What? Award-winning contemporary Japanese restaurant, ROKA, has just launched a weekend han setto brunch: ten starters to share, a main dish from the robata or main kitchen, sharing dessert platter plus bellini on arrival, although with no eggs in sight it’s really more of a weekend lunch.
New? ROKA Aldwych was the fourth ROKA to open in London, marking the Charlotte Street flagship’s tenth anniversary. The brunch is a recent addition to the menu, drawing in a different crowd to the weekday business set.
Where? 71 Aldwych, WC2B 4HN www.rokarestaurant.com
On the Menu: The brunch menu is designed for sharing, with starters like edamame beans, sashimi, dumplings and robata vegetables. The mains are ordered individually and give a classic taste of the ROKA experience; glazed baby back ribs, sea bream fillet, beef sirloin and miso black cod are some of the options, whilst a huge dessert platter is brought to the table at the end of the meal.
First Impressions: The entrance is undeniably impressive. A huge ceiling-height door leads you round to the reception desk where, once coats are whisked away, you are led to your table. The welcome was efficient, swift and polished and our waiter then came over to introduce himself by name, armed with hot hand towels. Although the restaurant wasn’t full when we arrived, by 2pm it was packed, and the noise levels had definitely increased. Yes it’s loud but it’s buzzy too and that’s a big part of the appeal – if you wanted to eat in subdued silence with white tablecloths you’d go elsewhere but if you really want in on the action, request a table at the counter to watch the theatre unfold.
The Look: Designed by Italian designer, Claudio Silvestrin, the interior is sophisticated, moody and low-lit. Stained timber walls, floors and ceilings are the reason the room is so loud but this adds to the atmosphere, whilst the huge robata grill and open kitchen are the centre of attention – inspired by how the fishermen of northern Japan cook their catches over charcoal on the boats. Sitting through the back in the main restaurant there is no natural light but spotlights above the tables provide the perfect conditions for a quick photo – when the food looks as good as it does here you’ll be pleased you can document your experience/make your friends jealous (delete as applicable). A huge wall of bottles showcases the bespoke Shochu tonics.
What We Ate: Ten starters seems like a lot for two people and although it is, we definitely weren’t complaining – you’ll want to try everything. Pickled vegetables and beautifully fresh tuna, salmon and sea bass sashimi on a bed of ice acted as palate cleansers (although the sashimi was stunning in its own right), leading on to gobo and daikon salad, robata vegetables with yuzu miso dressing and spicy mixed sashimi. The good thing about these types of menus is that you try things you wouldn’t necessarily order normally. Case in point was the robata veg – the best asparagus I have ever had. On the same note, a potato salad with the appearance of scrambled egg seemed an unusual addition. Scattered with slices of bacon and chive, some seriously impressive knife skills were showcased. One of our favourite dishes, think of it as mashed potato and discuss, as we did, how you’d recreate it at home. All ten dishes came served on uneven Asian crockery that gave the immaculate food a more rustic feel and small bowls of dipping sauces brought the dishes alive, our favourite being a wonderfully smokey, umami tsuyu.
You can’t come to ROKA and not have the black cod – thankfully this thinking was proved correct as the huge, charred, sticky fillet, wrapped in a hoba leaf was without a doubt the best black cod I’ve ever had. My only criticism? The skin was fused to the leaf so couldn’t be enjoyed but the sweet miso glaze and buttery flakes of the fish itself made up for it. It doesn’t come cheap (there is a £19 surcharge) but you are rewarded with a large portion. The lamb was almost as good; four heavily charred cutlets came with a Jenga-style stack of dressed cucumber. The meat was pink and flavoursome, just as you’d hope for, although we weren’t actually asked how we like it cooked.
The pudding was an impressive platter of colourful exotic fruits which definitely had the wow-factor – if it was your birthday you can imagine a candle in one of the scoops of ice cream. Panna cotta was topped with raspberries and chunks of matcha but it was the fruit sorbets that we picked at the most. A chocolate buddha was a playful touch and whilst the whole thing seemed a little decadent it was certainly a crowd-pleaser, with everyone in the restaurant turning heads and taking photos. A double espresso rounded the meal off but, served in a rather boring white cup and saucer, seemed a little out of place in comparison to the rest of the dishes. A handmade-looking cup would’ve been more on brand.
What We Drank: A suggestion from the waiter of prosecco actually resulted in two beelines which wasn’t a problem but could have been to die-hard prosecco lovers. Wine followed – Vellas Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was crisp, lively and accompanied the food nicely.
Go With: Take your partner for a special occasion or plan a memorable birthday meal. The other guests were predominantly female on the Saturday we visited, with a few large tables seeming to be celebrating birthdays, hen dos or weekend trips to London.
Final Word: As someone that’s lucky enough to dine out a lot it’s no surprise that the main question I get asked is what’s my favourite restaurant. Yes, it depends on what I feel like eating/what time of day it is/who’s paying the bill but the one I’ve said more than any other is ROKA. Two hours of brunching later and my answer remains the same: ROKA is my favourite restaurant in London.
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Fran can be found sipping espresso martinis by night and, by day, on the hunt for London's best brunch. Bonus points for a runny yolk and the perfect flat white.