16 October 2012
Roka is my happy place.
The clean, modern lines are softened by a wall of glowing filigree which stops the decor feeling austere, along with acres of warm wood and low lighting. Chillout beats and the occasional trumpeting of samba create are at once devastatingly cool but also casual and laid-back. It’s a suitably modern mix for Canary Wharf with the added bonus of actually having some soul.
To my surprise, I’m equally welcome here in my ‘comfort trousers’ as I am in a rather snappier suit. (The former's a strategic move: the impressive girth of the waistband is considerably accommodating, plus it's easier to sidle up to the pass in flats). The whole restaurant transforms into an altogether more relaxed affair amid the Sunday lunch hullabaloo, when kids have a ball with their free bento boxes and adults over-indulge on endless food and wine. Given you could easily pay double or three times the £39 flat brunch rate if you’re dining at any other time of day, it’s a killer deal and you'd be well advised to book ahead.
The premise is simple: take your seat and order a bellini or make your own customised Bloody Mary. It’s like a grown-up, boozy sweet shop: wasabi, spiced salt and a lively medley of other embellishments. Granted, my attempt was rubbish – fiercely hot and acidic – but I learned from my mistakes and entrusted my cocktail to the barman next time.
A boundless buffet awaits, but this spread trounces your average salad bar. There’s shedloads for veggies, although you may want to dodge some of the salads where fish sauce and seaweed wriggle their way in unannounced. (There’s an army of chefs busily trimming sashimi or generating fire and sparks across the counter, so it’s easy to de-riddle any mystery dishes).
Some of the most enviable recipes are the simple, silken broths. Dressed up with nothing more than fat, slippery udon or a clam or two, I doubt I’ll ever taste stock so rich in chickeny-goodness again unless I hoard a million carcasses. With three soups on the go each time we’ve visited, I’m happy to breeze past the perfectly pert sushi for a piece of the noodle action.
Each morsel is a veritable feast of lip-smacking, with flavours that uniformly delight and surprise. It’s a genuinely exciting meal with a tendency to render us wide-eyed, daft and disarmed with anticipation. As a keen cook with a healthy spice rack, I can confidently say I often have no idea what I’m tucking into (in a good way)! Chilled chicken thigh, having been marinated and deep fried, has phenomenal texture and oodles of flavour, but I can’t even begin to point a finger at the ingredients. Umeboshi? Tamarind? Suffice to say, it’s an umami party in your palate.
After the starter extravaganza, I wrestle with my appetite to order just one main from the menu. I’m always tempted by the Japanese mushroom rice pot, but my intentions are always trumped by the clatter and activity emerging from the robata grill. Korean lamb is zesty, zingy and a bit on the peculiar side; caramel pork belly with pear is obscenely good.
We typically falter long before pud, but it's worth stealing the resolve to leave space. Desserts are as elegant as they are intriguing and tasty; not for Roka is the ubiquitous chocolate fondant or sticky toffee pud. Think green tea, nutty crumbs and divine mousses, garnished with refreshing and exotic fruits.
And the wine… well, the choice of four superb bottles (we recommend the PX) on top of beauteous, unlimited juices only add to the restaurant’s overall polish. Service is professional and slick (albeit a tad serious), but the animated chatter brought about by the culinary titillation gives this place a serious buzz.