Review: Roka

How exciting! Cameron Diaz dined with us tonight! Okay, she dined in the same restaurant at the same time. Disgusted at the denizens of a nearby table who went up to say hello and shake her hand. Yes, that takes some guts to simply introduce yourself to a major celebrity apropos of nothing. But it also takes a gross lack of empathy. She’s

here to have dinner, not to glad-hand the masses. Good grief.

Anyway, Roka is exactly the kind of place to lure celebs, with a stylish interior coupled to trendy Japanese cuisine that was very good, without being very great.

The gnarly wooden bar surrounding the robata barbecue that forms a centrepiece for the restaurant is impressive and appealing. The walls onto the street are entirely glass, which seems to be pandering more to the prurient gaze of interested passers-by who’d like to catch a glimpse of Cameron Diaz than to the diners within. All the hard surfaces certainly give the place a vibrant buzz of conversation, without quite becoming a din.

Service was good, friendliness combined with efficiency. I took some winning over when our server’s opening comment was “the menu is like Japanese tapas…” Ugh. It’s not, it’s just Japanese food. It bugs me that anything which doesn’t follow the starter, main, dessert formula gets labelled “tapas”. Just as anything deep fried in any kind of batter is now “tempura”.

The tempura we ordered was crisp and good, with some especially funky prawns. The trouble being that nothing set it apart from my local sushi place except the price. Likewise the nigiri, the chicken yakitori, the baby back ribs. This last was a special, using top-notch iberican pork, but as the sauce drowned any porky flavour it was hard to spot the difference.

So much for the ordinary fayre. We also picked a couple of dishes from the top-end of the menu, and these were far better. Yellowtail sashimi with truffle oil shouldn’t have worked at all, but the oil provided a beautiful earthy fragrance on the nose without touching the delicate flavour of the fish underneath. And a piece of sea bream from the barbecue was cooked to blackened perfection and completed with a citrussy dressing.

I usually feel more healthy and less stuffed after Japanese food, a jolly good thing because the desserts at Roka are the highlight of the meal. You heard me, the highlight. My yogurt and almond cake was scrumptiously savoury, really putting the ‘umami’ into… er… ‘pumamidding’. Fine slivers of toffee banana were pretty and complementary, which gets a big thumbs up as toffee banana is one of those things that always sounds good on paper but turns out to be a mistake anywhere more refined than a banoffee pie. Black sesame mochi ice cream with tiny cherry blossom macaroons was as delicious as it looked.

Naturally enough there’s a fine sake list and I found a zesty number with ozone and nutty note, while the wine drinkers had plenty to choose from and found a really solid Riesling. Nothing on the list was cheap, though.

Conclusion? This is good Japanese food, in a stylish setting in the middle of the west end, and we were very happy as we wandered back onto the street. If you want a visual and gustatory feast that doesn’t leave you stuffed as part of a lively night out, and you have money to burn, Roka couldn’t possibly disappoint. The top-end of the menu includes some really good and succulent cooking, and the desserts are superb.

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