Roka – Charlotte Street
Posted on January 8, 2015
I must visit more bad restaurants. In fact I’m making it a resolution. Either that or I need to develop A. A. Gill’s punitive and hyperbolic knack of making a restaurant seem so repellent you’d rather lick the surface scum from its blocked guttering than ever enter through the doors of such a godforsaken totem of taste-bud loathing; a morgue of an eatery in which ingredients are cut open, probed and then cremated to destroy all evidence of culinary ineptitude… It wouldn’t be too difficult; but, in all honesty, I haven’t got the minerals.
This is because when it comes to reviewing them, good restaurants can be relatively dull. Waxing lyrical is a tedious process, full of monotony and thesaurus-thumbing – you’ll invariably find that ‘good’ and ‘tasty’ wear out as quickly as a boy racer’s brake pads. And yet with each mishandled adjective the reader’s interest wains. What you end up with is the class swot’s school report, a manuscript of their smug satisfaction and your own bootlicking applause. All those saccharine superlatives make it sickly and sentimental and unpleasant to digest. Besides, it’s boring. Few care for success stories but many crave a cockup. It’s the gory details of abject failure that really get us going.
It is, after all, far more entertaining to hear about a complete shocker of a restaurant than a perfectly reasonable one. We relish the tale of another’s hour-long wait for a leathery steak or their unscrupulous grilling of a waiter who doesn’t know his silverside from his shin – especially when it’s from the safety of a tube carriage deep underground. On our way home from work we bay for an upstart’s blood or the dismemberment of a celebrity chef who’s got it so wrong; and when Fay Maschler or Grace Dent deliver the damning thumbs down we snigger, fold up our Evening Standards and chuck them over our shoulder with a conceited smile of someone who has saved forty quid and an evening of disappointment.
So, with my minuscule readership in mind, this year I’ll endeavour to go out and waste some money on bad meals for your entertainment – even if it’s only for a zephyr of writerly inspiration before I head back to yet another decent restaurant somewhere on Charlotte Street. In fact, Charlotte Street has more good restaurants than you can shake a rolled up tabloid at. My most recent visit took me to Roka, a sister of Zuma and the first of Rainer Becker’s chain that now has branches in Canary Wharf, Mayfair and Aldwych. I went because everyone seems to love it. And now I see why – it is, indeed, really rather good. How boring for us all, so I’ll keep it brief.
It’s all knotted wood and robata smoke, fur coats and maki rolls, sleek suits and sashimi. Chefs holla in unison as flurries of small plates leave the open kitchen in billows of dry ice and fly around the room like a Greek wedding at The Fat Duck. There’s a shochu-fuelled energy to the place, the product of too long spent in the bar downstairs – a glamourous holding pen where you’re flecked with ice chips and ignored by barmen and encouraged to drink Japanese liquor until you’re rambunctious and noisy and your head’s buzzing like a nostril full of wasabi. When this happens you’re ready to eat.
The contemporary, izakaya-inspired menu (Japanese food for drinkers) is extensive. I keep ordering – ten or so for the two of us. I can’t seem to stop. Olivia apologises. The waitress smiles and brings edamame. We hoover them up, along with precise sushi rolls, one of softshell crab and cucumber, the other of crispy prawn and avocado. They were fresh, well made and a far cry from the hoary lozenges that haunt conveyor belts in shopping centres and airports. This was proper.
Prawns the size of Smarties tubes were covered in a light filigree of tempura stalagmites next to a rather insipid dipping sauce. The salad of beansprouts was, as expected, salady and nice enough. Hot off the robata were burly glazed chicken wings and a rack of baby back ribs. The latter was not in the least infantile; it was the size of a xylophone and big in flavour, playing meaty notes of sweetness and spice. It was doused in a fine reduced stock and sprinkled with cashews.
The celebrated Nobu staple, miso black cod, arrived in the shade of the leaf it was cooked in, so delicate and yielding its pearly flakes slipped away at the slightest flick of a chopstick. Its caramelized exterior was the only thing preventing its complete disintegration. But its accompaniment was baffling. A wacking great smear of yuzu tasted like a heavily processed lemon curd. It delivered such an artificial slap around the chops you could have been in the centre of a TOWIE tiff. It’s citrus hit rendered the fish’s finely balanced marinade and exacting preparation worthless. It was just fine without it.
You get the picture. There’s so much more to bore you with but ‘good’ offers a suitable median. For that I’m sorry. It’s difficult to fault because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Great, if that’s what you’re after, terrible if you prefer treading where few will dare to put your innards on the line in the name of investigative ingestion. But it must be said that you won’t find many places fit for the slagheap on Charlotte Street. Roka’s certainly not one of them. Unlike this review, it’s unapologetically good.