Last weekend Michael and I enjoyed an impromptu date night at my all-time, hands-down, a-million-times-over, favourite restaurant in London, Roka Restaurant on Charlotte Street. But this time, it was different. That’s because this time was the first time that I have visited as a blogger! I can’t even explain how much I adore this restaurant and, having gone snap happy, I’m pretty sure after reading this review you will see why I think it’s so special, and why I have chosen to celebrate my birthday there 3 years in a row.
First off, it’s just a great looking restaurant. Totally understated for the level of magic that hides within, the exterior is all cool grey & slate, preened plants and glossy wood. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow passers-by to stop and stare at the beautiful interior of the restaurant.
Service: Upon arrival, a discrete doorman (^ did you spot him earlier?) welcomes you through the heavy, beautifully polished, knotted hardwood doors. The staff at Roka have service down to a T; professional yet friendly, and attentive yet not overbearing. The sommelier will gladly recommend a wine based on your preferences, or from a small selection of options that you provide, or leave the decision entirely up to you. There is nothing pushy or snooty about Roka, which I find there so often can be at this level of quality of restaurant.
On the numerous times that I have visited, I have always received excellent service. The servers are relaxed and in their element regardless of the busyness of the restaurant, and everything always seems to run seamlessly. On this particular occasion our waiter incorrectly placed an order of tuna tartare instead of yellowtail tartare, for which he apologised but simply asked that we enjoy the dish whilst he re-submitted the correct order. It’s this kind of “whoops, my mistake, never mind, enjoy” service that I love about Roka. So many other expensive restaurants would get uppity about this kind of situation, requesting either that you pay for the dish or swiping it from under your nose, most probably to be placed in the bin purely for their own satisfaction.
Ambience: Roka has a very funky atmosphere. It’s definitely not a nightclub setting but there is loud music and dim, sexy lighting, which ensures that the beautiful, shining centrepiece, the robata grill, gets the attention that it so deserves. The expert chefs prepare the sensational Izakaya-style (small sharing plates) food over an open flame, for diners to watch in awe. The restaurant is always packed which gives it a great buzz and a really lively ambience.
You can either sit at the ‘chef’s table’ or further back in the dining room. If you are just two, I strongly recommend that you sit by the grill, which provides by far the best seats in the house in terms of privacy, table space, and enabling you to fully enjoy the spectacle before you.
You might think that sitting next to strangers would make it less intimate than sitting at a table for two, but you end up angling your body towards your dining companion, blocking out those on the other side of you, and it’s so loud that you can’t hear each other’s conversations, PLUS you get to take as many pictures as you like without disturbing those on the table beside you (serious blogger bonus). You also get to appreciate the silky smooth, beautifully intricate, Japanese hardwood surface in all its glory.
But do bear in mind that the seating around the robata grill is actually kept unreserved for diners willing to chance it on the night (something that I would not recommend due to the fact that you don’t want to have your hopes & dreams shattered when staring food heaven in the eye), so you will have to book an ordinary table (for two) and then request to be moved on the night, if you so wish, which is what Michael and I did last weekend.
But not before we had helped ourselves to a few glasses of my strawberry Shochu.
Roka, Charlotte Street is different to the other Roka branches in that the ‘Shochu Lounge’ is located just beneath your feet, which I can only describe as an awesome & unique, utterly sexy & elegant, basement bar. The walls are covered in intriguing graffiti whilst a DJ spins the latest tunes and flickering candles cast shadows around the room. You can even eat down there, as Roka serves both it’s full, normal menu and a Kanteen-style menu to those who wish to dine in the den, although I personally prefer to enjoy the full culinary experience in the restaurant and have one too many cocktails in the Lounge, but that is simply personal preference!
Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage containing around 25% alcohol, which comes in a variety of flavours and can be enjoyed straight on the rocks, or combined with mixers. At Roka you can buy Shochu by the glass or purchase your very own engraved jar of the stuff to be shelved on their ‘bookcase’, so that you can have a personal supply of ‘free’ alcohol whenever you drop by. I am the proud owner of one such jar as I was given one as a gift for my birthday last year, so I always start & finish the night with a few glasses when I visit Roka.
Just so you can join me down memory lane, here we are choosing a flavour and eyeing the barman as he sawed ice from a giant slab to be plonked in my new favourite tipple.
^ Not your average bar skills.
Food: Hopefully I haven’t bored you to death and you’ve managed to stick with me to the most important part of this post! So the main reason that Roka is my favourite restaurant (aside from the amazing service and classy but fun atmosphere) is, absolutely, the food. Roka serves contemporary, exquisite, Japanese cuisine. We kicked off with sushi & veg – California maki (crab meat, avocado, mayonnaise and wasabi tobiko) (£7.90), a new-comer to the menu of wagyu tempura maki (£12.90), and fried eggplant, sesame miso and katsuobushi (£5.90).
The California maki was sensational, as always. The little bites of perfection were super fresh with excellent ratios of crabmeat to juicy avocado. The rice had a lovely consistency whilst the seaweed and tobiko added chew and crunch; an all round delight to eat.
