Having enjoyed a (brilliant) celebratory cocktail at Roka’s bar after receiving a job offer at a law firm, I chose this restaurant for a work dinner with a US partner who was staying at a hotel on the Strand. My law firm and Roka seem to go hand in hand! Indeed, I later learnt that my colleague was taken here by partners at his ex-law firm when he gave notice of his resignation in an effort to woo him back! Coincidentally, the name “roka” signifies a meeting of sorts: it means a meeting place where food and drinks are shared with friends (ro) and heat, warmth and all-embracing energy (ka). And the managing partner at my firm even enjoyed the same cocktail that I had celebrated over: the deliciously beautiful Rose petal martini garnished with – as I’m sure you can guess – a rose petal – perhaps a signal towards the coincidentally upcoming Chelsea Flower Show?!
Following the enormous success of Zuma in Knightsbridge and Oblix in the Shard, Rainer Becker quickly recognised the huge popularity of robatayaki cuisine – based on the robata grill – which led to the opening of Roka’s flagship Charlotte Street restaurant, followed by a stream of further openings across the City. The founders definitely know a thing or two about high-end modern Japanese dining.
Fitting for a working dinner, the vibe is a little on the corporate side – both in décor and atmosphere. After passing the water feature at the entrance, Japanese sake bottles lined the passage leading to the bar, where suited gents were enjoying drinks in front of large, street-facing windows. Seating 160 diners, the tables are well spaced out. Décor was minimal, but the façade behind me looking in was covered in 60 regimentally lined and illuminated jars, which diffused a warm glow. The interior exudes a dark elegance; it’s sleek, moody and sophisticated. It’s the sort of place you might take clients on expenses.
Inside the restaurant, the robata grill takes centre stage in the enticing open kitchen in the heart of the room. Watching the chefs at work slicing, dicing and lovingly-preparing all sorts of crazy raw and grilled dishes in their blue uniform and black hacimaki bandanas was captivating. There was certainly no glancing at the old mobile phone during quiet moments, transfixed as we were by the lively kitchen team.
Eluding to its pricey menu, Grace Dent describes the place as “the Wolf of Wall Street meets Wagamama”. Whilst the restaurant is full of corporate City types, the cuisine is far more contemporary than the comparatively standard menu of Wagamama, with the authentic robata grill playing a central role. The extensive menu is divided into tasting options, maki rolls, sashimi and nigiri zuchi, tokusen (sashimi and tartar), salads, tempura, snacks and soups, and robata. A solution for my indecision, one member of our party ordered a selection of dishes for the table to us and was very attentive to order a sufficient number of vegan options.
From the salads, we went for the Iceberg “salada no wafu” (iceberg lettuce with a caramelised onion dressing but no wafu…). This was crunchy, sweet and refreshing, and the caramelised finish had a moreish balsamic quality, typical of caramelised onions. We also ordered the seasonal asparagus, dressed in a soya sauce – Roka, like so many seasonal restaurants, are making the most of asparagus season.
From the robata grill, I couldn’t resist ordering the Tofu. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the deeply fried Tempura, however, probably because they’re exactly that: very oily and battery – not even with the typical panko Japanese crumb. As convert to sushi and sashimi, I also chose the Avocado maki rolls; although tricky to pick up with chopsticks, they were delicious, especially when eaten alongside their punchy ginger. The dish showcased the chef’s slicing skills; the cucumber was cut so thinly you could see the plate on which it was delicately arranged like the petals of a flower. The seasoning, the dipping sauce, the spring onions, seaweeds, sesame seeds paid tribute well to the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine. The highlight of the meal, however, was undoubtedly the Sweet potato, both in taste and in presentation, using home-made dried bamboo leaves and seasoned with a chilli butter.
Serving authentic Japanese cuisine in a striking yet informal setting, Roka is chic but edgy. The whole experience was a whirlwind of tastes, smells and sights – very cosmopolitan. It’s an expensive evening, but its good. If you can stretch to it, it’s worth finding a special occasion to go.
Roka, 71 Alwych, London, WC2B 4HN