of an octopus taco, which featured a paratha-like flatbread casing and a beautifully tender tentacle, packed with smokiness from its time on the coals; and a plate of Japanese-inspired tuna tataki, served on drizzles of soy sauce and olive oil with crunchy green beans and sautéed shimeji mushrooms. A bit of curveball, yes, but bloody delicious all the same.
But if any dish is going to split the crowd here, it’s the tsouchti mac and cheese: a traditional dish from Greece’s southern Mani region consisting of spaghetti, egg, butter and cheese. Ino’s take is made with butter-tossed fusilli, half crispy having been chargrilled, an abundance of grated graviera (a hard Greek cheese not dissimilar to gruyère) and another gooey yolk. The trick is to stir everything together, carbonara-style, in order to make a creamy but tangy concoction with the odd crunch of charred pasta. While I loved this comforting mix of fat, carbs and more fat, diehard macaroni cheese fans might feel a bit duped.
Do bear in mind that you’ll need a good few carbs to help you tackle the wine list, a 20-strong selection of Greek varieties available by the glass and bottle. Ino’s delightful staff can walk you through each of them, but I would highly recommend kicking off with an Athens Spritz first. This tangerine mix of Aperol, grapefruit soda, lemon juice and Mastiha, a liqueur made with mastic resin originating from the island of Chios, delivers a proper taste of holiday. Sadly, the 35C heat and dazzling views of the Acropolis aren’t included…