The original Roka opened in 2004, preceded by fraught foodies fretting about whether or not it would live up to the high standards of its big sister, Zuma.
Five years later, the crowd at the Charlotte Street restaurant remain blissfully sated by the stylish Japanese dishes from the sushi bar and robata grill, and by the exceptional saké and shochu list.
It remains the elegant room in which to see and be seen. Five years later, it’s time for another sibling – this time, out east.
The new Roka is situated in the Park Pavilion development in Canary Wharf, where two other successful chain restaurants, Wahaca and Canteen, have also spawned branches.
But this branch is perhaps the biggest and baddest of all of them all. The entrance, on the first floor, is reached via lift; an imposing wooden door mutes the pumping music (over which you’ll strive to be heard) from within the restaurant.
The cavernous room is decked out with an almost trippy design of perforated wood panels, and the aroma of chargrilling from the formidable robata grill greets diners as they make their way past the moodily lit bar area to their seats.
While service was stoic (we patiently listened to the ‘can I talk you through the Roka concept?’ spiel), we had few quibbles about our dishes – all were competently prepared, and outstanding in presentation.
Tataki of butterfish (black cod, aka gindara, not the marine eel), served with a sharp yuzu and shallots, was more than the sum of its parts, the tang of the dressing complementing the rich, milky, raw fish.
Fried baby squid lightly seasoned with punchy shichimi togarashi (a chilli pepper spice mixture) and served with a simple lime cheek was understated, greaseless and delicious.
Kamameshi (‘iron pot’ rice) with sweet strands of king crabmeat, wasabi-tinged tobikko (flying fish roe) and circles of hot red chilli is not strictly traditional – the rice has a much creamier consistency here, almost like a risotto – but absolutely gratifying.
Bafflingly, our red miso with nameko mushrooms lacked the distinctive gelatinous texture (ie the whole point of using this particular type of fungi).
Then, we proceeded to wait in excess of 45 minutes for our final two dishes (the largest scallops we’ve ever seen, smoky, sweet and peppery with wasabi mayonnaise and shiso cress; grilled chicken wings with sancho pepper and salt) from the robata grill.
Our waiter offered his apologies, but the manager – who had been swanning about the room making sure everything was all right for some tables – failed to register our wait despite our twiddling thumbs.
At least desserts, the creation of Julien Philippe (also behind the puddings at Zuma and the original Roka) quelled our irritations; a passion fruit ‘tamago’ (Japanese for egg) is a theatrical coconut ice cream sphere which, when sliced, oozes a tangy passion fruit coulis.
We’d gladly return for the food. But for the price you pay for the privilege of eating here, the service had better sharpen up quick.