Is Inka Canberra's most talked about restaurant opening this year? It seems like everyone is clamouring to get a table at the new Peruvian Japanese restaurant about town.
Staggered seatings mean that we can only book for the somewhat awkward dinner times of 5.30pm or 8pm (this has now changed so that you can book for much more reasonable times up until 6.30pm). There's no phone number, so book online you must.
When I first heard about Inka, the fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food seemed a little strange to me, but as it turns out Nikkei cuisine, as it is known, dates back over a hundred years. In 1889, thousands of Japanese workers immigrated to Peru to work as miners and railroad workers. They cooked food that they knew with ingredients they found locally and with the culinary dialogue between two cultures, Nikkei cuisine was born.
Swanky and sophisticated, Inka's interiors are a work of art. It's clear that no expense has been spared for the restaurant and bar fit-out. From the vibrant woven lamps to the arresting quipu-inspired tapestry, there's a feeling that we could have walked into a restaurant in London or New York.
On the cocktail menu, Japanese flavours of nashi pear and yuzu are woven through with Latin American spirits like pisco and cachaca. Cocktails go from simple like Aki Tonikku ($16) a twist on a gin and tonic, to the more complex Profé ($18) which contains an intriguing combination of togarashi and absinthe. The Guayaba Agrio ($17) is elegant, tropical yet well balanced with citrusy undertones. The Shinsen'na Nashi ($18) with pear, apple and mango pisco is more fruit dominant and bordering on being too sweet for my taste. The wine list has both local and international flavour, with glasses from a very reasonable $10 and bottles from $45.
If I didn't understand how Japanese and Peruvian flavours would pair together before, I do now. Where the Japanese have robata, the Peruvians have anticuchos - meats grilled over charcoal. Here, dishes like prawns ($16) smoky from the grill are brought to life with garlic butter, yuzu kosho and a delightfully moreish smoked paprika sauce.
Then there are dishes like the kingfish classico ($25) which are beautiful expressions of Peruvian cuisine - diced kingfish with all the usual trimmings piled high with strips of crisp sweet potato. The traditional flavours of red onion, coriander and lime juice are familiar, the sweet potato puree adds a gentle earthiness while cancha (toasted corn) brings an additional crunch. Each mouthful is a brilliant combination of both flavours and textures - a classic dish modernised with excellent technique.
We're several bites into the kingfish before we realise that we had actually ordered a different ceviche dish. The error is handled with ease and poise by the wait staff, but the Nikkei ceviche ($28) with tuna, sesame, radish and finger lime isn't quite as exciting as the kingfish we'd mistakenly been served.
Dishes like the aburi salmon nigiri ($16) feel very familiar, a mouthful of smoky, fatty deliciousness, but with a sprinkling of puffed quinoa. The chicken empanadas ($14) are excellent too. They're light, crisp and mildly spiced, the wrapping more like wonton skins than traditional empanada dough.
Wagyu sirloin MB 5+ 250g ($80) is certainly on the pricey side but it delivers. It's an umami-packed bite - charcoal, fat, steak and mushroom miso butter - and quite possibly one of the best cuts of steak I've ever tasted. It's served with two dipping sauces, which are fine, but really quite unnecessary with a steak of this calibre.
Sides like crispy brussels sprouts ($12) with furikake and yuzu glaze make an excellent accompaniment. You can't really go wrong with crispy brussels sprouts, here they're dark and charry, slightly sweet and savoury from the furikake.
Chilli chocolate fondant with pisco guava sorbet ($19.50) is another triumph. A slightly crunchy exterior gives way to rich, molten chocolate with a hint of a chilli kick. The pale pink sorbet acts as a palate cleanser, a contrast to the bitterness of the chocolate.
Service is good if a little impersonal. They have a strange system of hosts and runners - some people to take orders and others to take plates and clear food, which means we have five or six different people attending our table. It's fine when it works, but some tables are left waiting to order, finding it hard to attract the attention of a host who's managing a large area of the floor.
Even so, eating at Inka is the most exciting dinner that I've had in a while - and not just because of the food. The stunning interiors and moody dining room create a sense of grandeur that's quite unlike any other restaurant in Canberra. There's a nuanced understanding of flavour, a commitment to high-quality produce, finished with excellent technique and a bit of creative flair.
There is something quite magical about Inka. Perhaps it's the ability to transport you to a different place and time, away from the pandemic. During a time when travel is off-limits, it feels like travelling again - the sights, smells and tastes of a land far away.
There's a tiny bit of room for improvement in the front of house, but what Inka does well, it does very well - food, ambience and a little sprinkle of Peruvian-Japanese magic. One thing is for sure - Inka has arrived, and in style.
Address: Shop B11A, 148 Bunda St, Canberra
Phone: 5115 0777
Hours: Monday, from 6pm til 10pm. Tuesday to Thursday, 12pm til 10pm. Friday to Saturday, 12pm til 10.30pm. Sunday, from 12pm til 10pm.
Owners: Sunny Matharu, Kiehyon Yoo and Adam Elchakak
Chef: Michael Muir
Vegetarian: Lots of good options
Noise: Not a problem