There are three reasons why Nic Watt’s Japanese restaurant Roka is one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had, because each of those reasons could, in and of itself, have spelled disaster for a rare dining-out experience with my lovely hard-working wife.
Reason Number 1 was the price of the wine. We decided to go for the second cheapest on the extensive menu (at £34) but was told it wasn’t available. We then asked for the third cheapest which, again, wasn’t available.
At this point, of course, we should have just opted for the cheapest (around £32, I recall) but I wanted to, you know, impress the missus, so instead I asked for a recommendation that was similar in style and taste to the second cheapest – and was duly directed to a bottle costing £52.
‘Er, nahhhh, I think we’ll have the £44 bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.’
Which, when you take in the fact that my wife and I are thirsty types, meant the wine alone accounted for more than half of our final bill.
That should have ruined the evening there and then. But it didn’t.
Nor did Reason Number 2.
Roka, you see, is very much a temple to fish. At a guesstimate, I’d say 50 per cent of the menu is devoted to our friends of the sea. Salmon, cod, sea bream, yellowfin tuna, anything with gills basically, cooked and uncooked in all manner of ways, from blackened to sashimi’d.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, as far as my wife is concerned, everything right with that. But not for me: I’m allergic to the buggers, see.
So when I looked at the menu I had a mini-panic attack and was about to get up and head for the nearest burger bar. But I’m very glad my wife talked me down. Very glad indeed.
For I would have missed out on some of the best food I’ve ever eaten (soft shell crab tempura particularly sticks out. Which is not a contradiction: it’s fish I’m allergic to, not shellfish).
Which brings us on to Reason Number 3.
My wife and I don’t get out much, so when we do, it’s special. It has significance. We both want it to be perfect. So when we were seated at a perfectly pleasant table for two towards the back of the room, within sight of the bustling buzz of the open kitchen/grill, we were very happy indeed.
Until two wide boys sat down next to us. Both looked like rejects from The Apprentice – all marf, no traaazers.
One was clearly off his head on cocaine with a voice so loud he could be heard, well, by us, to such an extent we couldn’t actually hear each other speak. “I’VE JUST BEEN WORKING WITH MERRILL LYNCH IN L.A. IT WAS AMAAAAAAAAZING. YOU EVER BEEN ART THERE? IT’S INCREDDDDDDDIBLE.’ And so on and so forth.
For a while we tolerated it. Grinned and bore the bore. But then the red mist came down. This was our special night and we were now spending it with KnobHead and Company instead of with each other.
So I leaned over and said, not very politely: ‘Will you please stop shouting. I can’t hear my wife speak.’
Well, KH was rather affronted by this and after a few minutes of staring at each other (not in a flirtatious way, I assure you) he decided it would be pertinent for the two of them to move to another table.
Fortunately, my wife and I were midway through devouring the most sublime, crispy soft shell crab tempura in ponzu sauce, so even the obnoxiousness of our trumpeting neighbours couldn’t spoil the occasion.
Not only did the food not let us down, it pumped us right up and took us to Cloud Nine. The concept of the menu is to share dishes.
Choose six or seven from different sections (sashimi, nigiri, tempura, grill, salads etc) and tuck in.
The food was simply magnificent, with flavours and textures I’d never experienced before. Somehow I managed to avoid all contact with fish and was treated to some glorious, intricate delicacies.
Eggplant and shaved scallop sashimi was smoky, silky and sublime; sweet shrimp nigiri had a delicious meatiness with a vinegary tang; wagyu and oscietta caviar sushi was a mouthful of beefy decadence; black cod – Roka’s most popular dish – was moist, translucent and flaky, with a sweet crust which tasted like charred teryaki (I, of course, have to take my wife’s word for this); and lamb cutlets with Korean spices were so melt-in-the-mouth I didn’t so much as chew it but absorb it.
We finished the meal with an incredible mango and caramel cake with miso ice cream, recommended by our brilliant waiter. Unfortunately, we were on such a high by now that we also ordered a couple of glasses of Vin Santo which, at more than a tenner each, was an expensive (and a hangover) we would have done well to miss!
And so now, in the tradition of the Dads’ Dining Club scoring system, here’s how we rated Roka.
Venue: Slap bang in the middle of bustling Charlotte Street, a five minute walk from Goodge Street Tube station, this made it a convenient place for me to meet my wife after she’d finished work. The restaurant’s focal point is the robata grill, which has seating all around to watch the theatre of the chefs at work. But there is also plenty of space for more intimate tables and – unfortunately – some of them, especially the tables for two, felt way too close to each other. 8/10
Atmosphere: Many of the other diners seemed to be media types entertaining clients, or creative types meeting after work before going on to a nightclub. It was unquestionably buzzy but also felt a bit corporate: business rather than pleasure. For my wife and I, this was truly a special occasion, but other diners, presumably on expense accounts, it seemed quite matter-of-fact. 8/10
Food: Astonishing. Off the clock, Out of this world. Hyperbolic superlatives etc etc. 10/10.
Service: Brilliant. Attentive without being in-yer-face. Dishes came when you wanted them, with nice breaks in between. Our waiter’s recommendation for dessert was spot on. 10/10
VFM: Go easy on the booze, stick to the tenner-a-throw dishes (for example, the exquisite soft shell crab cost £9 compared with £29.60 for the black cod) and you can create value-for-money. I just wish we hadn’t drunk so much. Still, I’m giving Roka 10/10. We will definitely go back. So much more we want to explore. As long as we can avoid The Marf and Traazers Brigade.