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Fitzrovia’s Finest Japanese Dining – Roka, Charlotte Street.
Well established restaurants in London which still have a feeling of freshness and a contemporary appeal are rare. Thanks to immaculate and innovative design though, Roka, the Japanese Sushi and Robata restaurant from Rainer Becker, fits that bill perfectly. Although Roka, Charlotte Street opened in 2004, the design, with simple concrete walls, a large, open kitchen with Robata grill, surrounded by bar seating for diners has passed the test of time. It might have opened yesterday.
We arrived early in the evening, at 6 pm to a restaurant that already had a scattering of seated guests. Our purpose, to try the menu paired with a very special Japanese beer, Kirin Ichiban. While I generally drink wine rather than beer, the same can’t be said for my companion that evening who knows his way around the odd pint or two. Even he was intrigued. Kirin Ichiban is the only beer in the world that uses the Ichiban shibori (first press) from the malt. It’s a process that is sometimes compared to extra virgin olive oil, based on the purest and most flavourful portion of the strain. The result is a light, refined and refreshing beer with a fine foam.
Two glasses of Kirin on hand, our first dish arrived – a lotus-flower like arrangement of yellowtail sashimi with a yuzu truffle sauce served usuzukuri style. Kampachi sashimi no salada was delicious, tender and citrussy. It paired beautifully with the Kirin.
More dishes arrived, a large platter of sashimi and tartare on ice comprised a bluefin tunu otoro sashimi, seared hamachi with black truffle and maguro tataki with oscietra caviar together with sake no taru taru, a salmon tartare dressed with den miso and yuzu.
The otoro sashimi was firm but easily flaked into chopstick sized chunks while my favourite of the three was the slightly less fatty maguro tataki topped with caviar.
I particularly liked the wagyu gunkan – a dressed wagyu tartare wrapped with nori into a kind of battleship shape (gunkan means battleship in Japanese) and topped with oscietra caviar. Simple and yet bursting with flavour and with a silken tender texture.
The start of our second ‘course’ heralded the arrival of a dish of iceberg lettuce topped with caramelised onion (iceberg salad no wafu). Or that’s the menu description. It arrived looking a little like a vegetable take on meatloaf, with an innocuous brown onion topping. A moment on the lips though and you’ll experience a burst of flavours – as our helpful waitress explained caramelised shallots are mixed with apple and celery and topped with sesame seeds and shredded spring onion and nori taking an innocent iceberg to a new level.
Ebi no tempura – a rock shrimp tempura with chilli mayo – was perfectly executed, with the lightest and crispest tempura coating perfectly cooked sweet morsels of rock shrimp.
Another curious wagyu dish, a tempura maki with karashi ponzu and oscietra caviar, was a delicious mouthful while gindara to kani no gyoza – crab and black cod dumpling with roasted chilli dressing – were perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of bite to the dumplings, generous filling and a slightly piquant and spicy dressing and garnished with a few edamame and shredded spring onion.
The third course was all about the robata grill. Deliciously nutty broccoli no shinme, shoga to moromi miso, tenderstem broccoli, ginger and moromi miso, provided a welcome vegetable interlude. I loved the ginger and moromi miso topping, a darker and saltier miso complementing the fresh broccoli perfectly.
Hand dived Scottish scallops provide the basis for yaki hotate, a scallop skewer with wasabi and shiso and with a little touch of yuzo mayo complementing the beautifully caramelised scallops. Perfectly cooked, tender and delicious I could easily have eaten a plateful of these.
Kankoku fu kohitsuji, lamb cutlets with a spicy Korean crust and a chilli laced dipping sauce, was the top dish at Taste of London last year. Deservedly so I think – the lamb was sweet, tender and moist while the spicing was balanced and piquant. Cucumber sticks helped to offset the heat too.
The last of the savoury courses was a very generous portion of Black Cod to share. Gindara no saikyo-yaki is black cod marinated in yuzu miso then slow cooked on the robata wrapped in a banana leaf. I was intrigued by the concept of slow cooking fish – the result was a firm, flaky and perfectly cooked portion of black cod with a delicate and subtle miso glaze complementing the sweet fish.
By this stage, even our waitress knew we’d be replete. A small dessert was promised. What arrived was a stunning platter of exotic fruits (lychees, kiwi, dragon fruit, tamarind, passion fruit and more), three scoops of sorbet – coconut, mango and a delicate pear and yuzu that we learnt was intended to accompany the Roka ‘signature dessert’ – a small chocolate pudding made with a mixture of 70% and milk chocolate filled with white chocolate and matcha. And, if that wasn’t enough, a tonka bean coated banana icecream with an accompaniment of buttery roasted bananas.
Throughout the meal, we enjoyed Kirin beer and Roka’s own light chilled ginjo nama choza sake as an alternative. It was a spectacular dining event with the focus firmly on the food. But, despite what seemed like endless dishes, neither of us found the meal overwhelming. A real tribute to the quality of ingredients and the style of cooking – and perhaps the ultimate in healthy luxury.
If you’d like to try Kirin beer for yourself and enjoy some superb Japanese dishes, all the Roka branches in London now offer the fine Japanese beer on their menu as the perfect complement to their food.
Roka Charlotte Street
37 Charlotte Street
London W1T 1RR
Check their website for more about Kirin beer.