It's been a while between drinks for fans of Aaron Turner's award-winning cuisine. Not that we've been without the chef's food since he closed Loam (a GT Regional Restaurant of the Year) in 2013. After almost two years in Tennessee, he returned to us to fry Nashville-style hot chicken, first at Belle's Hot Chicken in Fitzroy and then at the Hot Chicken Project in Geelong. It was something but it wasn't the same, particularly when we knew how inventive and skilful Turner could be with his flavour and texture combinations.
Now he's opened Igni and it's still not the same - it's better.
Turner has teamed up with two of his colleagues from Loam, Drew Hamilton and Jo Smith, and together they've fashioned a comfortably sophisticated little gem out of a nondescript building in the gritty backblocks of Geelong's CBD, mixing polished concrete and plywood with charcoal grey upholstery, abstract art and a wall of windows screened by sheer grey curtains. An open kitchen is dominated by a central charcoal grill that plays a central role in much of the menu.
Igni is dégustation only (five or eight courses, though that's more guide than absolute), and every table receives a different combination of dishes arranged after a conversation with the waitstaff. It's a situation that can quickly lead to dish-envy when you see your neighbours tucking into suckling pig cooked over charcoal and served with parsley-root purée and garlic shoots, but it's just as easy to be smug about your calamari, served raw, sliced into thin ribbons, tossed with saltbush berries and finished with a warm marron and chicken stock. The snacks that start the meal - a five-flavour punch of crisp saltbush leaves with vinegar powder, zucchini flowers stuffed with mussels, chicken skin topped with cod roe, house-made guanciale and dreamy, umami-laden beef jerky - are democratically supplied to every diner, dodging the potential inter-table warfare.
There's an agile and well-priced single-page wine list put together by Smith, who can also arrange a similarly well-priced wine matching, which usually includes labels not on the list. If you've been hearing the rumours that Geelong may be having a moment, Igni is the perfect excuse to go and see for yourself.
Igni, 2 Ryan Pl, Geelong, Vic, (03) 5222 2266; open Wed-Sat 6pm-11pm, Sat-Sun noon-4pm.