Roka, Fitzrovia, London, UK ****

Q: What is it? A:A pretty modern Japanese restaurant where most things revolve around the robata grill. Service may wobble a little but impossible not to recommend. Move over, Nobu!

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – chef with aparagus – in the background the robata grill
In the background, the centerpiece of Roka, the Robata grill. In the foreground. A happy chef and some asparagus. Picture shot while dining around the counter, but there are plenty of ‘normal’ tables available as well.

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – soft shell crab tempura
Soft shell crab tempura is probably the most ultimate snack ever to be stabbed by a fork. And at the Roka, this crisp little beauty is fried in tempura flour and served with ponzu sauce made with various types of citrus.

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – tartar gunkan with caviar
This one has established itself as a staple of their omakase: Toro tartar gunkan with Ossetra caviar. Toro is of course fatty tuna. And then there’s the caviar… Maybe it’s just me, but servings with these prized ingredients rarely impress me. The sturgeons used for harvesting this caviar may live up to 50 years, and I wish as manu sturgeons as possible a healthy life.

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – sweet soy asparagus
Sweet soy asparagus. It looks rather simple and, yes… it is. It’s also one of the most delicious items on the Roka menu. It’s all in the sauce, which Roka could sell in jerry cans and make a fortune from. The sauce gets slightly caramelized adding heaps of depth to the asparagus.

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – wagyu beef tataki
Wagyu beef tataki. Aaah, this is art! The surface is brown and crispy. The inside is red and, ehm… divine. The whole trick is to preserve everything tasty within the crispy surface layer. And with the top-grade wagyu of Roka it’s bound to be a killer dish. Note: This serving is lip smackingly brilliant but rather small and pricey.

Roka – Charlotte Street, London – blackened miso-marinated cod
I’ve had this in numerous ‘modern’ Japanese restaurants, including Nobu, Zuma (sister-chain of the Roka empire) but rarely have I had a better blackened cod than at the Roka. Marinated in miso sauce, giving it a sweet, mild taste… I have to admit, I ordered a 2nd round to the amusement of the chefs in the kitchen.

Roka – Charlotte Street – dessert with meringue
Desserts are a reason to book a table here. Julien Philippe, executive pastry chef of the Roka and Zuma empire, should enjoy all the credit he gets. A smart move is to save space for a more extravagant choice, like the Strawberry cheesecake with flakes of meringue.

A mandatory stop on all my London itineraries.
When I first went here, it had been in business for only two years. The restaurant on 37 Charlotte Street was their first. Now there are two Roka restaurants in London, another four in the US and the list seems to be expanding, albeit slowly. I still have clear memories of an extended lunch with a set-menu that blew my mind. The restaurant itself is the brainchild of German chef Rainer Becker, who spent many years in Asia, particularly with the Park Hyatt hotel chain. It’s the quintessential cosmopolitan success story, which also includes the even more ambitious/expensive Zuma restaurants.

Like a nightclub with a grill in the middle.
If you’re unlucky you may be seated in the subterranean Shochu lounge, where I once had a full Roka tasting menu. If this happens, do resist the offer. You won’t have a bad night down there, but as you can imagine it will take away from the culinary experience. That clubby attitude is costing Roka its fifth star in my book. I come back for the food, which has always been g-r-e-a-t. Service has been variable; the lashings of attitude somewhat tiring. Guilty to these were often the gazelles who greet you at the door, take care of your coat and escort you to your table. You simply just know that they want to ignore you, and jet over to the studio to become the next Top40-phenomena. At other times it the Roka I’ve been prepared to invite the entire staff to my home. So, it’s been a bit of lottery, to be frank.

Still, it’s enjoyable. And I’ll keep recommend it.
So if you set your expectations of getting great service at a sensible level; if you simply ignore the first impression of cold smiles and the ”I’m-cooler-than-thou”-attitude wrapped in tight dresses, you are likely to discover amazing flavors, interesting textures and cookery of a higher order at the Roka. Rainer Becker, make a note of this! It should be mentioned that although it’s positioned more mid-market than it’s bigger sister Zuma, it’s never a low-budget meal. This also affects the young, well-heeled clientele, which often seems to be coming straight out of the London media fatcatland.

Final verdict: Lovable not for service but for food. Often style seems to prevail over substance. But… with a blackened cod like Roka’s on your plate, you forget about attitude. Do yourself a favor and go there!

Roka
37 Charlotte Street
London W1T 1RR
United Kingdom

+44 20 7580 6464

Wanna stay in the neighborhood? These are some pretty good alternatives:
Sanderson – distance 320 meters. Book it through TabletHotels.com
See the Guidebook review here!
Charlotte Street Hotel – distance 160 meters. Book it through TabletHotels.com
See the Guidebook review here!
The Hazlitt’s – distance 640 meters. Book it through TabletHotels.com!
See the Guidebook review here!

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