I was angling for dinner, but the PR person was insistent that in order to properly review the lunch menu, intended for City types, it would be really helpful if I ate from the lunch menu. So, on the day that RollOnFriday's survey launched, a mean, bitter day (because of the weather, not the survey, which you should take), I scurried round to Aldwych.
It's Joe Cocker ROKA, not Bram Stoker ROKA, but I don't know why capslock. The more diminutive 'roka' seems like it would be a better fit for a Japanese grill restaurant. But founder Rainer Becker maybe writes emails full of typos because he is too busy and important to correct them, like a proper bossman, only this time he emailed "i WANT MY RESTRANT TO B CALLD ROKA - love YOU GUYS rAINER" and the design people took him at his word and before he knew it all the signs had been knocked up and the menus had been printed and it was too late. And this is the fourth branch now, of ROKA instead of roka, a scream instead of a whisper, so he's obviously decided to swallow it.
I took along a friend who's an associate at a City firm. As per baboon-killer AA Gill's reviews, he wanted a nickname. "Call me the Brown," he said. "But you're brown-skinned," I said. This was a review, not a fan letter I was going to post into Bernard Manning's urn. I told him I'd get hate mail. He didn't care. "What about the Brunette?" I said. "No," he said, "The Brown. Anyway, my hair is black." "What about...what do they call people with black hair?" I asked. "The Black. You can call me the Black if you like." "I'm not doing that."
How do you get in to ROKA? Because the Noirette had to get back to the office to send out a contract by 3pm, so how do you actually get inside and start a review? Through sliding glass doors, which felt anachronistic because there's a rustic stone water trough in the lobby. Usually I don't buy into faux-antique outside of Disneyland. Take the Duck & Waffle. Forty stories up a glass tower, but decked out with country kitchen tiles. Don't pretend we're in Shropshire, I just shot up here in 10 seconds and I can see Anish Kapoor's rusty thumb. Or the burrito concession in Cheapside Tesco, a driftwood cabin plonked in a striplit aisle with queuing stanchions.
|Carnival time on aisle three, carnival time on aisle 3.
We're not idiots, Tesco. Or, we are, but we're not convinced we're in Brazil, at all. It does not feel fiesta just because you've hung bead necklaces on a distressed sign saying 'Burrito Time'.
ROKA's attempt to transport customers to another place was rather more successful, partly because it spent lots of money, partly because it was very easy to pretend we were in You Only Live Twice.
|Not my photo, it was full when I went
Clad in ash wood, the walls hid Aldwych from sight. The staff wore colour-coded cotton smocks, one of whom presented the menu in both hands and bowed. Trios of glowing slits cut into the walls betrayed modern tech behind the scenes.
The subterranean ambience. A multi-ethnic army of uniformed henchman. The forced adoption of Eastern customs to satisfy the boss's latest whim. It all lent the place a distinct air of volcano lair. At one point the roof slid open and Sean Connery flew in in a microlight, shouting about Scotland and his neighbour's faulty plumbing. The waiters swatted at him with napkins until he buzzed away. When the three beams over the Noirette's shoulder began to blur and coalesce in my peripheral vision, it felt like an eye exam round Dr No's.
|"Oh no, Mr Bond. I expect you to just relax your right eye."
We started with a pair of refreshing non-alcoholic Ginger Ninjas. The Noirette chuckled ruefully that his youngest son waved goodbye whenever he saw him, a Pavlovian response because daddy was always leaving for the office. I felt under the table for a button to drop him in the shark tank.
Five chefs sliced away in the open kitchen, the centrepiece of the restaurant, surrounded on three sides by a counter for grill-side dining. The cheaper lunch menu was £27, the one we had, £37 per person. It was low fuss to order because you get everything on it except the mains, which were a choice of three. To start, an iceberg lettuce salad chopped fine with caramelised onion dressing, along with four maki rolls of avocado, cucumber and wasabi pea. Also, superb light, clean, meaty sashimi. Ten mouthfuls of five types of fish, presented on a bowl of chipped ice with a clod of wasabi on the side. I identified salmon and prime blood red tuna, but not whatever had three suckers on the end.
The far wall of ROKA was taken up with shelves of big glass jars, each with a cloth tied over its lid. No idea what was in them. If Blofeld did catch James Bond, which incarnation would be the easiest to trap? Surely Roger. Vamping it up in a safari suit, confused by women. Fists like hams, though, apparently - David Niven maintained that Moore was the hardest man in Hollywood. Upon catching him, it is not inconceivable that Blofeld would separate out the body parts and pickle them, and display them in jars. In ROKA.
A bowl of steamed rice arrived in a rough-hewn bowl, dusted with a black herb like the first spray of grit across London snow. Of the three mains, we ordered lamb cutlets with Korean spices, and black cod marinated in yuzo miso. To channel Captain Birdseye, the cutlets were crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The Noirette declared them the second-best he'd ever tasted after Atul Kochhar's at Benares. Apparently he lost £900 in free childcare because of Osborne's budget. I tried surreptitiously to get the waiter's attention as I still hadn't found the button.
The cracked chunk of cod came sat on a big leaf, which was bent over it and pinned in place with a stick. You know, a fish bivouac. A tap from our chopsticks cleaved off meaty hunks. Unexpectedly sweet, it fell apart on the tongue. Dipping it in the yang-shaped swirl of pearly sauce, it took on another layer of sweet mmmmmcomplexity.
I got a Negroni, £9, plugged, as is proper, with a single globe of ice the size of a snowball. The Noirette got something fruity. He groaned - he had been holding his chopsticks the wrong way up. He insisted on correcting himself and ate the rest of the meal with all tips stodged in rice. I stabbed wildly under the table. He pointed out that the acoustics were reasonable, not too loud, not too quiet, and thanked me for inviting him, and I felt terrible for trying to kill him.
It's £4 extra for a dessert (NB I didn't pay for anything) and while no-one goes to an Asian restaurant for the puds, mine was superb, a chimney pot-shaped almond cake with thin walls which, when split, bled cold yoghurt and hot mango toffee sauce. On the side, an airy ball of caramel ice cream on warm slivers of mango. The Noirette had a Nutella-thick chocolate mousse. Finally, I found the button and he dropped from sight. I heard violent thrashing in water, then all was quiet and the chair shuddered back up, dripping and empty except for a shocked buttock.
The lunch menu was designed for those with a one hour break and an afternoon of work ahead. We rattled through the fixed menu in an unrushed 50 minutes and I left feeling sated, but not stuffed or lethargic.
More reviews: Matthew tackles a boar.