Founder of Zuma in Knightsbridge and Oblix in the Shard, German-born award-winning chef Rainer Becker opened another Roka restaurant in Aldwych in November. Others are situated in Mayfair, Canary Wharf and the flagship Charlotte Street.
This branch, the largest of the family, is located just off the Strand and close to the river on the Northbank — nice if you want to walk off the guilt of your overindulgence.
Like Zuma, the cuisine at Roka is centred on robatayaki, or Japanese grill, but also offers sushi and steamed delicacies. Only the Oblix differs in style, cooking up more western dishes.
After passing the water feature at the entrance, Japanese sake bottles lined the passage leading to the bar, where suited gents were enjoying drinks in front of large, street-facing windows.
The dining area was, as per the Japanese robatayaki tradition of preparing barbecued food in front of the customer, set around the centrepiece robata grill kitchen, where the chefs were cooking away in blue uniform and black hachimaki bandanas.
The interiors were simple but striking and contemporary, with a natural wood floor, ceiling and tables, and grey stone walls and pillars. Seating 160 diners, the tables were well spaced out. The staff were smart-looking, dressed in black. Décor was minimal, but the façade behind me looking in was covered in 60 regimentally lined, illuminated jars, which diffused a warm glow.
I was informed that these were used for shochu, a Japanese hard spirit made with grains and vegetables – usually barley, sweet potato and buckwheat – and is about 25 per cent alcohol by volume. Roka mixes this with fruit or herbs in the jars and dilutes it with soda water to create a light aperitif.
With an informal, urban vibe, the atmosphere was social and the background music barely noticeable.
We were seated at a quiet corner table and handed the food menu. It was extensive, divided into sections such as tasting options, maki rolls, sashimi and nigiri zuchi, tokusen (sashimi and tartar), salads, tempura, snacks and soups, and robata.
Almost immediately, a waiter talked us through the wine list, perhaps a little hastily as we hadn't decided what we would eat, neither had we been offered an appetiser or had a look at the sake menu, which had more than 20 to choose from.
A pineapple shochu was then suggested as an aperitif to go with our spicy edamame beans. It was just as described – subtle and refreshing.
For the meal, we opted for a customised tasting menu (seasonal ones are priced £55 per person, minimum two people), which allowed us to sample the best of each of the three kitchens – sushi, steam, and grill. A little pricey but if, like me, you're indecisive and curious, well worth a little extra cost.
As for the wine, we went for the £60 French Savagnin "Les Sarres" Domaine Rijckaert 2009, which was citrusy with hints of apple, almond and white pepper, and complimented the sushi we were about to savour.
The first dish to arrive was the sashimi, elaborately presented over a bowl of ice. My guest, KH, and I particularly enjoyed the yellowtail tartar, which came in small cubes soaked in a lemon, chilli and ginger sauce with rice crackers and a spring onion garnish. My least favourite was the mixed sashimi chirashi maki, wrapped in daikon, which lacked any distinguishable flavour.
The chef's slicing skills were showcased in the tangy yellowtail sashimi, cut so thinly you could see the plate on which it was delicately arranged like the petals of a flower.
Next to arrive were the maki rolls — crispy prawn and avocado, and raw salmon, avocado and asparagus. These would usually be my favourite, providing a flavoursome combination of fish, vegetables and rice, with the kick of wasabi, but they were outdone this time by the black cod and crab dumplings that came afterwards. These were purely divine – wonderfully succulent and fluffy parcels bursting with flavour and offset perfectly by the soy sauce.
In the meantime, KH was enjoying the rock shrimp tempura – which he described as "melt in the mouth" – served with chilli mayonnaise.
Moving on to the grill dishes, KH was in his element. He went for the beef filet with chilli sauce. Finding it a little heavy to follow the tantalising flavours we had already enjoyed, I preferred the black cod with sesame bean sauce, which was deliciously flaky with a thick, smoky aroma. Very tasty.
By this time, we struggled to manage dessert, but could not resist the trio of fresh exotic fruit, chocolate fondant, which bled a green-coloured sauce as we dissected it, and Hokkaido "cotton" cheesecake, which really did have a cotton-like texture.
We finished the night with another shochu, this time undiluted. I chose the mint and parsley, while KH seemed to have enjoyed the pineapple enough to take another. There was also a choice of plum, kumquat, sweet potato, shiso and barley.
All in all, the food was good with a more than adequate choice of shochu, sake and wine. But the stand-out dishes were the yellowtail tartar and sashimi.
I was pleased to have sampled the cheesecake, as deserts can be disappointing in Asian restaurants, and I was informed that the group's executive chef Hamish Brown is still fine-tuning the menu to add more of his specialities.
This is a buzzing, trendy restaurant with a friendly atmosphere, one in which to dine with clients or enjoy an evening amongst friends.
Having a very urban and cosmopolitan feel, it did lack somewhat in authenticity, which can be a downside to franchising. That said, the staff were knowledgeable and attentive and the food consistent.
As the Roka group is keen to highlight its contemporary cuisine, you will see dishes here that you wouldn't find everywhere. Overall, this is a friendly and relaxed place to spend an evening.
- OPENING HOURS Lunch Mon-Fri 12.00pm-3.30pm, Sat-Sun 12.30pm-4.00pm, dinner Mon-Sat 5.30pm-11.30pm, Sun till 10.30pm.
- PRICES Taste menus from £55, sashimi platter for two, £29. Wine from £5.90 a glass, £26 a bottle. Sake from £8.90 a glass.
- CONTACT 71 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4HN; tel +44 (0)20 7294 7636; rokarestaurant.com