Since its opening in April 2014, Nordic-influenced INK has received a mixed reception online. Not knowing what to expect, I visited the restaurant's Bethnal Green premises last night with an open mind (and, thankfully, John's superior sense of navigation, as I almost got lost in Mile End's Milennium Park, careening off paths and nearly into Regent's Canal).
But what you really need to know is that the food is incredible and - granted it's a little tricky to find - the restaurant is very much worth a visit.
I'm impressed by any restaurant that sources fresh produce locally. At INK, the ingredients are so fresh, Chef Martyn Meid has done away with the traditional ala carte menu (which, perhaps misleadingly, can still be found on the website) and opted instead for a 5-course tasting menu, with wine pairing (currently priced at £50 per person, though you can also choose three courses instead for £30), visiting London's markets as early as 3 a.m. to source fresh fish and seasonal vegetables.
On the evening of our visit, the menu had been decided and printed at 5:45 p.m. - fifteen minutes before the doors of the restaurant were due to open. Apparently, Meid had been unhappy with the quality of fish at Billingsgate that morning and, refusing to serve frozen fish, decided to select the best cuts of meat from Smithfields instead. See? Impressive. That fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality is both exciting and nail-biting at the same time. Diners don't know what's on the menu until they arrive, which may deter some, but not me, given that one of my beloved/favorite pop-up restaurants (PipsDish - which ended its temporary stint in Covent Garden last year) operated on a similar model.
But as the food started arriving to our table from the kitchen, it became very clear that this was no spontaneous "accident": every combination, pairing, and inclusion had been well-thought out, expertly executed, and artistically displayed. And yet - and this is important to note - not for the sake of being "creative". When I told a colleague that I was trying out a new restaurant specialising in "experimental" cuisine, he stifled a laugh and asked if drinks would be served in test tubes. "I'll find out," I replied drily, as the elevator doors closed.
Not a test tube in sight. Instead, we were served a crisp, strong Chardonnay with the first and second courses and a spicy, vanilla-scented glass of red (which I sadly didn't catch the name of) with a silky smooth finish to accompany the third and fourth courses.
The first course (and John's favorite, which he embarrassingly exclaimed over and over again after polishing his second glass of wine, and some of mine, since I surreptitiously swapped glasses with him) of baby gem, black cabbage, soft egg, matcha yogurt (yes, really), and tomato powder was an ingenious plate to warm up our palates. The egg was of perfect consistency and the black cabbage, which almost tasted like crunchy seaweed, offered a lovely, crisp contrast to the warm baby gem lettuce. The tomato powder gave just a hint - not more - of sharpness; a necessary detail to a dish of simple, clean flavors.
The pork belly, served with pickled radish, oyster mushrooms, oyster jus, and crispy barley, was a study in textures - and my favorite. My knife slid through the tender pork belly easily; the meat was reminscent of the Middle White I'd previously sampled at St. John. The smooth ribbons of pickled radish, paired with the crispy barley and soft oyster mushrooms were a revelation. The sensation of these four different textures was what prompted, for me, an initial reaction of incredulity, followed by amazement.
The lamb chop came beautifully plated, atop a bed of new potatoes and served with burnt onion and sheep yoghurt (which I had incorrectly assumed was sour cream). It was tender and flavorful (if only very slightly undercooked to my unsophisticated, heathen taste) and the sheep yoghurt worked wonderfully well, its subtle tang allowing the marinade of the lamb to shine through. Though I'd long forgotten what the menu had said (especially as I was well into my second glass of wine), I found that one of the delights of dining at INK is attempting to identify flavors: they may seem familiar on the tongue, but I couldn't quite pin them down. I loved this contrast of familiarity and innovation.
The fourth and final savoury course, the beef cheek with heritage carrots and chocolate (not pictured) was perhaps our least favorite (having said that - all of the courses were very nearly our favorites, we just ranked this one at the bottom, not that we didn't enjoy it! Though John had been previously traumatized by a bad experience in Sicily concerning chocolate and wild boar) as we both felt that the bitterness of the chocolate did more to detract than enhance the beef check. The heritage carrots were slightly saltier than I'd prefer, which then didn't allow the sweetness to shine through. Still, I thought it was a good dish to include on a tasting menu.
The dessert (which doesn't look like much, I know) was a triumph, and stole the show for us. The menu, however was a little misleading in its description of simply, "soft cheese, crumble, egg snow" - and surely sold itself short. In reality, the dessert tasted similar to crushed meringue and biscuit over a delicious bit of cheesecake. Even John (who is a notorious cheese-hater) sang his praises (but not after singing his praises for the fourth or fifth time about the first course. To which I responded, "Yes, I know you really liked the baby gem lettuce. Yes, I know it was so delicious. I had it too.").
A single espresso and drunken Uber taxi ride later (where we engaged in a "lively" conversation about food snobbery), we were back at home, happily enconced in our Islington flat and re-living our gastronomic adventure of an evening.
Look. I loved this restaurant. But it's not easy to come across and I'm worried about their footfall - only because I really, really respect what Chef Martyn Meid is doing. Aside from one other table of two (who arrived later than and left before us), we were the only ones in the restaurant. Great for us (we had lovely chats with our host) but not so much for INK. In the summer, the layout works perfectly: a private balcony outside overlooking the park and the canal makes it an ideal location to relax, consume a
Despite the meal being partly subsidized by Zomato UK, I would have easily paid more than the £50 charge stated for the tasting menu - £60 or even £70 perhaps.
Could this restaurant be a game-changer? Try it for yourself and let me know.
I was generously hosted by INK and Zomato UK. All opinions are my own.