Monday, 13 July 2009
Roka is a Robata-yaki restaurant. No, I didn't know what it meant either - it turns out that it stands for the large charcoal grill in the centre of the room - the Robata - and the food cooked on it. Sort of a Japanese barbecue pit, only with sushi on the side instead of cornbread and grits, it attracted my interest because there's very few things I won't eat that have been cooked on a charcoal grill (to be fair, there are very few things I won't eat full stop, except perhaps raw rabbit brains, which is a shame because I'm apparently going to be served them in El Bulli in September... wish me luck).
We began with the obligitory bowl of edamame, which were a very good example of their kind - in fact probably the best I've had. Buttery and moist inside, salted evenly throughout and packed with flavour. Super.
Next arrived a very attractive plate of sashimi, with the even slices of raw fish arranged around a spectacular mountain of solid ice. The fish itself was fine - no more but certainly no less tasty than that I've had elsewhere - but it was the presentation that won here. Maybe that's the point of sashimi after all.
Next began arriving the hot dishes. My least favourite was first - a tray of grilled aubergine. It occurred to me as I was working my way through the soggy pieces of vegetable that perhaps I just don't like aubergine, and indeed I can't think of many times I've really been wowed by what is essentially a big tasteless bag of mushy grey flesh. Perhaps one day I'll be proved wrong, but in the meantime, I Don't Like Aubergine. There, I've said it.
Then, to save the day, a great dish of grilled chicken wings, coated I think in some sort of honey and soy sauce and sesame seeds, and a little wooden spoon of sea salt by the side. There was nothing subtle about the flavours here, but the crispy sugar from the honey, the sea salt and the chicken fat combined to produce a wonderful feast for every part of your palette. This was food from heaven's own barbecue - bold and brilliant.
And then, as if that wasn't enough, the black cod arrived. At £20 a plate, this had a lot to live up to, but boy did it. A sweet crust of honey and spices broke to reveal the most incredibly meaty, flavoursome flesh and gorgeous crispy skin underneath. Served prettily inside a dried leaf and with a stick of what looked and tasted like pickled lemongrass, the fact that it was actually very slightly overcooked at the edges did nothing to distract from the extraordinarily rich flavour of the fish and masterful use of spices. Worth every bit of its £20 price tag, this is the first fish dish I've had in a very long time that I never wanted to end. I've been dreaming about it ever since.
Along with impeccable and genuinely friendly service and a light and informal room (we bundled in wearing jeans and t-shirts and laden with John Lewis shopping bags but didn't feel out of place), you'd be nit picking to find anything to fault about Roka at all. Apart from the odd extravagant option (and if that black cod is any indication, these are pricey for a reason) it is all very reasonably priced, presented with flair bordering on artistry, and yet with the most important thing - the flavour - still taking centre stage. I'll even do them a favour and ignore the dish I didn't like - after all, they weren't to know I Don't Like Aubergine.