The wagyu tempura wasn’t quite so impressive. I had imagined that the beef would be deep-fried rather than the entire roll. They were pleasant enough but there was no discerning that the roll contained wagyu, or even meat for that matter.
The fried eggplant stole my heart and set it on fire. Good God it was good. The aubergine meat was soft and tender whilst the flesh retained a slight chew. The fish flakes added yet more texture (which I would liken to that of rice paper), dissolving on the tongue and adding a hint of fishiness to the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth aubergine, smothered in the most delectable miso sauce.
Then arrived our misplaced order of tuna tartar, oscietra caviar and quail’s yolk (£12.60 – although we did not pay for it). I always have such fun mixing together the ingredients and this occasion was no different:
I am not a huge fan of the onion family and there was slightly too much spring onion in the dish for me to enjoy it as much as I usually do tuna tartare. Since Michael and I have regularly started making our own tuna tartare at home I also realised that I prefer the tuna to retain more structure, and be cubed versus mushed, as it was served at Roka. However, that is definitely a case of each to their own! The sesame rice cracker was an amazing fish scooper and one that honestly tasted like streaky bacon, in a very, very good way!
Whilst we waited for our second order to arrive I seized the opportunity for a few happy wine pics. We ordered the ‘Tornai “F” Furmint, Somlo, Hungary, 2013’ (£30.00), which I can tell you went down an absolute treat! It was as refreshing and dry as they come.
Back to the food, glorious food. Tiger prawn tempura (£12.00), beef, ginger and sesame dumplings (£7.30), and spinach leaves and sesame dressing (£4.90) were up next.
The tiger prawn tempura had a slightly soft and, dare I say, ever so slightly bland batter, however, the huge, perfectly cooked prawns within and excellent dipping sauces whole-heartedly made up for this.
The dumplings were simply perfect. You could really taste the beef and ginger, and they had the perfect chewy-to-crisp balanced exterior. I personally found the accompanying sauce a little too delicate for these beauties, but that is because I like strong flavours (as in, let’s add so much wasabi to everything that my head explodes… which I know is not entirely normal).
The spinach was a delight. I absolutely loved this dish and always order it whenever I see it on the menu. I must admit that I do prefer it cooked, which is how they serve it at Zuma, however, this style is more refreshing and makes me feel (emphasis on the feel) like I’m eating the healthiest, tastiest salad in the world. The dressing tastes of peanut butter and is the most moreish thing on the planet. It’s also a very generous portion size for the price.
We took a moment to appreciate the chefs checking on their crown jewels; the black cod, my all-time favourite dish in the world, and at Roka.
Unfortunately for this post though, Michael and I didn’t go for any of the robata grill options, but I can tell you that the black cod marinated in yuzu miso (£31.30) at Roka is the best I have ever sampled (their miso sauce is unlike any other); the lamb cutlets with Korean spices (£23.30) and the smoked duck breast with barley miso and kumquats (£17.60) are also both sensational – cooked to perfection with perfectly balanced flavours and accompaniments.
However, we did order more of our favourite dishes of the evening, plus a few newbies. In other words, more orders of the California maki and the fried eggplant:
Together with our original, correct order of yellowtail, lemon, chilli and ginger tartar with sesame rice cracker (£9.90) and rock shrimp tempura, wasabi pea seasoning and chili mayonnaise (14.30). The yellowtail tartare was incredibly fresh with a nice citrus flavour, however, there’s only so much that you can do with such a bland fish. The cracker added a great contrast in texture though and, once more, served as a wonderful meaty fish scooper.
The rock shrimp tempura was exceptional. The shrimp pieces were large and juicy, the batter crisp and light. The chilli mayo was the perfect dipping sauce and had exactly the right amount of spice. I just wished their had been more of it!
We ended the night by sharing my all-time favourite dessert (…at an Asian restaurant); the dark chocolate and green tea pudding, crunchy jivara and pear ice cream (£9.60). An exceptionally unique dessert in that instead of the usual dark chocolate ooze that flows out of the centre of a fondant, this sponge encases lava of the green variety. It is incredibly light but still delivers that (much-needed) chocolate fix, and I find the green tea flavour in this form far more enjoyable than that of as an ice-cream, which I am personally not a big fan of.
^ I really urge you to order this pudding when at Roka, if nothing else it’s simply beautiful.
(I have since returned to Roka for my birthday dinner and written another review, if you feel able to cope with any more #foodporn!)
Price: The total bill for two people came to £144.90 including service, for 3 orders of sushi rolls, 2 fish tartares, 2 fish tempuras, 2 portions of fried aubergine, 1 order of sesame spinach, 1 round of dumplings, 1 dessert, and a bottle of wine. You won’t find a better price anywhere in London for this standard of food, service and ambience. Roka is incredibly rare in that no matter the figures on the bill, I will always be more than happy to pay the price. It truly owns the key to my foodie heart!