Does anyone else use iPhone notes to make listicles of all the London restos they want to try? I certainly do. And, amongst a hubbub of alternate cuisines flooding my notes, from naan at Dishoom to sushi at Nobu lies Japanese at ROKA which, on a tipple-filled evening in September, I finally had the pleasure of putting to the test.
When German-born chef Rainer Becker extended his love of the Robata grill to the ravenous mouths of Londoners back in 2004, it’s doubtful he knew just how successful his Charlotte Street restaurant would become. Fast forward 15 years and we were rollercoastering our way through a sophisticated and heady menu of cold and hot sakes, with green melons and cherry blossom offerings providing our palettes with trailblazing flavours.
And that’s just what ROKA is all about. Trailblazing. This timeless restaurant is far from stuck in the past and, once you’ve journeyed past fan-favourite Shochu bar and it’s sensational cherry blossom shrouds, housed just below the main restaurant, you’ll meander excitedly between wagyu and sushi and dumplings and fried eggplant, widening your culinary horizons as a result of ROKA’s contemporary Japanese robatayaki cuisine.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, ROKA Charlotte Street now sits as the wise grandfather to three further outposts in Canary Wharf, Mayfair and Aldwych. Despite being intrinsically linked by their faultless cuisine choices, the restaurants each house their own personalities. Charlotte Street is buzzy, sensory and fast-paced, and the open kitchen awash with chefs positively bursting with passion makes for the centrepiece of the restaurant where the robata grill, the ‘beating heart’ of all ROKA outposts sits proudly, knowledgable.
The interior of the space has been expertly crafted by Japanese interior designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu who has laced the restaurant with statement wall art, natural elements of wood, brass and stone, and a warmth that’s felt as soon as you swap street for seat. One particular head-turner being the wall littered with old-fashioned shochu jars, akin to an old Japanese apothecary.
The 100-cover restaurant was attended to at levels of perfection, with staff menu knowledge telling of their nights most likely spent sampling the sensational dishes that pave the pages. Not only are the staff well-versed with the cuisine, but their personalities, positive and humorous, give serious credit to what a friendly, welcoming environment ROKA creates. Downstairs bar staff and mixologists light up over the prospect of you sampling their latest sweet potato layered espresso martini or shochu, whilst upstairs waiting staff rave about yellowtail sashimi and lamb cutlets. It’s an environment that makes you want to dig in and was, undoubtedly, some of the best service I’d ever received.
In celebration of ROKA’s birthday, guests can, and have, joined in with various culinary thrills, including a 15-Course Anniversary Menu featuring a sumptuous selection of ROKA’s best loved dishes, along with a handful of dizzying masterclasses where guests sample ROKA 15 among other exceptional sake, including ROKA Aldwych’s class on Tuesday 29th October.
If, however, a straightforward dine amongst ROKA Charlotte Street’s stalwart luxury in the well-heeled neighbourhood it resides in, then this too is encouraged. Our journey began just how most should, with a Mochi Collins and a Sakura Sour! Sipping these, we perused the busy, eclectic menu, asking our kind waiter several times to make our food decisions for us from sheer want of everything. The menu flicks from sushi and sashimi, roka signatures and robata must-haves. We went for Ebi no Tempura (rock shrimp tempura with chilli mayonnaise), yellowtail sashimi, beef, ginger and sesame dumplings, fried eggplant with sesame miso, semi fatty tuna, wagyu sushi, beef tartare with black truffle and steamed rice.
Yes, quite the extensive list. However we were advised that 10-12 dishes would span the menu and allow for an encyclopaedic discovery of ROKA’s menu. All was terrific. Flavours boomed out and, in the beef tartare for example you could really make out the black truffle. The dumplings were a particular highlight, and most dishes didn’t even require soy, already rich in flavours. Of course, it was only fair to wash the dishes down with yuzu lager.
I’d highly recommend leaving room for dessert, if possible. And, a huge advantage of ROKA is that if you’re stuck in a dessert-centric rut then you can just get mini versions of all of then, presented surrounded by bamboo and dragonfruit and bursting with colour. Desserts were sophisticated and, well, delicious! Think dark chocolate and green tea pudding (a fan-favourite, we were told), and refreshing sorbet baubles.
All in all, ROKA Charlotte Street was simply amazing (plus, insert all other apt superlatives here too) and standards certainly haven’t dropped despite the restaurant having been open for 15 years – happy birthday! If you want to go off-piste with flavours then ROKA is the place to do so as, only here, will bar staff rustle up sweet potato espresso martinis and cherry blossom shochu as if its your average Diet Coke or lemonade. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.
ROKA Charlotte Street can be found at, yep you guessed it, Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, W1T 1RR, www.rokarestaurant.com
Find more Fitzrovia staples here!