- Food & Drink
I met Chris in a pub an hour or so before we were due at ROKA. We sat at a dirty table in unforgiving light, drank American beer and talked about global warming. In that kind of environment, a sense of fatalistic nihilism is inevitable. We wondered which countries would sink, and how far north we’d have to move to survive. We imagined terrible things. Then we walked towards the river and claimed our table for dinner.
Walking into the restaurant I briefly felt like Nero tuning up while the Palatine hills sizzled. My mind still lingered on drowning lands and scorched earth, but in front me everything was chicly grey. Luxe concrete panelled pillars, soft down lighters, warm wood and busy chefs turning skewers on a robata grill. The room was poised and its clientele unruffled in shirts and ties, jackets slung away in anticipation of informal delights. In my broken-pocketed coat and with eyes full of doom, I was out of step and out of place. I needed to pull myself together.
ROKA Aldwych is part of the growing chain of ROKA restaurants, which began on Charlotte Street in 2004. ROKA was the cool and casual sister restaurant to the movie stars’s favourite Zuma. ROKA was less expensive, had bar seats so you could watch the chefs work, and big windows so passers-by could watch you eat. The format is pretty much the same at the Aldwych branch, but without the dining room windows. People are less vain on the Strand.
Chris and I ordered a jumble of dishes, knowing they would come in a jumbled order. Sending food out as it’s cooked works most of the time and I don’t mind it, although occasionally a guiding hand from the restaurant would help.
Eating a snortingly spiced bowl of funky napa cabbage kim chi minutes before the iced platter of sashimi arrived meant my taste buds were a little too lacerated to properly appreciate the fish. Thank goodness for the random bowl of rice we ordered, which soaked up some of the kim chi’s garlicky excesses.
The best dishes we ordered were from the robata menu. Chicken wings with lime and salt had been deboned, threaded onto thick skewers and griddled till the skin was charred, sticky with the glaze and the flesh was melting with fat. Beef and shishito pepper skewers were smokily blackened and a richly carnivorous experience.
Beef, ginger and sesame dumplings were juicy little parcels of fragrantly cooked meat. They came with a little pinch of pickles that could have done with a being a little larger, especially when two greedy people are warring with chopsticks. Agedashi tofu, fried into crisp irregularity and wallowing in a bowl of umami, reminded me of the happy nights I spent in Ten Ten Tai when I first moved to London and didn’t know what a wasabi was.
Out of gluttony and curiosity, we ordered desserts. Chris’s peanut, vanilla and chocolate sundae was more elegant that the seaside special I’d been imagining. A sundae that has only one scoop of ice cream and no swirl of whipped cream on top is a bit of a swizz in my opinion. Still, he ate it all before I could try it, so it must have been good. My matcha pudding with baked banana and tonka bean ice cream was a similarly delicate affair, with a savoury edge balancing out the sweetness.
We split a bottle of modestly priced, zippy Muscadet with our meal and, including service, our bill came to £133 (most of which is being paid by bookatable.co.uk).
I can’t fault the meal at ROKA. Everything was well cooked, nicely flavoured and brought to our table with impressive efficiency. But then I can’t love it either. Something about ROKA means it swims in the middle lane.
There is a drifting sense of good taste. A nonchalant elegance that smoothes away the rougher edges of reckless indulgence, leaving me unsatisfied. I said my polite goodbyes and stepped out into the night, thinking that I really must do something about it all tomorrow.
This post was sponsored by bookatable.co.uk. You can book at table at ROKA Aldwych via bookatable.co.uk here. Chris has invested in a much better camera than me and you can see his pictures of what we ate here.