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Rave reviews for a new Japanese restaurant on Old Compton Street – we check things out!
A stroll along Old Compton Street brings you to Robata, a new Japanese restaurant in an area already packed with enticing places to stop and eat. Londoners are lucky to have so many excellent Japanese restaurants to choose from and izakaya-style Robata joins that list, already earning rave reviews.
Over the years it’s been a real pleasure to learn the lexicon of classic Japanese cooking and there’s a lot to learn – there are about 30 different types of Japanese restaurants. Ramen, yakitori, soba, tonkatsu, sushi, tempura and teriyaki are types of dish and restaurant which have become more and more familiar to UK diners but perhaps less well-known is izakaya.
Literally meaning “sitting in a sake shop”, an izakaya is a sort of Japanese tapas bar, somewhere for casual after-work drinking and informal eating, a place for hard-working Japanese salarymen to relax over beer, sake and small dishes. In Soho’s Robata, there’ll also be hard-working office workers but also couples and groups of friends enjoying a quick pre-theatre dinner or a longer night out.
The atmosphere at Robata is relaxed and informal, as an izakaya should be, the thump of music is there but doesn’t drown out conversation. Apart from the Manga-ish murals going downstairs and colourful loo doors, Robata’s designers have gone for a pared-back look.
The cool dark tones are leavened though by clean, paler wooden furniture, which offers a variety of seating. Sit at a table or a bench, or perch yourself on a stool watching the chefs work their magic at Robata’s robata. (A robatayaki – or robata for short – is a type of Japanese charcoal grill).
Forget the idea of starters, mains and desserts, the menu at Robata is split into Raws & Sushis, Small Plates, Robata Skewers, Bao Buns, Robata Large plates and Bowls. As the food is served as soon as it’s ready, it’s a good idea to order as you go along rather than all at once.
Raws & Sushis include a range of sashimi, including salmon, tuna, yellowtail and butterfish, offered individually or in a good value set. The Tuna Tartar (served with caviar and crisps) (£9) is eye-catching – it looks like a big fish-eye – and is light and delicious.
From the Small Plates section of this Japanese restaurant, the J.Fried Karaage (£8.50) is very tasty – after the crunch of the crispy coating, the chicken thigh meat inside is beautifully soft. Tricky to manipulate with sticks, the best approach is to use your digits to dip the chicken into the gochujang mayo, creamily spicy and smoky – finger-licking good.
The Robata Skewers are small sticks of delight. The Chicken Thigh (£3.20 per piece; minimum two pieces) has tenderness and a thin sweet soy glaze to offset the small bits of barbecue char. Two lovely mouthfuls per skewer, they are soon just a memory.
From the Bao Buns part of the menu, the Soft Shell Crab (£14 for two pieces) is yet another finger-licker. Generously filled – you’ll need two hands to grip it – the bun is marshmallow soft, the crab crisp and the mayo spicy.
The Robata Large plates include its signature dish of Wood Flamed Iberico Pork Pluma (£23.50). Pluma is a slice of super tender meat and, served with zingy black pepper and sweet pickled nashi pear, it really is very good. The Miso Aubergine (£11.50) is wonderfully soft, melted like one of Dali’s clocks, deeply sweet with a chilli kick. As a side dish, you can choose from a short list of Bowls including a couple of salads, Truffle Fries (£8), Steamed (£3) or Kimchi Rice (£8).
The Black Cod (£28) is a beautiful piece of sweetly cooked fish, soft and flavoursome. Amongst so many stand-out dishes, the Broccoli Steak (£9.50) is possibly the least enjoyable. Good-sized pieces of broccoli are grilled and served crunchy with chilli but the charred flavour lingers too long in the mouth and jars the taste buds.
To wash it away, as you’d expect Robata offers a wide range of drinks. There are Japanese beers, of course, led by Asahi on draught, and the list of sakes is extensive. Starting at £4.50 for a glass of Ozeki Junmai Sake, prices go up to £12 for a top of the range Kikusui Setsugoro Shuppinshu Daiginjo Genshu (maybe start with this one – it’s definitely not going to be easy to say after a few glasses…).
The cocktails feature sake as a base (like a Sake Mojito) (£9) and some would make a great way to round off your meal. The sweet Ume Ocha (£11) comprises plum sake, peach liqueur and pineapple juice (and could count as 3 of your 5 a day…).
It’s very easy to run up a large bill at Robata – prices are at the premium end of the range, there’s a lot of great dishes to choose from and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to over order. However, the fixed price lunch and pre-theatre dinner menus (£18.50 and £22.50 for five items; pre-theatre menu includes a glass of wine) are very good value, comprising a short but well-chosen selection of dishes. A great way to dip your toe in the water at this Japanese restaurant.
So, give Robata a try – you’ll be glad you did.
Other Japanese restaurants we recommend include Kouzo near Victoria Station for excellent raw seafood and nearby Umi for a more formal Nikkei experience. We also like Sake no Hanna, the Japanese showcase of the Hakkasan group in London. In Soho, Robata has competition from Inko Nito, while for those living in West London we heartily recommend Ukai for a similar style of dining housed in an old Victorian pub.