Friday, 11 September 2015

Roka, London, Restaurant Review

Roka Restaurant is one I've been hearing great things about. It specialises in Japanese robatayaki cooking. Robatayaki translates as "fireside cooking", meaning that the food is cooked on a barbeque in the sight of diners. I visited the Aldwych restaurant, where the dining space is a large room, with a central open kitchen where the preparation and barbeque cooking takes place. I have mentioned before my love of open kitchens, where the ebb and flow of activity provides a mesmerising display. This was no different. 

The design of the restaurant has been achieved with ingenuity, you can see all the heat and flames, but none of the smells from the kitchen seem to seep out, despite being in the same open space. Here are the masters at work....

I visited with two companions for what we intended to be a big treat lunch; no rushing, indulgent and full on. But what were we going to have? The menu seemed unfamiliar, none of us have had the good fortune to visit Japan and sample this authentic cuisine before. Everything sounded great, but where to start? 

We settled on the tasting menu with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne. We were advised it had most of the best/signature dishes available and from our perusal of the menu, seemed to offer good value for money. Not cheap, I hasten to add, but a good value way of sampling many of the dishes on the main menu. 

Kampachi sashimi no salada
Yellowtail sashimi with yuzu truffle dressing

The wafer thin sliced yellowtail (Japanese Amberjack fish), was fresh and mildly flavoured with the citrus toned truffle dressing. The truffles did not overpower the fish, and when eaten with the shiso leaves and carrot topping, made a refreshing start to our lunch.

Iceberg salada no wafu
Iceberg lettuce with caramelised onion dressing

If I am honest, this was never a dish I would have ordered from the menu by choice. It just doesn't sound too special, does it? Expecting something a little bit bland, I was surprised to find this very strikingly presented dish come to the table. Lined up like dominoes, the lettuce was cut into perfect little squares with caramelised onion dressing, sesame seeds and shredded seaweed sprinkled on top. But it isn't just a beautiful plate of food, it tastes great too. Somehow the caramelised onion dressing lifts the lettuce so far above the mundane, I am still scratching my head how they managed it at all. There is sweetness, depth, umami along with the fresh tasting crispness of the lettuce. It's mind bogglingly good. 

Wagyu no tartar
Pure breed Japanese Wagyu tartar, ponzu pearls, nori cracker

Made from the legendary Wagyu beef, this tartar was served on a slightly crumby cracker flavoured with Japanese seaweed. This was a beautiful morsel of food, and the beef was tender and delicate. However, being a very small portion, there wasn't enough opportunity to discern other subtleties... in a heartbeat, it was gone. Seconds, please!

Sashimi moriawase ni nin mae (Sashimi platter)
Selection of premium sashimi, yellowtail tartare with rice cracker, daikon chirashi roll with avocado

The tall glass contains the long rice crackers (baked with black and white sesame seeds) with the yellowtail tartare in the base of the glass. The small wooden spoon is to place the tartare on the cracker. The tartare was fresh, herby and lightly flavoured with clean citrus flavours. The super crunchy home made crackers a lovely conduit for eating the tartare. The whole platter was jaw droppingly gorgeously presented (the pictures do not do any of it justice) and super tasting. 

One of the highlights of the dish was the fact it was served with genuine grated Wasabi. The Wasabi root was brought out to us and grated before our eyes. The sad shame is that so rare and in demand the Wasabi root is, us folk in the UK vary rarely get to eat the real stuff. I hate to say it, but much of our "wasabi" is actually... dare I say it.... horseradish dyed green!

There was only one thing which could accompany this pretty array of sashimi; some sake! We ordered the simple chilled Junmai, as we are chilled sake novices, still finding our way around the types and terminology of this most traditional of Japanese tipples. 

Asparagus to tamago maki
White asparagus and truffle, with Japanese omelette and shiso mayonnaise

Light and gently flavoured, this course was designed to be a change of pace from the previous. 

Gindara to kani no gyoza
Black cod, crab and crayfish dumplings

We were fighting over these delectable little dumplings, with chopped black cod, crab meat and crayfish tail as their filling. Premier league seafood has been used here, where much cheaper and simpler seafood could have been used. Very luxurious! The steam-grilled skins were made at the perfect skin-to-filling ratio; not too heavy, not too thick, not too cloying.

Hinadori no miso yaki
Baby chicken, lemon, miso and garlic soy

Marinaded and chargrilled, the baby chicken was still soft and moist on the inside, whilst browned and caramelised on the outside. The lemon, miso and garlic soy sauce marinade had imparted their flavours on the chicken, leaving barbeque food to die for. If you are having a barbeque this Summer, you seriously need to bribe the chef for the recipe of this little number!

Eggplant in mirin, ginger and soy

This is the best aubergine dish I have ever eaten. The aubergine "meat" was cooked to a just-soft texture, but not so that it was oozy and mushy. The caramelisation of the aubergine gave a sweetness, which was enhanced by the mirin. The soy lent umami and salt, the hints of ginger flavour added complexity. 

Kani no kamameshi
Rice hot pot with king crab with wasabi tobiko

The big, beautiful pot pictured above was brought to our table, instantly creating a sense of drama and anticipation. We were not sure what to expect beneath the wooden lid....


The hot pot is thoroughly stirred and mixed up by the waiting staff at your table and served up on gloriously chunky hand made little dishes. Time to tuck in!

The rice is like a subtle, creamy risotto, deeply satisfying and comforting. Little ribbons of crab meat and tobiko eggs cling to the rice, meaning each small amount you eat (as I did with chopsticks) has all of the different flavours and textures intended in the dish. The tobiko explodes as you chew, releasing its salty flavours of the sea, the hints of wasabi are gentle and do not overpower. Wasabi can be sinus-blastingly hot, here it was tempered and mild, allowing the rest of the dish to work in harmony.

One of the chefs prepares asparagus in the open kitchen

Roka mini dessert platter

As if all of the food above wasn't enough, take a butcher's at this showstopper! Fresh fruit, prepared and presented with style, homemade ice cream, cake, a delicate biscuit roll, a little sesame decked stick biscuit (which you might be able to see sticking out of the terracotta bowl). 

By this point of the meal, I was full up. So I tried a little of everything, but couldn't manage to eat anything more. It was all lovely, but when I am full, I have to say I don't appreciate food as well as I normally do. I had hoped my second stomach, the "pudding belly" would have appeared by magic, but it wasn't to be. My dining companions were delighted; to the victors, the spoils. They scoffed the dessert platter with gusto, and licked the plates clean. 

This was a very memorable meal in a restaurant where attention to detail is observed in all areas. Presentation, service, serving implements, dishes, bowls, the chilling of cold items. Everything is well observed in a way which is positively artistic.

My only criticism is because the decor of the restaurant is trying to achieve clean lines and lack of clutter, there are no soft furnishings in the restaurant space at all. As a result, sound bounces off every surface. With the dining area being large with a good number of tables for customers, the many conversations taking place can turn into a general hum of noise. It's a small complaint, but it does have a small effect on the overall restaurant experience. I would be more inclined to return here for lunch rather than a romantic evening meal.

Roka Aldwych
71 Aldwych
020 7294 7636

Snigdha and her companions paid in full for their meal at Roka. Snigdha has received no 
reward, financial or otherwise for writing this review. 

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